The budgetary “catastrophe” was narrowly avoided for many, though not all, school districts in New Jersey yesterday. If the budgets hadn’t been passed, the consequences would have been, we were warned, “disastrous,” and “the children” would have suffered unspecified but very scary things. After all, what was proposed by Governor Chris Christie, whom New Jersey Education Association members compared to the genocidal dictator Pol Pot and openly prayed would die, was no raise for teachers this year. Some districts were also contemplating asking teachers and administrators—who currently receive full health and retirement benefits at no cost to themselves—to contribute some small amount toward their own benefits.
This bears repeating. What school districts were asked to do was agree to a one-year freeze of wages, and some of them were also asked to contribute something more than zero to their own comprehensive benefits. This was the outrage? This is what justified the profanity-laden missives, the protests, the shout-downs, the haranguing of the students in their charge to bully and beg their parents, the frightening of students about what would happen to their teachers if the budgets didn’t pass or if the governor got his way?
I suppose the rest of us should be thankful that, despite the recent severe economic downturn, we all got raises last year and none of us had to pay for our benefits.
But, of course, that’s not true, is it? I, for one, got no raise from my employer last year. And I also pay for my own benefits. In fact, I pay quite a lot: I pay $317 per month for my health benefits alone, and that is for the lowest-level, least-expensive option my employer offers. By contrast, if I were to opt for a plan similar to the “Cadillac” plan all employees (full- and part-time) of my local NJ school district get, it would cost me $827 per month! I wish I could afford that, but, alas, I can’t—in part because my local property taxes are so high so that I can pay my “fair share” of the Cadillac plan the school district employees enjoy.
One reason NJEA representatives give for their stubborn refusal to compromise is that teachers have been “historically underpaid.” Perhaps historically, but not now. A quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation. Average teacher salary in the Pascack Valley, NJ school district where I live: $80,111. Not exactly poverty level—but even it doesn’t tell the whole story. Teachers are required by NJ state law to work 180 days per year; allowing for weekends and a reasonable yet generous three weeks of paid vacation, that means they work approximately 77% of the year. Thus converting their salary to a full twelve-month equivalent, it becomes $104,040 per year. If we add to that the not atypical cost my employer charges me for a health care plan similar to theirs, $9,912 per year, it brings their total average annual compensation to an equivalent of $113,952!
On top of their dubious economic argument, however, there is a seedier aspect to this issue. Many children in public schools around New Jersey were subject to repeated pleading, cajoling, and browbeating by their teachers and their administrators. Many local districts required students to attend all-school assemblies where superintendants warned them of dire consequences if the new, bigger budgets did not pass. Would kindergarten have to be cut? Would art? Would athletic programs? Who really knew what the schools would “have to do” if they didn’t get their raises?
Governor Christie accused the NJEA of “using students like drug mules.” He had a point.
I believe these behaviors on the part of NJEA members constitute a breach of professionalism and of fiduciary responsibilities toward both the students in their charge and the parents and taxpayers who pay their wages and expenses. How dare they abuse their positions of authority over children in the service of such narrow and patently self-serving political ends?
I think this also means that the NJEA and its members have lost credibility and authority to speak on behalf of their students. Their behavior—which has included threats, distortions, and manipulation of children—has exposed their true motives. They may have real concerns about their students, but it is clear that politics and their own pocketbooks trump them.