The education policy ideas of New Jersey governor and Republican presidential hopeful Chris Christie are back in the news after he said that one of the largest US teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), deserved a punch in the face.
He made the comment in an interview Sunday with CNN’s Jake Tapper. The AFT didn’t take the insult lying down, with its president, Randi Weingarten, calling Governor Christie a “bully” who has “anger management problems.”
However, the interaction between the governor and the teachers unions hasn’t always been a full-out slugfest. In 2012, Christie and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) were able to compromise on reforming teacher tenure protections. Christie even signed off on a contract in Newark, the state’s largest school district, that tied a part of teacher pay to performance – a major sticking point that many teachers unions oppose.
"What a piece of legislation like this is really meant to do is change culture," Derrell Bradford, executive director of the policy arm of the group Better Education for New Jersey Kids, told The Associated Press when the teacher tenure reforms were being considered. "We're asking teachers and leaders to focus on something more concrete, which is student achievement, to figure out whether or not they will be rewarded with tenure."
These new policies in New Jersey are included in a 15-point plan that the Christie campaign released to overhaul America’s educational system. But whereas the policies received bipartisan support in the Legislature, they appear to be getting a rockier reception as part of his presidential campaign.
Besides reforms to teacher tenure, the GOP candidate has called for more transparency within the higher education system, including itemizing costs and making colleges’ finances “leaner and smarter” – which in effect could make it easier for the federal government to oversee institutions.
Some conservative commentators see similarities between President Obama’s higher education policies and Christie’s ideas – namely, what they describe as the imposing of one-size-fits-all regulations on a variety of colleges and universities – and it strikes them as federal overreach.
“It’s ... fundamentally un-conservative to assume that, if something needs fixing, the best place to do so is at the national level – especially something so personal and individualized as education,” writes Joy Pullmann in The Federalist.
In terms of K-12 education, Christie has been criticized on similar grounds for supporting the controversial Common Core standards. In late May, however, he reversed his position on the standards.
From the left, meanwhile, the GOP hopeful has been disparaged for cutting state aid for New Jersey’s public colleges and universities and for their financial aid programs.
“He’s cut (total) funding by close to 12 percent during his years in office,” Alan Kaufman, chairman of the Higher Education Committee for NJEA, told NJ Spotlight. “What I think we’re losing is the ability of students to attend college without going deeply into debt.”
It may be challenging for Christie to point to his successes in education with great effect in the upcoming primary season. One key reason: His efforts in New Jersey left a major component of the teachers unions’ power intact, the right to collectively bargain for their contracts. In today’s especially fractious partisan climate, that limited bit of compromise and preservation of union rights could become a liability.
And it places him in stark contrast to another Republican vying for the Oval Office: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Governor Walker established a national political profile after a clash over public employee bargaining rights that sparked huge protests in the state capital in 2011. Walker survived a much-publicized recall vote in 2012 and a nationally financed campaign to defeat his reelection bid in 2014.
Walker has been using these political victories to position himself as a winner who won’t take no for an answer even in a historically progressive state – a message that resonates with Republican voters and could be tough for Christie to overcome.