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8-8-11 Education & Related Issues in the News

njspotlight.com -Spotlight Interview: George Norcross

The recently emerged school reformer sits down with NJ Spotlight to discuss unions, Camden and charters

 

George Norcross -- part Democratic power broker, part South Jersey businessman and cheerleader -- has recently added a third attribute: self-proclaimed school reformer.

He has publicly backed a controversial tax-credit voucher bill called the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). He has talked about opening a network of charter schools in Camden. And he has grown ever more outspoken in criticizing the public sector unions that have lately made him Public Enemy No. 2 behind Gov. Chris Christie -- especially the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

On Friday, Norcross sat down with NJ Spotlight to talk about where these education issues have come from and where they’re headed.

Fresh in his mind is the ongoing battles with the public unions, the latest chapter coming in their endorsements -- or lack thereof -- in the upcoming legislative elections.

But he also discussed charter schools and his own plans for Camden, as well as how and why he suddenly came to endorse the OSA. The following are excerpts from that conversation, held in the tenth floor conference room of Cooper Health Care, where he is board chairman.

Public unions and pension reform:

Norcross is not shy about his feud with the public unions. Nor are they, for that matter. The unions -- including the NJEA’s PAC – last week refused to endorse the bulk of South Jersey’s Democratic incumbents in November legislative elections, angered by the pension and healthcare changes signed by Christie and endorsed by the Democratic leadership, including Norcross and his longtime ally, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

A month earlier, the NJEA slammed Norcross in a statewide ad campaign as being part of a conspiracy with Christie to gut union rights. Norcross was still a little angry about that Friday, but said the NJEA also knows the numbers.

They keep count. They do polling, too, and they know they made mistakes in this and overplayed their hand. They went in believing that they could stop [the pension changes], particularly in the Assembly, and there was never a chance of them stopping anything. They overplayed their hand, and when the music stopped, there were no chairs.

A day before the NJEA PAC’s vote on Saturday, Norcross was accurate in at least some of his predictions:

I predict a bunch of "no endorsements," as opposed to anti-endorsements, and that will be the smoke signal they want peace. It is time to focus on who they believe the real enemy is, the administration.

Whenever you try to affect public policy, history has taught us it has to be incremental and has to take time. Some of Christie’s proposals are aggressive, and I think it will be important for the NJEA to say, let's get ahead of what they, the public, is irritated about. If smart, they will put their own proposals together that are reasonable. Pass them and get it over with.

Urban schools and how (and when) he got involved:

Norcross said his conversion to school reform clicked a year or two ago, when he was first touched by a family trying to get out of Camden schools. He said he came to realize that saving Camden would require saving its public schools, or at least the educational options open to its families.

In Camden, you have 1,500 to 2,500 kids who have a mom and/or dad with their hand raised wanting a seat outside the Camden [public schools]. That’s how I got involved, almost by accident. I was at a Cooper community event, three blocks from here, and a mother came up to me, no idea who she was. She said, "Mr. Norcross, I know you are, you are a powerful man, and I need your help. I thought she'd ask about a job. She said I have two children, I can’t get them out of Camden public schools, I can’t get in charter school, and I can’t afford a parochial school. I need you to do something to get them in charter school." I thought I could do that, but then found out the real deal, and it’s a lottery-driven system, and because of the avoidance of the Democrats over the years in approving alternative education, charters and others, there were no seats available.

Plan A: The Opportunity Scholarship Act

Norcross’s most stunning stance has been in support of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would open up private school vouchers to low-income students in selected districts. But he said it has gone too far and needs to come back its roots.

I liked [OSA] more when it was the original pilot program, when it was only three or four districts, and much smaller. And then some folks got carried away on a grandiose plan, taking it to 200 [schools] and a $1 billion plan. I've been advocate for quite a while to paring it back to a pilot with a sunset clause. Let’s see if it works, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

I am a big believer in pilot programs, they have beginnings and they have ends, and they have to have measures. One of the things in OSA that I was always a big proponent of was that before they enter, the students have to be tested. And they have to be tested every year. So you can see at the end if it worked.

Plan B: Charter school conversion

More recently, Norcross has been talking about charter schools as a key solution, either by opening new ones or allowing existing schools -- private and public -- to convert to charters.

I’m behind anything that opens seats instantaneously for kids. The Assembly passed a charter conversion for private schools. That will pass [in the Senate] at the end of this month in committee, maybe full Senate, and I am trying to get the Catholic church [on board] in a desperate way. They have four schools in the city that cost $1.5 million to subsidize and 80 percent of the students are not even Catholic. Those schools are going to close, or they will convert them to charter schools that they can operate themselves through a separate nonprofit, and take the $13,000 per student from the state and give world-class education. I don’t get what’s wrong with that picture.

Plan C: Partnerships with new or existing charters

Norcross said he likes the sound of a Cooper Charter School or a Campbell Charter School, to invoke another Camden institution, Campbell Soup. Here's his rationale, and how long he said it will take:

We are trying, meaning Cooper and my family foundations, to sponsor new or existing charters. That means a combination of branding so it develops some level of credibility in broad-based way in the community. And Cooper is the most favorable brand you have in all South Jersey.

We don’t want to run charter schools. We want to be facilitators, we want to be the foundation, the philanthropist, whatever you want to call it. Camden’s interests are in education and public safety, and those for Cooper are inseparable. We have no choice.

These charters need a big brother or sister, they need a big corporation, a philanthropist. They need high-end corporate or institutional engagement. A Campbell Charter School would never fail, a Cooper Charter School would never fail. You need to add an element of authority that is going to engage the corporate or institutional body.

I am not going to take over something that won’t advance our mission of excellence.

I think a material change could happen from 24 to 30 months from now. I see starting in the next number of months, principally with affiliations we have, and then the process of a new projects would follow.

 

Politckernj.com - NJEA releases endorsements

By Darryl R. Isherwood | August 6th, 2011

 

The state's largest teachers union released its slate of endorsements Saturday and like the AFL-CIO, which released its list on Friday, the union has made some legislators pay for their support of recent pension and healthcare reform.

Notably missing from the NJEA endorsements are several prominent Democrats, including Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver.

“While the screening committees took many issues into account in making their decisions, as a result of the recent pension and benefit legislation, our members will be facing significant financial consequences,” said NJEA President Barbara Keshishian. “NJEA members make these endorsement decisions and they have made it clear that they will not endorse legislators who have impaired their right to collectively bargain and who have imposed thousands of dollars of additional costs on public employees."

The union chose not to endorse candidates in several competitive races including in the 2nd District, where Democrat Jim Whelan is fighting to hold onto his Senate seat against a challenge from Republican Assemblyman Vince Polistina. Both men voted in favor of the pension and health reform bill.

“Our members refuse to give precious resources and their own time to campaign for legislators who hurt them and their families,” Keshishian said. “But make no mistake, fewer endorsements do not mean NJEA will be less involved in the upcoming elections. If anything, we will be more committed and will work harder to support pro-public education candidates who have shown they care about public school employees, our families, and the students we educate.”

As with the AFL-CIO, two Democratic members of organized labor failed to gain the support of the NJEA, including Sweeney and Sen. Donald Norcross, (D- 5) a member of the electrical workers union.

The union, which represents 200,000 teachers across the state, has promised to play a strong role in the upcoming campaign that will see all 120 seats in the Legislature up for election. In the past, the union has provided thousands in campaign donations to favored candidates as well as manpower.

Like other public employee unions, the NJEA was heavily against the pension and benefit reform and promised to take its revenge on election day.

Below is a full list of union endorsements:

* LD 1 Nelson Albano (D)

* LD 2 Alisa Cooper (D) and Damon Tyner (D)

* LD 3 No endorsements

* LD 4 Shelly Lovett (R)

* LD 5 No endorsements

* LD 6 No endorsements

* LD 7 No endorsements

* LD 8 No endorsements

* LD 9 No endorsements

* LD 10 Gregory McGuckin (R) and Bette Wary (D)

* LD 11 Raymond Santiago (D), Marilyn Schlossbach (D), and Vin Gopal (D)

* LD 12 Robert Brown (D), William Spedding (D), Catherine Tinney Rome (D)

* LD 13 Pending screening

* LD 14 Linda Greenstein (D), Daniel Benson (D), and Wayne DeAngelo (D)

* LD 15 Shirley Turner (D), Bonnie Watson-Coleman (D), and Reed Gusciora (D)

* LD 16 Maureen Vella (D), Marie Corfield (D), and Joe Camarota (D)

* LD 17 Bob Smith (D), Joe Egan (D), and Upendra Chivukula (D)

* LD 18 Barbara Buono (D), Pat Diegnan (D), and Peter Barnes (D)

* LD 19 Joe Vitale (D), John Wisniewski (D), and Craig Coughlin (D)

* LD 20 No endorsements

* LD 21 No endorsements

* LD 22 Linda Stender (D) and Jerry Green (D)

* LD 23 John Graf, Jr. (D) and Karen Carroll (D)

* LD 24 Ed Selby (D), Leslie Huhn (D), and Jim Nye (D)

* LD 25 Rick Thoeni (D), Gale Heiss-Colucci (D), and George Stafford (D)

* LD 26 No endorsements

* LD 27 Richard Codey (D), Mila Jasey (D), and John McKeon (D)

* LD 28 Ronald Rice (D), Cleopatra Tucker (D), and Ralph Caputo (D)

* LD 29 No endorsements

* LD 30 Steven Morlino (D), Howard Kleinhendler (D) and Shaun O’Rourke (D)

* LD 31 Sandra Cunningham (D), Charles Mainor (D), and Jason O’Donnell (D)

* LD 32 Nicholas Sacco (D), Vincent Prieto (D), and Angelica Jimenez (D)

* LD 33 Sean Conners (D) and Ruben Ramos (D)

* LD 34 Thomas Giblin (D)

* LD 35 Nellie Pou (D) and Benjie Wimberly (D)

* LD 36 Paul Sarlo (D) and Gary Schaer (D)

* LD 37 Loretta Weinberg (D), Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D), and Gordon Johnson (D)

* LD 38 Robert Gordon (D) and Connie Wagner (D)

* LD 39 No endorsements

* LD 40 Cassandra Lazzara (D)

 

Politickern.j.com -  AFL-CIO endorsements expose federation's internal divide

By Darryl R. Isherwood | August 5th, 2011 - 5:48pm

 

Moments after a contentious endorsement conference during which the AFL-CIO failed to endorse three of its own, members of the trades unions attending the meeting turned their backs and walked out the door.

The endorsement snubs of Democratic Senators Steve Sweeney and Donald Norcross and Republican Assemblyman John Amodeo, all trades union members who voted in favor of a recent pension and health benefit reform bill that the state’s public employee unions opposed, labeled the AFL-CIO as out of touch and “irrelevant,” charged William Mullen, President of the of the New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council, and AFL-CIO member.

Mullen accused the AFL-CIO of surrendering to a small faction of members whose sole goal was revenge for the controversial vote.

But while Mullen’s comments focused on the endorsements, he and others say the failure to endorse the three union members, each with a strong record of union support, exposed a longstanding rift within the organization that goes far beyond one vote.

“There are different philosophies there between the building trades and the public employees,” Mullen said. “Our agenda is to put people to work, it’s to grow the economy and make it attractive for business to come here to grow here. I don’t think the public workers share that.”

The AFL-CIO brings together public and private sector unions from the trades, education, government workforce and private industry. The state organization is made up of hundreds of locals representing over one million workers.

Traditionally, the federation has supported its own and has even posted a list of more than 600 members that have been elected to local county and state public office. That lists includes Sweeney, Norcross and Amodeo.

But with so many disparate jobs represented, parochialism often rears its head, as it did during the convention when some members questioned whether others truly belonged.

“It was pretty ugly,” said one source who attended the conference but requested to remain anonymous for fear of running afoul of union leadership. “You had people questioning whether someone else’s job was really ‘labor,’ you had people questioning the constitution that requires a two thirds majority for a union endorsement and you had people who were just pissed off at everyone.”

The AFL-CIO was created in 1955 by the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The CIO was actually born 17 years earlier out of a dispute between members of the original AFL over whether to unionize along craft lines or industrial lines. The AFL favored organization by trade, such as carpenters, while a faction within the organization, dubbed the Committee for Industrial Organization, favored organization by all members of an industry, such as automobile workers. Disagreements from the start caused the AFL to expel the CIO member unions in 1938. Those unions formed the Congress of Industrial Organizations.

Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo, a member of the electrical workers union who voted against the pension and health care bill and so received the AFL-CIO endorsement said in some way, the original disparities between the two still exist.

“The building trades and public sector locals operate differently,” DeAngelo said. “The hard part is we don’t know each other’s worlds and we don’t understand each other.”

DeAngelo said at times the sides don’t understand what’s important to the other.

“There are a lot of things we do differently,” he said. “One example is seniority. We don’t have that in the trades, but it’s very important to public employee unions. We respect it but we don’t understand it.”

Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communications Workers of America stood by Thursday’s endorsements, but nevertheless agreed that the trades and other unions often operate in different worlds.

“The ability of the trades to completely understand the attack on collective bargaining I think is a factor,” Rosenstein said. “They don’t collectively bargain, they have a hiring hall. They don’t go to the table.”

That difference as much as anything else is what put the trades at odds with other unions over the pension bill, she said, and what cost many Democrats their endorsements.

“The labor movement is built on collective bargaining and it’s a sacred issue to us,” she said “Some people understood that and others did not.”

Some in the labor movement say the internal dispute marginalizes labor, while others, including AFL-CIO President Charlie Wowkanech , say it’s just family being family.

Norcross falls in the first camp.

In an interview after the endorsement conference, the slighted senator likened the split within the AFL-CIO to the fissure opening between the traditional Republican Party and the Tea Party, which was on display in Washington D.C. earlier this week during the debate over raising the debt ceiling.

Tea Partiers have often found themselves at odds with less conservative Republicans and as was the case In Delaware, where U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell beat a less conservative Republican, have taken them on in primaries.

The problem, says Montclair State Political Scientist Brigid Harrison , is eventually the party becomes cannibalized.

“The unions are working against Democrats when the reality is they may actually pave the way to a more objectionable alternative,” Harrison said. “The Tea Party is doing the same thing nationally. You listen to the rhetoric that they are ‘going to get these Republicans in the primary’ and really all they are doing is helping to get Democrats elected.”

But Rosenstein disagrees with the analogy. Collective bargaining is the hallmark of the labor movement and protecting it should be job one, she said.

“This was really a very obvious issue,” she said. “(The pension and benefits reform) vote was about collective bargaining and it denied the right to collectively bargain healthcare - the core of our contract - to 550,000 people. “Taking the position that people who voted for that should not get a labor endorsement is not an extreme position it’s a pretty moderate position.”

As for what’s next, that may be the one thing on which all members of the federation agree. The differences within the union have been around since the start and will always be present they say. Asked if the disagreements could one day lead to a split, members say it’s not in the cards.

“If we do we are going to get picked off and separated,” said DeAngelo. “There is strength in numbers and solidarity.”

Rosenstein also said a split will never happen.

“Right now our position on this is that people who voted against collective bargaining cannot get a labor endorsement and the people who stood with us do have to get our support. So that’s what we did. I don’t know that we have to do something more right now. This is Democracy. There is a constitution. So
I don’t know that it means there is a question of what to do next.

AFL-CIO, President Charlie Wowkanech refused to comment for this article, saying he had no interest in negative stories about labor.

 


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