Gov. Christie Winning Battle with N.J. Teachers' Union

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s powerful teachers’ union, have been locked in mortal combat over Christie’s plans to balance New Jersey’s budget.

Christie has rescinded planned state aid to school districts for the remainder of the current fiscal year, sought changes to pension rules, and demanded that teachers contribute 1.5% of their salaries toward the cost of their benefits package and accept for a one-year wage freeze. The union has opposed him at every turn, running ads statewide accusing the governor of attempting to balance the budget on the backs of the middle class and at the expense of students.

Christie has been getting the better of the fight. His pension changes were enacted by the Democratic-controlled legislature earlier this year, and New Jerseyans turned out in record numbers in April to heed the governor’s call to vote down their local school budgets if teachers in their districts did not agree to the wage freeze and benefits contributions. Sixty percent of school budgets went down to defeat, the most ever in the state.

Now, as he attempts to close a gaping $11 billion gap in a total budget of just under $29 billion, Christie has proposed cutting state aid to school districts in fiscal year 2011 by close to $850 million. The NJEA is again calling foul. But after a spring of opposing New Jersey’s brash new governor with little to show for it, the teachers’ union finds its public support eroding.

A new Fairleigh Dickinson University/Public Mind poll released Tuesday found public opinion on the NJEA slipping nine points from the last survey in March. Forty-four percent of New Jersey registered voters now say they have an unfavorable view of the NJEA, compared to 35% two months ago. That number includes 26% who say they have a “very unfavorable” view of the union, up seven points since the last poll. Just one-third of voters now say that the view the NJEA favorably, and only 15% say their view is “very favorable.”

By contrast, the poll found that public support for some of Christie’s education initiatives fares better than the union. A plurality (43%) agreed that one pay scale for all teachers “tends to treat the most valuable teachers unfairly,” a nod toward the governor’s plan to institute merit pay for individual teachers in the state. A slightly larger plurality (46%) favors sending education vouchers to low-income families trapped in failing public schools, even if the money is used to finance private-school tuition. And an overwhelming majority of voters say that school administrators making over $200,000 a year are “overpaid considering what other important public employees make.”

Besides getting beaten at nearly every turn by Christie, the NJEA itself could be to blame for its public relations problems.

Soon after Gov. Christie announced his fiscal 2011 budget to the legislature, the teachers’ union hit the airwaves with a television commercial accusing the governor of “attacking teachers, school bus drivers, and lunch aides.” The hyperbole employed by the ad was widely viewed as over the top.

Christie capitalized by challenging the union with the wage freeze and benefits contributions, saying, “I just don’t see how citizens should want to support a budget where their teachers have not wanted to be part of the shared sacrifice.” Voters settled the debate by siding with Christie in the April school budget elections.

Just a week prior to that vote, the head of the Bergen County Education Association, Joe Copolla, raised eyebrows when he circulated an e-mail joke that appeared to wish for Christie’s untimely death. “Dear Lord, this year you have taken away my favorite actor, Patrick Swayze, my favorite actress, Farrah Fawcett, my favorite singer, Michael Jackson, and my favorite salesman, Billy Mays,” the e-mail read. “I just wanted to let you know that Chris Christie is my favorite governor.”

NJEA president Barbara Keshishian and Copolla both issued apologies for the joke. Christie accepted the apologies in a one-on-one meeting with Keshishian, but demanded that the NJEA dismiss Copolla. Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman, put the incident in terms of school discipline. “What would happen to a student in any of these schools … if they had sent out an e-mail like that?” he said. “If the NJEA can’t as an organization accept that this was egregious conduct and take disciplinary action, I don’t know how we could move forward.”

In his four months in office, Christie has repeatedly put his opponents on the defensive with his straightforward rhetoric and determination to do what he says New Jersey voters elected him to do: change the way state government works. So far, New Jersey Democrats and their traditional allies, public-sector unions, have not find a way to neutralize him. The NJEA may be the first to see its public image tarnished in its tangles with Christie. But it may not be the last.