Thursday, October 10, 2013

Chris Christie and the "Failure Factories"

Chris Christie is tremendously popular in New Jersey primarily because he casts himself as a truth teller and New Jersey tough guy in the Tony Soprano mode. In these days of wishy-washy politicians and an endless stream of political correctness coming over the airwaves, Christie’s in-your-face style resonates. He will likely skate to an easy re-election in a few weeks.

Unfortunately, the characteristics that make the Governor popular do not make him a good leader. Certainly in the area of education, Governor Christie is more demagogue than leader. The truth of this was brought home again by Christie’s recent characterization of 200 public schools in New Jersey as “failure factories.” This kind of rhetoric makes a good sound bite, but it does irreparable harm to the children, parents and educators of New Jersey.

Why would the Governor of the State of New Jersey demonize children and educators in this way? For political purposes, of course. Christie is anti-teacher union and pro privatization of education. He looks to increase the numbers of charter schools and push a voucher measure through the legislature. Both of these initiatives take money away from public schools and place it into private hands. If you are still under any delusions that charter schools are public schools, please read this from Anthony Cody of Education Week.

Of course, there is a major problem in the inner cities of New Jersey and doing nothing to improve the educational opportunities of children in these schools is not acceptable. But what would an actual leader do when faced with the daunting issues of turning around education in the State’s urban areas?  Well, a leader might look around and notice that his State has the third highest educational achievement of any state in the country, behind only Massachusetts and Vermont. That must mean that many public schools in New Jersey are doing very well indeed. A leader might try to find out what these schools are doing right.

What that leader would find is many high achieving schools and school districts throughout the State of New Jersey. That leader would also find that virtually all of those schools had strong teacher unions, tenure and seniority rules, reasonable working conditions and competitive pay and benefits. The leader would also find a healthy mix of experienced and newer teachers, programs for continued professional development and a staff of teachers, support staff and administrators dedicated to student well-being and achievement.

The leader might notice that these schools had a rich curriculum that included lots of opportunities in the core subjects, but also in arts education, athletics and co-curricular activities. The leader might also note that the school buildings themselves were in good repair and had an adequate supply of educational materials, including well-stocked and well-staffed libraries, to support the teachers and children.

A leader might then conclude that unions, tenure and seniority are not what is wrong with the schools. That conversely strong unions, competitive salaries and benefits and good working conditions actually make a school attractive to a prospective teacher. The leader might further conclude that a bare bones curriculum, crumbling infrastructure and staffing reductions would not be in the best interest of a thorough and efficient urban education.

Finally, this leader would go back to the office and have some Department of Education minion bring him a socio-economic map of New Jersey. There he would see, in living color, the answer to school improvement. “Wow!”, he might say to the minion, “Did you notice that all the high achieving schools in New Jersey are in relatively wealthy areas and all the “failing schools” are in high poverty areas?”

“But poverty is no excuse for poor schools, Governor.” might squeal the minion. “No,” the wise leader might respond, “it is not an excuse, but it is a reason.”

A real leader could only then conclude that vouchers and charter schools were not going to change the calculus for the inner city child. Only through a combined effort to do something about poverty and to ensure that urban schools were properly funded could real inroads be made.

A leader would then try to move forward with a plan on two fronts.

What we get from Christie is not leadership, but demagoguery. We get a cynical appeal to our baser emotions and prejudices, instead of a visionary plan that might make a real positive difference in children’s lives. With his sound bite outbursts about “failure factories”, Governor Christie continues to throw urban children, parents and educators under the school bus.