Is NJEA the Ventriloquist and Governor Murphy the Dummy?

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Once upon a time the New Jersey Education Association was about education and professional development for teachers. But NJ’s primary teachers’ union has undergone a shift and, according to a new report out by Michael Lilley, “today’s NJEA is all politics.”

This shift ties directly to the current shenanigans at the NJ Department of Education, which I’ve been covering for about nine months (complete NJ DOE Watch series here) and recent confirmation that  NJEA “contributed $2.5 million to a ‘dark money’ organization with close ties to Gov. Phil Murphy.”

Here’s my question:  Are NJEA and Governor Phil Murphy engaged in a pay-to-play scheme?

I’m not a lawyer. I’m not a politician. I don’t know much about how payola works, except that someone or some entity uses money to buy influence. So I’ll just assemble the facts.

A non-profit called New Directions NJ was founded in late 2017 by four former campaign aides to Murphy, including his former campaign manager, Brendan Gill. According to Politico, it “ has run advertisements that support Murphy’s agenda on television and other media.” When the NJ Legislature passed a law that would require disclosure of donors to non-profits (like New Directions), a bill supported by ELEC’s Jeff Brindle, Murphy vetoed it. Doesn’t matter: NJEA leaders conceded that it largely funded New Directions after Lilley found proof in the January 2018 Delegate Assembly minutes.

Why would a “progressive” governor veto a bill that provides transparency to the public? Was he doing NJEA’s bidding? Is he afraid that the disclosure would make him look beholden to a political organization?

Because NJEA is a political organization.  Lilley writes in his report, issued by the new Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey,

The NJEA built a system where property tax dollars are funneled directly into its coffers, and this automatic, annual flow of money allowed the NJEA to spend far more on politics than anyone else. This gave it unmatched political influence, which it used to further its own interests and block attempts at reform. New Jersey’s status quo is the NJEA’s status quo.

He adds, “political organizers now dominate the Executive Office” and remarks “how thoroughly politics has infused the NJEA headquarters…The bottom line is that there have been tens of millions of dollars that appear to be political spending that are neither clearly labeled as such nor transparently accounted for.” Compensation for top officers is “jaw-dropping”; last year Executive Director Ed Richardson “made a whopping $1.2 million, almost doubling the top elected officer, the president, at $650,000.”


One wonders how teachers would react if they knew that most of their hard-earned $928 are being spent on politics and political pros up at the NJEA, and that their dues have created six one-percenters who make ten times what they do. Or that their dues are secretly funding a shadowy and controversial political group. Or that their leaders chose to spend $4.8 million of their dues in a failed attempt to unseat the senate president in 2017. Or that, thanks to these same political operators and their influence over lawmakers, they are being subtly coerced to join, fund, remain in the union that spends their money so profligately.

So here’s what we know: There’s a “dark money” group, funded by NJEA (don’t know if anyone else funds it because Murphy vetoed the mandatory disclosure law) that is devoted to promoting Murphy’s agenda, which is indistinguishable from NJEA’s. And so, for example, the Governor won’t negotiate with Senate President Steve Sweeney about necessary pension reform. Sweeney joked this week  (at least I think it was a joke) , “He checks with the NJEA before making any decisions.”

Now let’s look at four ways NJEA’s power over the Murphy Administration affects personnel and policy decisions at NJ’s DOE.


Paula White (see my coverage here) was a great candidate for Assistant Commissioner after spending eight years teaching  low-income students of color in Atlanta, serving on the education commissioner’s Charter School Task Force, and working as the chief turnaround officer for the NJ DOE. At Murphy’s victory party (she was a supporter), he told her, “you know I’m really interested in having you join my team, join my executive team, to help to lead the Department.”

In January 2018 the State Board of Education voted unanimously for her confirmation.. As she was driving home to Montclair from Trenton after her first day as Assistant Commissioner, she got a call from then-Acting Commissioner Lamont Repollet. She told NJTV that Repollet “inform[ed]me that my offer was being rescinded.” Why? Because she most recently worked for Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group aligned with President Obama’s education agenda. NJEA doesn’t like DFER.

Tom Moran wrote at the time, “What is the governor hiding? The obvious answer is that this stunt came after his office received a call from the state’s largest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, which seems to have a brass ring firmly hooked into the new governor’s nose. Asked directly, the governor’s office would neither confirm nor deny.”

In July I wrote my first NJ DOE Watch post after as many as 40 longtime DOE professionals were unceremoniously fired. Two sources confirmed that at least some of the firings were at the request of NJEA. One said, “some of this was NJEA payback.” The axing of 40 people was, another  person said, “definitely prompted by NJEA.” She added, “it was a bloodbath… they gutted the department.” “If this is how it’s going to go for the next three and a half years,” another source said, “we have a problem. Murphy is aligning himself with the politics of adults. This means you’re not aligning yourself with students.”

One more personnel item: Murphy’s Deputy Chief of Staff is a former NJEA executive.


Standardized Student Assessments:

Everyone knows that NJEA hates PARCC because it gives an accurate read-out of student proficiency, unlike our old easy-peasy ASK and HSPA tests that dramatically inflated school quality. At the 2016 NJEA Convention, keynoter and gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy promised to “get rid of PARCC Day One.”  That didn’t happen because he didn’t understand the complex and expensive process necessary to devise a new set of tests aligned with NJ course content. Does he grasp the deleterious impact this move will have on NJ families’ ability to gauge their children’s academic growth? Does he care?

Never mind. NJEA hates PARCC so much that it spent $15 million on a campaign to encourage parents to boycott the assessments. So DOE staffers toil away, Patricia Morgan of JerseyCAN said, “to water down our State’s assessments” even though “nearly 60% of New Jersey students are unprepared for college.”

Teacher Evaluations:

When Murphy was running for governor, NJEA blasted this to its members:

Phil Murphy will eliminate PARCC so we can focus on our students’ needs.

Murphy will “scrap PARCC on day one.”

Murphy will eliminate PARCC as an element in teacher evaluations.

Murphy opposes the use of PARCC as a high school graduation requirement.

Let’s look at the teacher evaluation promise. Back in 2012 the Legislature passed TEACHNJ, a bill that reformed teacher evaluations. According to the bill regulations, 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, at least for those in tested subjects, would be based on student growth. That percentage was lowered to 15 percent in order to phase in this radical way of gauging teacher effectiveness by looking at student outcomes. Shortly after Murphy took office the DOE lowered the impact of student growth  to 5 percent, rendering the reform meaningless.

NJEA celebrated,

Today’s announcement is another step by Gov. Murphy toward keeping a campaign promise to rid New Jersey’s public schools of the scourge of high-stakes testing…By dramatically lowering the stakes for the test, Murphy is making it possible for educators and students alike to focus more time and attention on real teaching and learning.

Charter School “Pause”

NJEA hates charter schools because they cut into the union’s market share and revenue. (Charter school teacher can choose to unionize if 50 percent of teachers want to.) Union leaders, along with NJEA’s legal arm Education Law Center, have lobbied fiercely to stop any expansion, even though the majority of Black and Hispanic Democrats approve of charters and NJ chartersdramatically increase student growth.

So last Fall Repollet announced the DOE would commence a “Charter School Act Review.” In the meantime, no charters would be approved (although five expansions were). NJEA/Education Law Center just lost an appeal that would have prevented seven expansions in Newark approved in 2016.

I don’t know the status of the Charter Review, except that lots of charter school parents, almost all low-income, came to the community forums to fight for their right to public school choice. Meanwhile, we’re still pausing.


On Wednesday in an interview Sweeney commented on the way NJEA is leading Murphy by the nose. (Granted, he’s bitter: NJEA spent almost $5 million of union dues in  a failed attempt to replace Sweeney with a Trump-supporting, xenophobic climate-change denier.)

“I think it’s a problem when you’re totally, wholeheartedly owned by the largest union in the state, and that every decision is made for them before it’s made and looked at for the taxpayers,” he said. “Yeah, I think that’s the problem.”

Back to my original question: Is NJEA’s control over the Governor a kind of pay-to-play? Technically it’s not, since NJ’s pay-to-play law only affects for-profits. But is that a distinction without a difference?

I decided to ask Mike Lilley. He told me, “I think it’s pretty darn close to pay-to-play, if not in letter than in spirit.” In an email he said,

Think about it: NJEA was “all in” (their words) for Murphy in his gubernatorial campaign, endorsing him in the Dem primary, setting up Members4Murphy, etc.  Once elected, they secretly fund New Directions with at least $2.5 million and the group is run by Murphy’s former campaign manager. Murphy appears in the ads.  One of the NJEA’s key policies is the millionaire’s tax, and here is Murphy, front-and-center, calling for the tax in ads paid for by the NJEA. At the very least, this creates a perception of undue influence.  

Yeah, yeah, I know. Politics is a dirty business. But, for me, you cross a line when that “undue influence” ousts the best professionals from the DOE and impedes policy decisions that would raise academic growth for our children, especially those stuck in low-performing districts.

Can Murphy get out from under NJEA’s thumb? Can he make a decision that NJEA leaders oppose when, like pension reform, it could fiscally stabilize our state or, like charters, it could offer low-income families access to better public schools?

I hope so. Because right now, as the Governor incessantly echoes NJEA’s talking points, the union is a ventriloquist and Murphy is the dummy on its lap.

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