While the fights to reopen schools in San Francisco and Chicago have garnered national headlines, some of the most telling battles are being fought in small, wealthy, progressive New Jersey suburbs, where teachers’ unions have flatly refused to return to school, prompting what one local resident described as “chaos.” Parents complain that the intransigence of unions and local officials amounts to a betrayal of progressive values, and they grumble about the lack of support from Governor Phil Murphy, who relied on backing by the state teachers’ union in his election campaign four years ago.
Case in point: Montclair, New Jersey, an affluent bedroom community of New York City, home to many Gotham transplants, including influential media figures from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Nearly 70 percent of adults in the town are college-educated, and median household income is an impressive $126,844, according to the U.S. Census. As is increasingly typical of such suburbs, its residents vote reliably progressive. Fewer than 10 percent of the town’s residents are registered Republicans, and in 2017, 77 percent voted for Murphy against Republican challenger Kim Guadagno—22 percentage points more than he received in the statewide vote. In 2016, 85 percent of residents voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Perhaps because Montclair is so reliably left-leaning, the state teachers’ union, the powerful New Jersey Education Association, targeted it as a place to increase its political clout, as part of a statewide strategy to get union members elected to office. “It’s no longer enough to lobby decision-makers. We must become decision-makers,” the NJEA wrote in a strategy paper. To that end, the union developed a political leadership academy to recruit members for local offices, according to a report by the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey. The “most famous graduate” of that political academy, according to Sunlight, is Sean Spiller, current mayor of Montclair and vice president of the state teachers’ union. Some Montclair parents are angry with Spiller because their schools have remained closed for in-person instruction for a year.
“Why is the mayor standing with teachers?” a headline in the New Jersey Star-Ledger asked in February, describing a “nasty tug of war with parents.” The piece, written by Montclair resident Matthew Frankel, who is also a board member of the town’s local newspaper, slammed Spiller for backing the union’s position that “vaccinations remain the only way to guarantee safety,” despite the Centers for Disease Control’s advisory that schools can resume in-person instruction well before everyone is vaccinated. Frankel also criticized Spiller for branding those who have noted his conflicts of interest in being both mayor and union vice president as “neoconservative.” In Montclair, those are fighting words.
Montclair voters have known about the mayor’s divided loyalties for years, however. A year after he was elected to the town council in 2012, he also won the race to become secretary-treasurer of the state teachers’ union. A few years later, he generated controversy by seeking a role on the town’s Board of School Estimate, which oversees the school budget. After parents sued, a county judge removed him from that position, saying his appointment violated state rules. When he ran for mayor several years later, a local newspaper pointed out the potential conflict of interest, given that the mayor of Montclair appoints school board members. The town elected him anyway.
Frustrations boiled over earlier this month when parents in Montclair and neighboring towns, including those from South Orange, a community with an even higher median family income than Montclair’s, came together for a demonstration. Parents in both towns had already sued their own school districts to prompt reopening. The complaint from parents in the joint district of South Orange and Maplewood listed numerous examples of children falling behind on their education and suffering emotionally because of extended absence from school. “Families need to earn a living, pay their bills, create a positive relationship with their children, and the strain [of closed schools] on families is unacceptable,” one parent told the press. “And the risks for in-school learning are small in comparison.” One big reason parents are upset: typical school budgets in suburban Jersey are huge. The Montclair school system’s budget totals $136 million, or about $21,000 per student. And it has received about $6.6 million from the new Biden administration stimulus to cope with Covid costs. That’s a lot of money to stay closed.
Some parents brought their children along to the protest. One child said: “Sitting in front of a computer for—how many?—five hours a day is not real education. . . . It’s like brainwashing. I’m not learning. I’m not picking up information. My main goal when I start school is to just be done.” Parents told the press the whole affair had made them question their progressive votes. “I don’t want to diverge from my progressive values and vote for someone who doesn’t stand for them, but I don’t think that keeping schools closed is progressive,” one said.
Teachers in both towns have agreed to a slow reopening on some days, but parents note that schools have been on the verge of reopening before, only to be told mere hours before that they would remain closed.
The problem extends far beyond these wealthy communities. Throughout the state, fewer than 15 percent of school districts are back to full-time in-person instruction, 65 percent are operating under a hybrid of in-person instruction and remote learning, and 10 percent are still all-remote. By contrast, Florida reopened all of its public schools last fall after Governor Ron DeSantis threatened to cut state funding for school districts that resisted, and they have remained open.
Some parents say that the fault lies with more than just school boards and teachers’ unions. “Aside from our [superintendents] and our board of ed, the person that I blame ultimately for this is Gov. Murphy,” one parent said at the Montclair protest. Rather than use the considerable power of the state, Murphy has done little more until now than meekly suggest that parents and teachers work out their differences. Finally, last week, Murphy mandated that schools must return to in-person instruction—but not until the fall.
The governor’s weak stance on schools puts him in an election year quandary. Suburban parents care heavily about schools, and they tend to vote that way. On the other hand, as everyone in New Jersey politics knows, Murphy also needs the political support of the teachers’ union—desperately.
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