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The NEA's Public Enemy #1

Originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Editorial Page, on July 13, 1993

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association both held their annual conventions earlier this month. Most individual teachers sincerely want to improve education, but this month's meetings made clear that the main concern of their unions is protecting their monopoly position. That's why Bret Schundler, the new GOP mayor of Jersey City, N.J., is -- along with the November voucher initiative in California-in the political cross hairs of the unions.

The NEA's national office has targeted Mayor Schundler because he supports full school choice for Jersey City. The choice issue tops a list of "Battles to come" published by the NEA's New Jersey affiliate. A June 17 letter co-signed by NEA national president Keith Geiger warns about money being "diverted" to private schools in Jersey City and asks teachers throughout the state to authorize a deduction from their paychecks to elect anti-choice legislators this fall.

Mayor Schundler says he merely wants to take the same principle that has made America succeed-competition -- and apply it to education. "I want to save inner-city public schools by forcing them to improve," he says. "They may have a monopoly now, but no one enjoys working in them. They are an urban tragedy."

Even so, both the NEA and the AFT promote policies that protect the jobs of incompetent or poor teachers at the expense of those who would improve the system. The status quo stultifies the efforts of great teachers, but it also provides protected employment for all union members. In much of the Northeast, even marginal teachers can earn $75,000 or more a year. The costs of all this are mind-boggling.

Jersey City itself spends an amazing $9,240 a year per student, or more than $300,000 a classroom. Yet only 40% of its high school students graduate and many who do are functionally illiterate. In 1969, the city's schools were so bad that the state seized control. But moving control from one political entity to another hasn't improved matters.

What little progress has been made is questionable. Henry Przystup, the head of Jersey City's school principals, says the state has reinterpreted the proficiency tests it requires to create an illusion of improvement. Mr. Przystup has concluded that private-public choice is an essential reform because less radical efforts "are always watered down" by the unions. He notes that 33 Jersey City schools were selected for site-based management, but only one has actually implemented the program.

This fall, Mayor Schundler hopes to convince New Jersey's GOP legislature to let his city allow parents to $3,000 of the $6,000 in state aid that now flows to Jersey City and use it to pay tuition in local private schools. He points out that both the suburbs and the inner cities would benefit. The state's school equalization formula redirects $100 million a year from better-off school districts to poorer ones. "My message to the suburbs is this: Stop giving cities what you don't want to give us, namely money. Instead, give cities what we do want, namely choice."

Choice is popular in Jersey City among all groups. Polls taken before May's mayoral election showed 7 out of 10 voters favored the idea. Mr. Schundler won 69% of the vote on a pro-voucher platform, and the NEA's two mailings against him were ignored. Mr. Przystup, the principals' leader, says Jersey City teachers who usually live in the city itself support choice. The new head of Jersey City's Democratic Party is James Boylan, a public school teacher who backs choice.

Jersey City has a tradition of pluralistic education. Until 1975, a majority of its students were in private schools. Today, 25% attend Catholic schools. They graduate more than 90% of their students at a cost only one-third that of public schools. Overall, choice would save taxpayers money.

All this explains why the national NEA wants to crush school choice in tiny Jersey City. "The teachers unions aren't afraid we'll fail," Mayor Schundler says. "They're afraid we'll succeed and show that empowering parents instead of bureaucrats is the key to improving schools and weeding out poor teachers."

Mayor Schundler knows he faces a tough fight. The NEA can command huge financial resources by assessing members' wages (which of course is money that taxpayers think is payment for teaching). Activist union-teachers also "donate" time to these anti-choice crusades. Mayor Schundler says New Jersey's state legislators fear the power of the unions: "They can bus teachers from around the state into one district and defeat an incumbent with their distortions."

Still, he says the desire parents and taxpayers have for real change won't be squelched easily. "I asked a key leader in the legislature to bet against my view that school choice will be the norm in New Jersey and much of the country in a decade. He wouldn't take me up on it." This is going to be a battle worth watching.


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