Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Chris Christie's Logic on Education

Governors in states across the country are fighting with public sector unions. Chris Christie, the combative Governor of New Jersey was one of the first to gain prominence last year by taking on his state’s teachers’ union. He proposed freezing salaries and increasing the amount teachers were required to contribute to their healthcare. A common routine he does stuck out:

“The argument you heard most vociferously from the teachers’ union,” Christie says, “was that this was the greatest assault on public education in the history of New Jersey.” Here the fleshy governor lumbers a few steps toward the audience and lowers his voice for effect. “Now, do you really think that your child is now stressed out and unable to learn because they know that their poor teacher has to pay 1½ percent of their salary for their health care benefits? Have any of your children come home — any of them — and said, ‘Mom.’ ” Pause. “ ‘Dad.’ ” Another pause. “ ‘Please. Stop the madness.’ ”

By this point the audience is starting to titter, but Christie remains steadfastly somber in his role as the beseeching student. “‘Just pay for my teacher’s health benefits,’ ” he pleads, “‘and I’ll get A’s, I swear. But I just cannot take the stress that’s being presented by a 1½ percent contribution to health benefits.’” As the crowd breaks into appreciative guffaws, Christie waits a theatrical moment, then slams his point home. “Now, you’re all laughing, right?” he says. “But this is the crap I have to hear.”

Sure, the rhetoric from the teacher’s union is hyperbolic here. And it is certainly unlikely that students come home complaining about their teacher’s increased healthcare costs. But the fact that children don’t come home to their parents and complain about certain policies that are enacted is insufficient grounds to believe that the policy has no negative implications. I doubt second graders went home in distress about excessive use of leverage at Lehman brothers, or the proliferation of sub-prime mortgages. It is inconceivable that those students would have raised a peep when the glass-steagal act (which mandated a separation between investment banking and normal banking) was repealed. Yet in all of these cases, it is at least arguable that the things in question had negative effects for the economy.

Granted, Christie most likely means this at least partly in jest (one hopes). So let’s consider his implicit assumption that restraining or reducing teacher compensation doesn’t constitute an assault on education, and that it actually will not have a demonstrable effect on educational outcomes. This is hard to believe, particularly for challenging rural and inner-city school environments. These are schools where the stakes are highest because of achievement gaps between poor minorities and wealthier whites. Putting effective teachers in the classroom would be a solution.

Indeed, Los Angeles found that providing top-quartile teachers as opposed to bottom-quartile teachers for four years in a row would actually eliminate the achievement gap.

Of course, kids in challenging schools are not likely to get these teachers. One way to attract such teachers would be to offer better compensation including strong benefits. When pay is frozen and benefits slashed, teachers who already feel like they have challenging jobs might look elsewhere for employment, especially if they have other skills or credentials. Perhaps the biggest risk is that talented young people thinking of careers will choose not to become teachers when they see that compensation (already low relative to other professions) will go still lower. That raises the very real possibility that High School students in certain parts of the country might go home to their parents saying “Our school couldn’t find a certified physics teacher. It looks like I won’t be able to take that class this year.”

In short, I think Christie’s assessment of his proposed actions on education deserve a more sober and less slapstick treatment.

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