Chris Christie managed to inject some news in his largely suspense-free reelection race when he got into a heated confrontation with teacher Melissa Tomlinson, who challenged him on education at a weekend event. A member of the country’s largest union, the National Education Association, and of the fledgling Badass Teacher Association, Tomlinson teaches at New Jersey’s Buena Regional middle school. In an Election Day interview, she told Salon “the crowd cheered when he shouted at me,” and “I left shaking.” What follows is a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation on Chris Christie, teachers’ unions and education reform.
You asked Chris Christie why he calls schools “failure factories.” He says he told you, “It’s never enough for you people.” You say he said, “I’m tired of you people.” Were you surprised by his reaction?
Yes, I was very surprised. Honestly … I was expecting to be totally ignored. The fact that he even acknowledged the question, I think kind of says something about how he feels about what’s actually going on. That maybe he realizes that something is wrong that he doesn’t want to be exposed.
What did you think of his answer to your question about “failure factories”?
“Because they are” -- that was the first thing he said to me … In fact, New Jersey schools are not failing right now. We’re above the average for the rest of the country … And then he responded with some of his budgetary numbers about how he has set aside almost $9 billion towards education. When he was first elected, there were education cuts of over $1.3 billion in the state. And due to a lot of the state mandates and inflation and things that are needed for the classrooms, our district is still really, really feeling that original cut.
Why did you go and confront the governor in the first place?
The Badass Teachers actually is what prompted me to do it. I have been seeing a lot of teachers really saying that they can't take this anymore. They want the public to be aware of what is going on in the country in public education.
So as I see other people stepping up and voicing their opinions, somebody gave me the idea. They had gone and confronted Christie with the same question the day before. So I wanted to keep some uniformity in what we were trying to get an answer for, and I decided to go in that town and ask the same question.
Chris Christie gets talked about in the national media often as a moderate Republican, as a contrast to Ted Cruz, and as a potential presidential candidate. Do you think that’s fair?
No. I don’t feel so.
Do you think there’s anything for other politicians to learn from Chris Christie?
I think that maybe they should learn to take a second thought before assessing what will ultimately be our future -- an investment in public education is an investment in the future, and people that are qualified to make educational decisions need to be ones that are allowed to have a say in the matter.
I really don’t feel he has [done that]. I don’t. With the appointment [of superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard] in Camden -- that gentleman was a Goldman Sachs employee.
What impact do you think Chris Christie has had in your classroom and your school?
Part of the effect he has had, because of his lack of respect for teachers, that’s starting to transfer to the parents in society, which in turn is starting to transfer to the students … they’re not respected as adults as much as they were …
Another change is just in the fact that every time that you try to get something for the classroom, the automatic response is, “We don’t have money in the budget.”… I don’t know if you’ve seen the photo essay called “A Blind Eye” … It shows some pictures of the classrooms in New Jersey -- they’re just filled with mold and water running down the hallways. And it’s really becoming a disgrace. And he’s letting it happen, so that it looks like the public education system in New Jersey is a failure
The contract deal in Newark, with the support of the AFT local and the national AFT [the country’s other majority teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers], in which there’s peer review – teachers are playing a role in evaluating each other – and there’s what they’re calling “performance bonuses” and some teachers are calling “merit pay,” where a portion of teacher compensation, coming out of money from Mark Zuckerberg, is going to be distributed based on evaluations including test results – what’s your view of that contract and that approach?
I don’t believe in merit pay … The main factor that determines a student’s educational success is the economic climate that they’re growing up in and that’s not something that teachers have any kind of control over, and [they] can’t really be held responsible for that.
What’s your view of the role that your union, the NEA, has played in fights over education in New Jersey and nationally?
From a personal standpoint I believe that NEA needs to look into representing the teachers a little bit better. I will admit until this year I was not a very big union person. You know, I did what my union asked of me...
The Badass Teachers Assocication has received approval to have a caucus this year [at a national NEA gathering] … I know some people have voiced their opinion that they’re really disappointed with how the NEA and the AFT are representing teachers. I do know [AFT President] Randi Weingarten has been very open with communicating with the teachers on various platforms. And she is not definitely, you know, for everything that is going on so we’re keeping those lines of communication open. NEA, as far as that, I don’t see too much communication from them.
What direction would you like to see the NEA go?
I would like them to start seeking out some people that really have done some research…other union members, and really open those lines of communication so we can all work together towards a common goal for public education.
What’s your view of President Obama’s record on education?
I’m not happy with [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, obviously. I don’t feel that President Obama has really dealt with it all that much … I thought he would really bring about a lot of change … I wish he would step up to the plate more and become a little bit more involved, and start questioning some of the things that are going on.
Assuming Chris Christie is reelected today, what do you expect to see over the next few years in terms of education in New Jersey?
If Chris Christie is elected today, I expect to see more charter schools in New Jersey that unfortunately will be draining the school budgets even more … I expect to see stronger evaluations that are not valid in their measurements of a teacher’s performance … I would probably expect to see the possibility of a voucher program, which is another thing that will just drain the money in our public education fund even more, a stronger push for the common core curriculum -- I know he’s very pro-that -- which, unfortunately, is basically a corporate-run entity that’s being pushed upon schools nationwide, and doesn’t have a lot of educational research, and has not been thoroughly tested before being forced upon our students.
The Star-Ledger noted that Christie said he’d “be happy to take as many dollars as possible away from failure factories that send children on a nonstop route to prison and to failed dreams, if we could take that money and put it into a place where those families have hope.” What’s your response to that?
Unfortunately, charter schools have the right to be more discriminatory against the type of students that they allow in … So you might almost at one point start to see a separation of class within schools. You would see charter schools that would be set up for the elite students and then you would start to see these [other] charter schools that, “OK, we need to put these students somewhere, we might as well put them in this charter school.” And you might have your English-language learners, you might have your special-education-classified students. And so we really have to watch that our public education system doesn’t start to mimic what has been going on overall in our society as far as that separation. It’s a real possibility.
Christie’s opponent has called him a “bully.” Do you think that’s fair? Is that how you saw him?
I’m going to be honest ... I haven’t seen enough of him to say, “Yes, he’s a bully.” Did I feel bullied at the time? Yes I did. I left shaking.
It was a kind of a scary confrontation. He shouted at me. The crowd shouted at me. The crowd cheered when he shouted at me. People told me I was in the wrong place to be doing this. People need to understand it has to be done -- somebody has to do it. This is our lives. This is my passion. This is people’s children that we’re trying to take care of.