Who Is in the Driver’s Seat: NJEA Leaders or Phil Murphy?

Two weeks ago Governor Phil Murphy was the guest speaker at Rider University’s Rebovich Institute for Politics’ “Governing New Jersey” series.* As reported by always-reliable journalist Lea Kahn, Murphy listed three educational priorities: 1)“fully funding the pension system;” 2)”bringing health care costs down — particularly, the percentage that teachers must contribute toward their health insurance premium;”  and 3) reversing “the shocking diminution in the number of future teachers in the pipeline” while making NJ “number one in the United States for educators.”

Let’s unpack Murphy’s wishlist. The first thing that jumps out at me is that all three items can be found on NJEA’s homepage.

That’s no surprise. We’re all familiar with Murphy’s sycophantic stance toward our primary teacher union. But — shoot me, I’m a hopeless optimistic  — I keep expecting some shred of the ol’ Goldman Sachs savvy to appear in Murphy’s drivel, or at least a basic understanding of math. I know it’s in there somewhere: After all, in 2005 he chaired the Benefits Review Task Force (he’s listed as “Philip D. Murphy, Chair, Retired Wall Street Executive) that produced a report for then-Gov. Dick Codey. The Executive Summary states, “Some sacrifices on the part of all stakeholders is reasonable as a way to shore up the finances of the [pension] system, ensuring that benefits continue to be available over the longer term.” 

Numerate Phil, where art thou?

I think we all want a solvent Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF). This ambition remains elusive: NJ was just named by “Truth in Accounting” as the top “Sinkhole State” in the nation because our pension system is underwater by $190 billion. For context, our annual state budget is $38 billion. If we were to “fully fund” TPAF it would cost each NJ taxpayer $65,100.  (By the way, NJEA executives don’t participate in TPAF– they have their own well-funded pension system, which includes 401K’s ). Yet, as  Mike Lilley notes, NJEA leaders  — free from a broken pension system — have “block[ed] five separate major reform efforts that might have shored up the system before it was too late.”

Remember back in 2005, while still in possession of math proficiency, Murphy recommended sacrifices by “all stakeholders?” Now that he’s in the driver’s seat he’s resisting exactly that, neatly packaged in Senate President Steve Sweeney’s “Path to Progress” plan, which would switch new employees’ defined benefits pensions to a hybrid system. But NJEA hates Sweeney so much (for forcing higher contributions to pensions and healthcare benefits premiums, as well as supporting Senator Teresa Ruiz’s teacher tenure and evaluation reform bill) that two years ago its leaders spent $5 million in union dues in a sure-to-fail effort to replace him with a Trump-loving, climate change-denying, immigrant foe.

Any hope of mending fences between Sweeney (an ironworker union member himself) and NJEA leaders? Nah, that fence is compost and Murphy is not so much driving the car as sitting in the back in a booster seat. (Note to NJEA leaders: If you’re going to kill the king, kill the king.)

Second on his list is bringing “health care costs down — particularly, the percentage that teachers must contribute toward their health insurance premiums.” That’s a  reference to a piece of legislation called Chapter 78, part of the 2011 teacher tenure and benefits premium reform act. Once upon a time  NJ teachers contributed a maximum of 1.5% towards their healthcare and pension benefits premiums. Chapter 78, which sunset in 2018, required public employees to contribute more, based on a sliding scale: The higher your salary, the more you contribute. These savings are now well-baked into school district budgets. If, as Murphy proposes, we revert back to the 1.5% land of make-believe, the result will be lay-offs and other instructional cuts. Here’s advice to school boards from NJ School Boards Association:

When faced with a proposed reduction in Chapter 78 contributions, the board could, and perhaps should, respond with a resounding “no.” There is nothing illegal or inappropriate about rejecting a proposal. Maintaining Chapter 78 contributions should be a “die on the sword” issue for the board.

Murphy’s third wish involves what he calls the “shocking diminution of future teachers” (not sure what he means by that: The College of NJ just reported an increase in enrollment in its teachers’ college program)) and his desire to make NJ “the number one in the United States for educators.” Funny timing: Just today the National Council for Teacher Quality came out with an analysis called “State of the States 2019: Teacher and Principal Evaluation Policy.” Here, NCTQ looks for policy trends and state-by-state comparisons on teacher evaluations, noting that historically many teacher systems have “failed to yield meaningful, actionable data” but there between 2011-2015 there was “remarkably swift” improvement in the ability of states to differentiate between “merely adequate and truly exceptional performance.”

Sadly, according to NCTQ, retreat since 2015 has been equally swift: “Over the past four years, many states have made modifications to their evaluation systems that are poorly supported by research literature; some have even abandoned their new systems altogether.” 

So how is New Jersey doing? Pretty well, actually. We hit every metric except one: We don’t use student surveys as a factor in teacher evaluations. But we do have more than two categories of rating categories, require multiple observations, use outcomes to drive targeted support for struggling teachers, and “require some objective measure of student growth.” (The “yes” in that last category masks NJ’s swift retreat: While our 2011 teacher evaluation reform law intended 30% of a teacher’s evaluation to be driven by “objective measures of student growth,” Murphy, in obeisance to NJEA’s demands, lowered the percent to a mere 5%. That’s as good as 0%. But, hey, NJEA is happy.)

The audience at Rider University was not the same as the audience at the 2016 NJEA Convention where soon-to-be-Gov. Murphy promised to “scrap PARCC Day 1.” But it’s as if Murphy is still campaigning for NJEA’s endorsement, flinging favors to its leaders like confetti. That may be a way to win an election. It’s no way to fix our pension crisis. And it’s no way to run a state.

*(My husband went last night to hear the second speaker in the Rebovich series, David Wildstein aka Wally Edge, still known for his role in the Bridgegate scandal, and new head of the New Jersey Globe. Wildstein told a full house, “Phil Murphy is the best governor New Jersey has had in 10 years.”) 


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