Teachers Under Fire

Targeted by Christie, New Jersey public school educators want respect, clarity on the future.

At 31, Dawn Horling is in the fourth year of her teaching career. She works hard to make Shakespeare come alive in her freshman English classroom at David Brearley High School in Kenilworth. This year she also worked behind the scenes for passage of the district’s budget.
Photo by Chris Crisman.

It is June 4 at David Brearley High School in Kenilworth, with less than two weeks to go before finals. Outside, heat rises from the pavement in steamy waves. Inside, it’s air-conditioned, but students and staff alike seem slightly feverish with the anxious anticipation that hits this time of year. In Room 131, Dawn Horling’s freshman English classes are working their way through Romeo and Juliet. Horling is the kind of teacher you’d want your kid to have. At 31, she’s in the fourth year of her teaching career, having majored in English at Rutgers and worked at a couple of unsatisfying jobs before deciding to get her certification. She earns about $53,000 a year. Her superintendent, Sylvan Hershey, says she’s an “exceptionally good teacher.” She has a passion for literature. She was named Easiest Teacher to Talk To in the latest school yearbook. She uses purple ink to mark papers because red seems so jarring. And, like thousands of public school teachers all over New Jersey, she is glad spring is over. It was a terrible time.

First, the new governor, Chris Christie, determined to shrink government spending amidst an unprecedented state budget crisis, ordered $820 million slashed from state education aid. Christie also criticized teacher salaries and benefits, attacked their union as greedy, and urged citizens to reject school budgets in districts where teachers didn’t accept pay freezes. Voters responded by shooting down nearly 60 percent of budgets. The one-two punch forced most districts to cut programs and staff. When the governor continued his blitz against the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s largest teacher union, some teachers fought back on Facebook and at rallies. Ugly words spewed from both sides. Then, as part of the federal government’s Race to the Top education-grant competition, Christie rolled out a plan to change the way teachers are paid, evaluated, promoted, and fired. “New Jersey is taking controversial and bold steps to change the status quo,” the plan stated. “New Jersey will ensure that, by 2015…all students are taught by effective teachers.”

Horling had worked quietly behind the scenes with a handful of teachers and others for passage of Kenilworth’s budget—the small district was already reeling from the loss of nearly $1.3 million in state aid—but it went down. At a town council meeting, an angry resident attacked teachers for caring more about money than about students. Horling felt tears coming on. But today, in English Essentials, nothing could be farther from her mind. To review act 3 of Romeo and Juliet, she has asked the class to formulate headlines summarizing the action in each scene. One boy suggests “Street Brawl Leaves Two Dead” for scene 2, where Tybalt stabs Mercutio and Romeo kills Tybalt. Horling is animated, encouraging. “I like that!” she says, eyes shining. When another offers up a headline whose meaning is unclear, she tilts her head to the side and replies, “I’m not so keen on it. Help me with it a little more.”

In New Jersey and elsewhere, teaching has been typically regarded as a noble profession. It was certainly never seen as a way to get rich. While teachers were not immune to criticism—plenty of educational reforms focused on improving pedagogy—reformers generally did not ridicule teachers. In its current efforts to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and their middle-class counterparts, for example, the Obama administration supports reforms to hold teachers individually accountable for student performance. It also backs merit pay, or bonuses, for teachers rated highly effective. In February, U.S.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded a Rhode Island school superintendent who fired 74 teachers at a low-performing school for resisting a plan to increase their workload. (They were rehired in May after agreeing to a longer day and tougher performance evaluations.) But he did not make it personal.

Christie, who embraced the national reform movement, used the fiscal crisis as an opportunity to launch an attack against the teachers. In his budget remarks to the state Legislature in March, he suggested teachers were feeding off the public. “Is it fair to have any public employees getting 4 to 5 percent salary increases every year, even when inflation is 0 percent, paid for by citizens struggling to survive?” he asked. “Is it fair to have New Jersey taxpayers foot the bill for 100 percent of the health insurance costs of teachers and their families from the day they are hired until the day they die?”

Yet when the Star-Ledger analyzed teachers’ salaries, based on 2008-2009 data, it found the average teacher earned $63,154. And while New Jersey teachers made nearly $10,000 more than the national average for teachers, just under 2 percent of them earned more than $100,000.

True, they don’t have to work during July and August. And no, most have not contributed to health-care premiums. (That will soon change under a new law requiring a contribution of 1.5 percent of their salaries.) And yes, tenured teachers pretty much have permanent job security. Those benefits, plus a generous pension and the right to collect cash payments for unused sick leave, are undeniably attractive. But are they enough to induce someone to spend six hours a day alone in a room with 25 often rambunctious children needing instruction, guidance, and discipline?

Steve Wollmer, director of communications for the NJEA, believes the governor targeted teachers because the union had supported Christie’s opponent, former governor Jon Corzine. “We have 200,000 members, and our members vote in big numbers,” he says. “Generally speaking, they do look to us for information about candidates. But the story unfolding in New Jersey is much bigger than New Jersey and it’s being orchestrated by the Republican National Committee. The Republican Party sees teachers’ unions as the primary obstacle to their goal of privatizing public education.”

The governor’s criticism of teachers left many parents torn. Joann Petruzzella, president of the Kenilworth PTO, worked to pass the budget in her town even though she understood voter anger. “Everybody’s so afraid of their taxes going up and worried about the economy, and not just in Kenilworth,” she says. “It’s all over the state. Everybody knows someone who’s out of work.”

Petruzzella is sympathetic to teachers, if not their union. “I support the teachers 100 percent,” she says. “My kids go to school here, and I know they do a good job. I heard from several teachers that they were willing to do whatever they needed to keep their jobs, but I also heard, ‘Our hands are tied. The union is telling us what to do.’”

Yet Petruzzella, 47, is also receptive to reforms that could blow up the teachers’ seniority-based compensation system. “Merit pay? Why not?” she says. “They do it in other businesses. It would make the superstars shine and make those who are just muddling along step it up or get off the pot.” And she approves of a drive to get rid of ineffective teachers. “Overall, our teachers really want to do what’s best for our school, but there are some who need to be weeded out. We have teachers who are collecting Social Security and making $100,000 a year,” she says.

One key piece of New Jersey’s plan to reform education involves paying bonuses to individual teachers whose students demonstrate high achievement. But past experience has shown that the concept does not work, according to Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University. “Where individual teacher merit-pay plans have been tried, there is no evidence that they result in greater student achievement or satisfaction,” she says. “We do need to change the teacher compensation system to reward success, but we need to do that in ways that recognize that schools are not competitive businesses. Research seems to indicate that the most successful plans reward entire schools or teams of teachers for making excellent progress.”

Most teachers are leery of the merit-pay idea, including Barbara Maier, a veteran social studies teacher in East Brunswick. “It’s very difficult in the people business to make everything numerical. There are so many things in the classroom that you can’t measure,” she says. “There are so many variables beyond a teacher’s control. You can be a wonderful, wonderful teacher, but you might be teaching students with marginal abilities; students who are not getting enough attention at home; or students who might [have jobs], because they want to help their parents.”

Maier, 64, grew up in Hightstown, where her father taught at the Peddie School and her mother taught in the local public school system. “Teaching came kind of naturally,” says Maier, whose three siblings—now retired—were employed in the public schools. “I think my parents’ example had a lot to do with it. I admired them very much.”

She has spent her entire career in the East Brunswick school system, starting in 1968 at $6,000 a year. She and her late husband, Gerry, a fellow teacher, both taught at East Brunswick High School while raising four children. “I didn’t go into teaching because you had your summers off and it was easy to combine with a family, but it was all of that,” she says.

Like most teachers, Maier experienced a steep learning curve during the first couple of years. Presenting subject matter was one thing, but managing the classroom—maintaining control while remaining approachable—was something else. “You get better,” she says. “You refine so many things. You learn how to deal with kids. You get a little more laid back. You learn to roll with the punches.” Asked how long that process took, Maier says it’s still going on. “I don’t think I’m necessarily learning things at the same rate as someone starting out, but I’m still learning.”

This year Maier taught all honors classes. She is at the top step of the district’s 13-step pay scale and earns “in the 80s,” plus a small stipend for advising student clubs. She says she still loves her work. “The kids are fun. They’re exhausting at times, but they’re great. I don’t necessarily enjoy taking papers home at night or on weekends, but when I’m here, I really enjoy the interaction. It’s stimulating, it’s humbling, and it’s rewarding.”

Maier’s classroom style is relaxed and informative. During a government class one morning last June, she maintained a quick pace, cutting off students who interrupted or rambled but listening attentively to every point students made. She joked and made some asides. When one of her students suddenly grabbed the stage by walking up to her wastebasket and slowly unscrewing the top of his water bottle, explaining that he had frozen three bottles since it was going to be hot, she smiled but quickly moved the discussion forward. The class was preparing for a simulation of a United States Supreme Court case, Snyder v. Phelps, brought by the father of a Marine killed in Iraq whose son’s funeral was picketed by a church group.

“On the surface, you’re talking about freedom of expression,” she told the class. “On the other hand, you’re talking about the right of a family to bury a loved one with dignity. Nine of you are going to be justices. You’re going to have to make a lot of value judgments.”

During the spring, state education commissioner Bret Schundler floated a pension-reduction proposal for people like Maier, saying teachers who were eligible for retirement would be exempt from the cut if they left by August 1. The idea was that school districts could replace them with lower-paid teachers, deflecting some of the pain caused by the loss of state aid. The proposal was withdrawn, but a number of educators—fearful of losing benefits—did in fact retire. “I didn’t want to roll the dice,” says Richard Sierchio, 63, superintendent in Roseland, who retired at the end of July despite having one year left on his contract. “The governor wanted to make changes, and I understand the need to make them, but I didn’t want to lose what I thought I had earned after all these years.”

Maier stayed, and her district was happy. “There is a notion among some that teaching has an age limit, that they get tired and complacent somehow,” says Danielle Ruggiero, the district’s director of human resources. “That’s not true in East Brunswick, where many of our veterans are eligible to retire but are well into their 60s and 70s and bring fresh ideas to the classroom and their colleagues each year.”

Still, Christie’s spring offensive had measurable effects. A survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association in June showed that teacher salary increases negotiated after the first of the year averaged 2.14 percent, considerably less than before. The loss of state aid and defeated school budgets also caused many districts to cut teaching staff and slash programs. Some towns lost only a handful of teachers, but others were hit hard. More than a third of districts responding to the survey said they planned to eliminate between six and twenty teaching positions, and four of the state’s biggest districts said they would lay off more than 100 teachers, according to Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the association.

At Montclair State, Ada Beth Cutler worries that teachers’ reputations may have suffered lasting damage. “I do believe teaching is the noblest, most honorable profession in a democratic society,” she says. “When society goes through a difficult period, especially economically difficult periods, people look for scapegoats. It is sad that, for some people, that scapegoat has been the teaching profession.”

Barb Maier expects to hear more talk about teacher accountability in the fall. She feels some concern for one of her own grown children, a young kindergarten teacher in Essex County. “If my child were to come up to me today and say, ‘I think I want to be a teacher,’ I’d say, ‘Think hard on it. There are a lot of uncertainties and frustration.’ ”

Last spring, Dawn Horling was already lost in thoughts of the coming year. July would find her at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where she is earning her Master’s. In August she’d try to incorporate what she learned.

“I’m usually all amped up at that point, adding in new books and activities,” she says. “By the end of August, I’ll be back in my room, easing myself into a new year. I’m excited, just thinking about it.”

Mary Jo Patterson is a freelance reporter living in New Jersey.

Click here to leave a comment
Click to enlarge images

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.