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Round 1 Goes to the NJEA

The latest Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (April 13, 2010) contains some mixed news for Governor Christie’s budget. The public may see it as tough, but not necessarily fair. Two-thirds of New Jerseyans say that the proposed cuts will disproportionately hurt some New Jerseyans, mainly the middle class, the poor, and … teachers.

When Governor Christie unveiled his budget, he made a specific effort to single out the NJEA as one of the primary opponents to fiscal reform. He basically dared them to oppose his cuts. The governor needed to identify an enemy in his fight to cut costs, and the NJEA was it.

The New Jersey Education Association is the state’s largest teachers’ union, with more than 200,000 members. The governor rightly assumed that the NJEA’s leadership would retrench, opposing any and all changes to their current contract provisions and benefits. However, Christie wrongly assumed that he could isolate the intransigent union leadership from their membership and win over public support.

Our latest poll finds that many state residents side with the union in this fight. Overall, more New Jerseyans blame the governor rather than the local unions or school boards for the inevitable teacher layoffs next year. This is despite the fact that only a handful of local unions agreed even to consider wage freezes as an alternative to job cuts.

The governor was warned this could happen. Here’s why.

More than one-in-five New Jersey households include either a teacher or another state worker (who have also been on the receiving end of the governor’s wrath). Another 1-in-4 Garden State households do not have public employees, but they do include kids who are taught by these teachers. That means nearly half of the New Jersey public is probably predisposed to sympathize with the teachers in this fight.

The poll results bear this out. When asked who is to blame for the impending workforce cuts at local schools, 57% of those in teacher or state worker households and 45% of parents blame Christie more than any other party in the process. Only among the other half of the New Jersey public – i.e. those who don’t have a teacher, state worker, or child in their home – does the governor (36%) share the blame with the teachers’ unions (33%).

The problem may be that the governor came out swinging just a little too hard when he decided to make an example of the NJEA. Back in January, columnist Charles Stiles described Christie as “licking his chops” at the prospect of taking on the teachers’ union. This may have made some New Jerseyans uncomfortable.

Teachers educate our children, for crying out loud. Sure, there are some long in the tooth, tenured ones who are just phoning it in. But most teachers are caring, concerned individuals who happen to have their own families to feed. Right?

I’m not saying that Christie should have avoided taking on the NJEA at all. Most objective observers would agree that the union has been less than cooperative with local school boards trying to keep job losses to a minimum. But the battle needs to be engaged more shrewdly.

The public’s predisposition to sympathize with teachers was always going to be the NJEA’s secret weapon. The union leadership knew how to play up that asset, using everything from TV and radio commercials to messages – some subliminal, some explicit – conveyed in the classroom.

The war is certainly not over, but the NJEA seems to have won the first battle in the court of public opinion.

As his term progresses, Chris Christie would do well to remember the words of Oscar Wilde: “A man can’t be too careful in the choice of his enemies.”