"I'm tired of you people. What do you want?"
Those were the words New Jersey Governor Chris Christie used to respond to one of his constituents, a taxpayer, and a public servant of the state, who had the temerity to question the governor's leadership of the state's education system.
As reported by Valerie Strauss on her blog at The Washington Post, Melissa Tomlinson, an elementary school teacher who also runs an after-school program, asked the governor, “Why do you continue to spread the myth that our schools and teachers are failing?” She also questioned the wisdom of the governor's decision to slash the state education budget by $1 billion.
As a photo captured at the moment and distributed on Twitter clearly showed, the governor responded by wagging his finger at her in admonition and shouting her down. (She has since penned a response, which we have reposted on OurFuture.org.)
Truly a better example of a Yertle the Turtle moment can't be found, as someone on the bottom of the pile holding up the demands of the chief executive – although this time, not a turtle named Mack but a teacher named Melissa – voiced some discomfort and was essentially commanded "Silence!" by the King.
Reporters and bloggers have been quick to cite this incident as yet another example of the Christie's "war on teachers," who he has called "political thugs" who "use their students like drug mules."
It should be remembered, though, Christie has a record for responding with rage when anyone, not just teachers, questions his education policies.
During a Christie speech seven months ago, in Patterson, N.J., when a black man in the audience heckled Christie, "Fix the public schools," Christie responded by shouting the man down and calling him "boy."
What also has to be noted is that anyone expressing doubts about Christie's leadership of the New Jersey schools is likely to have a really good point.
What Christie's Rage Is Covering Up
A recent editorial in a New Jersey news outlet accused Christie of presiding over education policies that have resulted in schools becoming more "separate, unequal, and unfair."
The author, Julia Sass Rubin, an associate professor at Rutgers University, described conditions in the Jersey system as increasingly "alarming" and cited seven examples of how current education policies promoted by the governor "are targeting public schools attended primarily by low-income children of color for harmful interventions."
Among the seven examples cited are many things that the $1 billion cut from schools could certainly would have helped address, including worsening physical conditions in schools, forced school closings, and chronic "underfunding" in districts populated primarily by children of color.
While funds to traditional public schools were slashed, Christie presided over policies that sent more money to taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious education and to an expansion of charter schools.
According to Rubin, "Policies like these, which disproportionately harm and disenfranchise communities of color, are not only morally deplorable, they also are ineffective at improving either educational achievement or equity."
Coming from another point of view, Rutgers professor Bruce Baker has long observed the workings of the Christie administration on this state's public schools and concluded, "A system that was among the nation’s most progressive in terms of school funding as recently as 2009 appears – based on the most recent census bureau data on current expenditures per pupil – to have slipped not only slightly… but dramatically."
Under Christie's direction, "The damage done is rather striking," Baker explained, citing deep evidence of the state's "retreat from equity" to a state that sends less and less money to schools that need it the most.
The Christie administration, according to Baker, continues "to cause even more damage to funding equity in New Jersey, amazingly using the argument that reducing the funding targeted to higher need districts and shifting it to others will somehow help New Jersey reduce its (misrepresented) achievement gap between high- and low-income children."
Calling Christie's policies a form of "educational racism," New Jersey school teacher and edu-blogger going by the name Jersey Jazzman has observed an extensive "pattern" in the Christie administration's decisions over school governance. Specifically, the governor and his education staff have a tendency to treat school districts in predominantly white, affluent communities with leniency in how they conduct their affairs while repeatedly acting to take governance control away from local schools serving communities of color.
The real ugly truth hiding behind Christie's bluster is that schools throughout his state, especially in communities of low-income and minority schools, are descending into severely worse conditions.
A provocative report recently at The Huffington Post brought to us images of New Jersey schools where low-income children of color attend and accompanied the images with these words:
Students at New Jersey's most resource-starved public schools walk down hallways covered in mold, take tests in asbestos-filled classrooms and trod across floors peppered with rodent droppings. And when these students visit different districts for sports matches or debate club meets, the inequalities are thrown into sharp relief as the students come face-to-face with the basic cleanliness and safety offered by a majority of the state’s educational institutions.
Anyone Else For Educational Racism?
If the conventional wisdom coming from Washington, D.C. holds, Christie will use his likely decisive reelection as a platform to launch a national campaign for the Republican presidential nominee.
According to Beltway scribes at The Hill, "A landslide win, and Christie's formula for achieving it in a blue state, will make a compelling argument to GOP primary voters as he gears up for an expected presidential run in 2016."
This is no surprise, as my colleague Richard Eskow observed. Although it’s wise to acknowledge conventional wisdom in the political world, it's equally if not more important to throw cold water on it, as Eskow is often apt to do, when the pundit class's bouts of head-nodding start to transform to nodding off.
For sure, Christie’s reelection in New Jersey will get spun as "a win for 'bipartisanship,'" Eskow wrote, but then followed with a warning to Democrats that "this is not the United States of the 1990s."
As Eskow explained, "poll after poll" has indicated that Americans want political leaders to actually do something about ever-widening inequities in our society and the ever-worsening economic straits that continue to eat their way higher and higher into the rankings of the middle class.
Back to the stenographers at The Hill, "New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said on Sunday he hopes people take lessons from his expected reelection on Tuesday, a nod to the fact he's created a campaign his supporters see as a model for Republicans to win nationally."
It's too early to tell if Christie's enraged responses to schoolteachers, and anyone else from the bottom of the turtle pile, are going to eventually topple his polished political brand into the mud, as what happened to King Yertle.
But Democrats who care about how they are perceived by the proponents of equity and justice would be wise to run as far away from the "Christie lesson" as they can.