America, Meet Chris Christie

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to make his long anticipated announcement that he will seek the Presidency, and he will do so at Livingston High School where he was president of his graduating class.  Knowing Governor Christie, the event will be long on biography and personality and short on specifics.  He is at his old high school, no doubt, to assert himself as a home grown, New Jersey “original.”  There will be a bit about how he is a “real” leader with experience “getting things done.”  We’ll hear some talk about how he is who he is, and that he only knows how to be honest and authentic.  The electorate will be given a choice to either take him as he is or not, but he certainly “won’t change who he is” for the sake of votes.  This makes him “different” from other politicians.

Then he will zip off to New Hampshire to see how that plays out for him.

Chris Christie’s persona and governing style may be multifaceted, but perhaps nothing is more emblematic of New Jersey’s governor than his ongoing, strained, relationship with the Garden State’s professional teaching corps.  Governors across the country from Wisconsin’s Scott Walker to New York’s Andrew Cuomo have waged high profile battles against their state’s teachers, and Governor Christie can hold his own among the most aggressive of them — adding his own personal flare for anger, broken promises, and constant blame shifting.  All of these factors have contributed to the governor’s plummeting approval ratings in his home state, and a few of them are highlighted here.

Chris Christie Doesn’t Keep His Promises And Then Blames Others

Running for governor, Chris Christie promised the teachers of New Jersey that he would be their ally and that their pensions would be protected when he was governor.  While union politics often raises our partisan divides, it is important to remember that traditionally teachers give up some salary with the promise of added security after retirement.  While New Jersey’s average teacher salary of just over $63,000 is in the top tier of the country, it is still well below many other New Jersey professions requiring a bachelor’s degree, and despite claims to the contrary, New Jersey teachers do not receive excessive pension payments.

Despite this and despite his promises, Governor Christie almost immediately pushed for and got a pension reform bill that he claimed fixed the pension system and would leave it solvent.  To be fair, the system had been shorted money owed to it from the state under a series of governors, but for a man who claimed in his campaign that he would leave pensions alone, it was a betrayal.  His utter refusal to keep up with the state’s promised payments into the system while teachers and other pubic workers had their contributions automatically deducted from paychecks and had to accept smaller benefits is a bigger betrayal.  Governor Christie’s refusal to make the state’s promised contributions to the fund have put it even deeper in the hole and led to a series of credit downgrades. Governor Christie just recently applied his veto pen to the state budget to slash the legislators’ call for a $3.1 billion payment into the pension fund, actually accusing others of “gluttony” for demanding that he make the payments into the system that he bragged would save it in 2011. Setting aside the irony of calling others gluttons when the governor has racked up almost $83,000 in taxpayer funded bills at the concessions for Giants and Jets games and a host of other charges indicating he enjoys the perks of his office, there is another, more ominous reason, why Chris Christie has nerve calling lawmakers and teachers “gluttons” for demanding he live up to the law he proposed.

When Governor Christie took office in 2010, New Jersey paid Wall Street firms $140.5 million annually to manage aspects of the pension system. By 2014, that figure ballooned to $600.2 million$1.6 million A DAY — meaning that over $1.5 billion of pension funds have gone to Wall Street in the form of fees since Christie took office.  The astronomical fees are in part because the administration shifted large portions of the pension fund into high fee hedge funds that promise higher returns for their fees but which have seriously underperformed with New Jersey’s money.  Additionally, there are serious questions about whether or not Christie has been showering pension management onto supporters and donors.  This year, the governor proposed sending $100 million of pension fund money to KSL Capital, a firm whose founder, Mike Shannon, donated $2.5 million to the Republican Governors’ Association, $500 thousand of which was donated when the RGA was spending $1.7 million for Chris Christie’s 2014 reelection campaign.

But retired teachers drawing a $41,000 a year pension are “gluttons.”

Chris Christie Won’t Fund New Jersey Schools

Governor Christie may be hoping for some home town love appearing at Livingston High School, but he will be doing so in a district he has squeezed financially, like he has for all school districts in New Jersey.  Entering office with New Jersey still reeling from the financial crisis, Governor Christie cut the state education budget by $1 billion below what the state aid formula said it should have been.  And even though the 2008 State Funding Reform Act and its funding formulas have not been changed, the Christie administration continues to underfund New Jersey schools leaving districts to try to find other sources of funding, a stretch in a state with already very high local property taxes.

In fact, Livingston, a district of roughly 5600 students, is supposed to get $4,312,693 in state aid according to the SFRA formula, but the township is only slated to get $2,536,196, a shortfall of over $1.7 million.  Statewide, education funding remains over $1 billion underfunded, and the administration has shown no interest in ever bringing the funding back up to what is legislatively required.

That probably has something to with why the Superintendent of Schools for Livingston was absent at the announcement.

Chris Christie’s Education Policies Suit Politics Not Our Students

The Governor recently unleashed a bit of chaos on the state’s schools by announcing that New Jersey would back out of the Common Core State Standards and begin to develop its own, better, standards just for New Jersey, citing federal interference in the CCSS that was making them not work.  Mind you, Governor Christie was singing quite a different tune to a convention of charter school boosters at the 2013 KIPP School Summit:

Of course, Governor Christie intends to keep New Jersey in the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) which are supposed to aligned with the Common Core standards, and he will continue to use the results of those examinations for teacher evaluations.  The idea, therefore, that New Jersey will see some major shift away from the standards is highly suspect since major policy incentives that require teachers to use them will remain firmly in place.  It is hard to escape the conclusion that Governor Christie is about to make a lot of noise and expend significant resources on writing “new standards” just so he can stump in Republican primaries claiming that he is resisting Common Core and distinguish himself from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who at least has the integrity to stick by his own bad ideas.

Political gain is almost certainly behind his refusal to make full pension fund payments as well.  Getting a pension reform bill through the New Jersey legislature was an important political win for the new governor while refusing to fund the reform and creating another crisis gives him a new chance to attack public employee unions as he seeks the Republican nomination.  Governor Christie talks a good game about respecting local control because it is politically resonant, but when it comes to majority African American and Hispanic districts in Camden, Jersey City, Patterson, and Newark, he shows no sign of relinquishing state control of the schools that has utterly failed students and teachers for years.

A disastrous example of this is the callously designed and ineptly implemented One Newark school “reform” plan for Newark Public Schools that is due to get a “new” leader in the person of former State Commissioner Chris Cerf who is replacing the widely reviled Cami Anderson (appointed by Chris Cerf). One Newark was set into motion in 2010, when Newark Mayor Cory Booker, accepting Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation and with Chris Christie’s enthusiastic support, sent $2.8 million of grant money to the consulting firm Chris Cerf established to make a school reform plan for Newark — just before Governor Christie tapped him to take over the entire state as Commissioner where he directed nearly $20 million of Zuckerberg’s money to a variety of consultants.  Unsurprisingly, the One Newark plan that was put into motion emphasized turning as many schools as possible into charters, the one sector of education beloved of Wall Street and for far more than philanthropic reasons.

For Governor Christie, education policy serves to pander to political interests — abruptly switching standards, taking a chunk out of public unions — or it serves to satisfy the interests of political donors — funneling pension money into hedge funds, turning schools in profit making ventures for investors.  Actually educating children is an afterthought.

Governor Christie’s Famous Temper May Be Authentic But It Shouts Down Real Criticism.

Chris Christie’s temper and temper outbursts are integral to his brand.  He gains fans and YouTube hits by responding to critics with a pointed finger, a snarl, and a sharp rejoinder to “shut up.”

And its all an act to cover up his own errors and portray himself as a victim. Some of Governor Christie’s most famous outbursts have been directed at teachers.

There was the time that he accused teachers of using students as “drug mules.”  There was the time he claimed the NJEA was praying for death and put up ads that said he hated children, but the “prayer” was merely a joke in moderately poor taste and the ad in question said nothing of the sort: NJEA billboard 2011

Governor Christie’s numerous direct confrontations with teachers have been both condescending and hostile, inspiring one such teacher, Marie Corfield, to run for the state assembly.  Elementary school teacher, Melissa Tomlinson, wanted the Governor to explain why he kept calling New Jersey schools “failure factories,” and the result was predictable:

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers' Public Esteem Again

Governor Chris Christie, Raising Teachers’ Public Esteem Again\

As he has prepared to become a Presidential candidate, the Governor has taken his refrains demeaning teachers on the road, repeating an often stated position of his that teachers are lazy and don’t really work full time jobs.  An accusation which is really rich for a governor who has spent half of 2015 out of state.

Chris Christie’s temper may have served his brand so far, but it has not really served his constituents.  In fact, it is most often used to avoid answering legitimate questions.  Consider how former Asbury Park City Councilman Jim Keady went to a Christie photo op on the Shore where he was bragging about the recovery from Hurricane Sandy.  According to Keady, despite Christie’s claims of being hands on and on top of the storm recovery, 80% of funds had yet to be dispersed, and he was treated to the “full Chris Christie.”  The Governor got to yell, bluster, and tell a resident from a town hard hit by the storm to “shut up,” but he did not have to discuss the growing list of problems with the state’s storm recovery that has left almost all of the 8000 residents eligible for funds to rebuild their home out in the cold.

So when you see Chris Christie get angry and get in the face of either the national press corps or some potential constituent, keep in mind that he is probably yelling to avoid answering a legitimate question.

Governor Christie is a Secretive Bully

Many people are familiar with the Bridgegate scandal and also familiar with the investigations that have never linked Chris Christie directly to the vindictive lane closures unleashed on Fort Lee by his appointees.  People may be less familiar with the aura of petty payback that typifies this administration and its dealings with stakeholders across the state.  Chris Christie may have not ordered the disaster on the George Washington Bridge, but much like Henry Plantagenet who bemoaned, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” and was shocked – shocked! – when his henchmen murdered Thomas Becket, Governor Christie comes off as ridiculous when he cannot imagine why anyone in his administration would do such a thing. Perhaps they were taking the governor’s example to heart on how to treat people who do not do what you want them to do.  For example, Rutgers political science professor Alan Rosenthal was given a glowing tribute from the Governor upon his death, but shortly after Professor Rosenthal cast a tie breaking vote on a redistricting commission against Republicans’ favored proposal (after the Republicans on the commission refused a compromise plan), Governor Christie used his line item to veto to cut funding for a fellowship program at Rutgers run by Rosenthal.  Small wonder, then, that the Christie administration has been in court 22 times fighting efforts by watchdog groups and journalists to get information they have a right to obtain under New Jersey’s open records laws.  And when documents are produced?  WNYC’s President Laura Walker says they came to the radio station so heavily redacted as to be “all but meaningless.”

This is not the record of a tough talking, straight shooter who knows how to lead.  This is the record of a opportunist who uses the public resources at his disposal to harm constituents and then to tell them to shut up when they question him.

I work in New Jersey in teacher preparation.  I live in New York, and my children attend public school in New York City.  I often lament that on one side of the Hudson River, Chris Christie is gunning for my profession while on the other side, Andrew Cuomo is gunning for my children.  Chris Christie will spend today launching an effort to bring that special kind of leadership to the rest of the country.  May the country wise up to it and deny him any further national stage either as a candidate for the Presidency or as a member of a future President’s cabinet.

1 Comment

Filed under Chris Christie, Corruption, Cory Booker, Newark, One Newark, PARCC, politics

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