I never intended this blog to be all about New Jersey education, but lately I can’t seem to help myself. Understandable, I guess, what with having three kids in a Jersey public school.
What really gets me going is the way Governor Chris Christie has decided to stir the education pot. No, not stir it - dump out the contents, stomp on the dregs, and refill it with the swill being peddled by wealthy, powerful, union-hating privatization conspiracists and embraced by big-government-is-out-to-eat-our-souls tea party nut jobs. Along the way, he’s vilified teachers, botched applications for federal funding, scrapped a sensible agreement with the union, fired his education commissioner, politicized the court in an attempt to influence its decisions on education funding, bullied people in public meetings, and, of course, slashed the living hell out of school spending.
I’m not going to waste my time and psychic energy here rehashing the ways in which Christie’s brand of so-called education reform (backed as it is by the philanthropic machinery of Bill Gates and, god help us, the ghost of Milton Friedman) serves the agenda of the political right and the interests of hedge fund managers. Charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, ending tenure - from the faulty research on which these policies are based to the blatant disregard for the underlying social problems that they can’t fix, the whole thing is a steaming pile of propaganda, wrapped in false hope, sprinkled with alarmist lies, and seasoned heavily with crocodile tears. Or, in plain English, people who stand to gain, both politically and financially, from the dismantling of public education are busily perpetrating the Big Lie.
And they are so good at it. They’ve got it down to a science. They think of everything. For example: What is the one group guaranteed to raise its voice against this all-out attack on public education? The teachers unions, of course. But by the time the unions get their bureaucratic asses in gear, the public has already been served up such an unrelenting diet of anti-union rhetoric that, no matter what the union says, it will never get a fair hearing. "Unions exist to protect bad teachers." "Unions don’t care if they bankrupt the state." "Unions couldn’t give a damn about kids." And sadly, the teachers who belong to those unions are tainted in the public’s mind by what they have been convinced is the nasty, socialist union evil.
The sad truth is, there’s a kernel of truth in that insane lie. The NJEA is not the Jersey Devil, but neither is it an impartial player. Unions DO represent the interests of teachers. That’s exactly what they’re supposed to do. While that doesn’t mean that everything they say is unreliable, or that they don’t represent the interests of children as well, it does mean that they are not the most effective power in our society to combat the business-driven free-market worshippers who would like nothing better than to chop off government’s head, put it on a stake, plant it in the town square, erect monuments to Ayn Rand, and let the underclasses fend for themselves.
If we allow the future of public education in New Jersey - and the rest of the country - to rest with the teachers unions, we may as well just rename the local secondary school Halliburton High and have done with. (Credit where credit is due: I swiped that line from Jersey Jazzman.)
So who else is there?
Us. Parents. People who have (or at least, should have) the strongest possible interest in the quality of our children’s education, and who cannot be accused of greed beyond the greed of wanting a better future for our children.
But in order to be effective, we have to start being honest. There’s a dirty little secret that many New Jersey parents have to face: our own complacency. We know that the doomsday narrative of failing schools does not describe most schools in our state, and that for the most part, we’ve been perfectly happy to let Christie construct any narrative he likes - just so long as he leaves our comfortable, more affluent school districts alone. People who can afford to live in an excellent school district are roused to anger only when someone mandates that their tax dollars go to fund schools in Newark or Camden - schools so segregated and poverty-blighted that those tax dollars can’t mend the damage, anyway. More recently, rich folks got up in arms when the governor’s heavy budget-cutting hand fell on the salaries of the administrators who keep so many New Jersey schools in the top five for academic achievement in the nation.
Enough with the selfishness. By settling for an inexcusably inequitable educational system, we’ve opened the door to the propagandists who would use the lowest-performing schools as proof that our entire system is in crisis, and who would like to dismantle it wholesale in the name of efficiency and smaller government. We parents - here in New Jersey and around the country - have settled for a public education system more racially and economically segregated than the one that existed when Martin Luther King decried segregation half a century ago. If we’re not willing to question the justice of the proposition that good schools are only for (mostly white) people who can afford to live in rich towns, then maybe we’re just getting what we deserve - Halliburton High.
I really hope we’re better than that. I hope that, as we see the effect of budget cuts on all our schools - larger class sizes, fired teachers, loss of art and music programs, pay-for-play extracurriculars - that we also see the big picture. Yes, we’re in the middle of a major budget crunch - but we can’t allow the immediate fiscal crisis to be used as an excuse to dismantle the public education system that has been the backbone of our society; that has made possible the social and financial mobility from which generations have benefited; that is a service provided equally to all and is therefore the appropriate function of a democratically elected government.
For day-to-day updates on New Jersey education news, please check out my Facebook page, NJ Parents Against Gov Christie’s School Budget Cuts.