Christie urges NJEA leader's resignation after remark

NJEA's Vincent Giordano said on TV: "Life's not always fair." (Mel Evans / Associated Press)

WESTFIELD, N.J. - Gov. Christie called for the resignation Wednesday of a top official of the state's largest teachers' union for making a seemingly dismissive remark about poor children in failing school districts.

"Life's not always fair," New Jersey Education Association executive director Vincent Giordano said on a program that aired this week on NJTV.

The statement was in response to a question about the NJEA's opposition to legislation, called the Opportunity Scholarship Act, that would provide tax breaks to companies that fund scholarships so poor children in failing districts could matriculate elsewhere. Christie has endorsed the proposal, while the NJEA calls it a voucher system that boosts private schools at the expense of public ones.

Christie said Giordano's statement was "outrageous" and that he was "disgusted" by it. He said that it typified the "puffed-up, rich-man baloney" of the NJEA and that Giordano should resign or be fired.

He added: "If someone in my administration said something like that to the poor and disadvantaged in this state, they would find their rear end on the sidewalk in two minutes."

Giordano, in a statement Wednesday evening, responded in kind: "I have no intention of resigning. If he thinks he's going to bully me like he bullies everyone else, he doesn't understand who I am or how deeply I care about the work I do."

He said the state Supreme Court had compelled Christie to restore funds to urban districts and accused him of hypocrisy, and in turn called on the governor to "resign from office immediately."

The NJEA said Christie was mischaracterizing Giordano's remark and argued that the association was a far better advocate of poor urban students than Christie, who it said has cut hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding.

These cuts were due in part to the loss of $1 billion in federal stimulus money, Christie's office said, and the state now spends more on education than when he took office.

Christie's fight for major changes to the education system have repeatedly run up against the NJEA, the state's most powerful lobby.

After an uneventful town hall meeting, Christie held a news conference specifically to address the comment. He spoke of Giordano's salary and the NJEA's "palace" office building in Trenton. Giordano's salary is about $320,000.

"Vince Giordano has given voice to what the teachers' union really thinks when it comes to our children who are less fortunate, their families, and what kind of opportunities they should have," Christie said.

Giordano's comment came on NJTV's New Jersey Capitol Report at the end of a 10-minute interview. "We don't think that public funds raised through public tax dollars ought to be diverted to private businesses," he said.

Interviewer Rafael Pi Roman pressed the issue, saying that only the well-off could afford to send their children to better schools and that without vouchers, the poor were stuck with a lesser education. "Some of these parents," he said, "can't afford to take their kids out of failing schools."

Giordano responded: "Life's not always fair, and I'm sorry about that, but to suggest that we take money from taxpayers and give it to certain taxpayers to use to educate their kids outside of the public school just seems to me to be" wrong.

NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said the comment, a minute before the end of the interview, was being misinterpreted. He said Giordano ran out of time to clarify.

"What he really meant is that with poverty in urban districts, life isn't fair for these kids," Wollmer said.

"These kids didn't choose what happened to them, and that's not fair, but it's even more unfair to impose school vouchers and airlift 10 percent of the kids out and leave 90 percent of the kids with even less money. And that's the type of answer Vince was trying to get into."

Wollmer challenged the governor to match the NJEA's support for urban education.

"He's more interested in funneling money out of urban education and into the pockets of millionaires," Wollmer said, "in the form of tax breaks."

Besides the Opportunity Scholarship Act, Christie wants to make several changes that the union opposes.

He wants to upend the tenure system, for example, so it's based on merit not seniority, and he seeks to continue to expand charter-school offerings.

At the news conference, Christie used Pyne Poynt Middle School in Camden as an example of the achievement gap among districts.

At that school, he said, citing data from the 2009-10 school year, 17.6 percent of students were proficient or advanced proficient in language arts, compared with 73.7 percent statewide. In math, 10.3 percent of Pyne Point students fall into those categories, as opposed to 69.7 percent of their peers.

He concluded: "So, because you live in Camden and attend that school, your odds of success both now and in the future plummet, your likelihood of graduating drops, your chance of going to college disappears, your dreams of a better life for your future are gone."


Contact staff writer Matt Katz

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or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles,"