Throughout his two terms as a United States Senator, Bob Menendez has been highly accessible to NJEA members. He has attended and spoken at several statewide conferences, most recently the NJEA Legislative and Political Action Conference last February. His voting record and his public commentary have consistently demonstrated his commitment to New Jersey’s children and the public schools they attend.
For these reasons, it is no surprise that NJEA’s 125-member PAC Operating Committee recommended Sen. Bob Menendez for re-election this Nov. 6.
On Aug. 24, the senator sat down with the NJEA Review editor, Patrick Rumaker, for an interview so that NJEA members would have the chance to understand his positions on issues that matter to public school employees.
1. Nationwide over the last decade, we’ve witnessed an assault on the rights of unions and public employees, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s adverse decision in Janus v. AFSCME in June. What will you do to protect the rights of public workers in New Jersey and the nation? What qualities do you look for when considering a nominee to the Supreme Court?
I believe strongly in the importance of unions. While the Supreme Court may have ultimately sided against our public employees—teachers, firefighters, police officers and others—the reality is that unions will always be critical to the ability to organize people and bring them together into a common cause to promote their profession, and, as it relates to teachers, to the children they are educating. I always think that when teachers and support staff are advocating, they are advocating for our children.
I’ve signed onto legislation, the Workers Freedom to Negotiate Act—the freedom to promote and strengthen collective bargaining opportunities and to strengthen the ability to be part of a union.
This Supreme Court nominee who is up for consideration in the Senate doesn’t meet my standards. I don’t have a litmus test, but as someone who has seen Judge Kavanaugh’s writings from the District of Columbia Circuit—one of the most important courts in the nation—I’ve seen how he consistently sides with corporations against the “little guy,” how he’s seeking to undermine the Affordable Care Act, and how he ultimately opposes the essence of Roe v. Wade. He is an extreme judge.
I want a judge who has intellect and ability, but also who one is going to level the playing field for the average person. And that is not Judge Kavanaugh. The type of justice I’m looking for on the Supreme Court is someone who has the intellect, the ability, and the temperament, but who also doesn’t have the right-wing agenda that I believe Judge Kavanaugh does.
The reality is that unions will always be critical to the ability to organize people and bring them together into a common cause to promote their profession, and, as it relates to teachers, to the children they are educating.
2. The federal tax overhaul hit New Jersey particularly hard. The National Education Association estimates that the reduction of the state and local tax deduction—or SALT—threatens over $15 billion in education revenue over 10 years in New Jersey. When Gov. Phil Murphy signed S-1893, which allows New Jersey municipalities to establish charitable funds where taxpayers can donate in return for a property tax credit, you joined in a press conference celebrating its passage. What steps are you taking at the federal level to restore SALT deductions to their previous levels and fairness to the tax code?
I opposed the Trump tax bill because it was $2 trillion totally unpaid for that will be put on the next generation of New Jerseyans and Americans to pay for, and because it was geared to the wealthiest corporations and the wealthiest people in the nation. It took a direct assault on states like New Jersey by severely capping the State and Local Property Tax Deduction. Not being able to fully deduct state and local property taxes, is a real consequence for homeowners and the value of their property, to education funding, and to the other critical needs that we have in our state for the quality-of-life issues that make New Jersey a great place to live.
When we were having a debate on the tax bill, I introduced an amendment to fully restore the State and Local Property Tax Deduction. Every Democrat in the Senate voted for it; every Republican voted against it. So I have been pushing the Treasury Department and the IRS to put New Jersey in the same place as 32 other states that have provisions permitting the local property taxpayer to pay a charitable contribution to a municipal or county created entity, and then be able to get a charitable deduction. But as we speak the Treasury Department came out with a ruling that goes against the very essence of what we’re trying to do, which is to restore equity.
I’m hoping for a different majority in Congress that will restore the State and Local Property Tax deduction. As a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which deals with tax and trade policy, I am pushing hard on any opportunity I have to restore it.
3. New Jersey is home to many children who were brought to the United States by their immigrant parents—including those parents who crossed into the country illegally. These children, and the young adults they have become, know no other home than America and many have benefited from DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. While there is bipartisan agreement that the provisions of DACA should be upheld, Congress has failed to act on DACA or on passage of the DREAM Act. What are you doing to secure the future of these children and young adults?
These are young people were brought to this country through no choice of their own. The only flag they’ve ever pledged allegiance to is that of the United States. The only national anthem they know is “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The only country they’ve ever called home is America. Many of them are wearing the uniform of the United States in service to the nation. Some of the students are among the highest-performing students we have—valedictorians and salutatorians—and are doing tremendous things.
That’s why I was one of the leaders in getting President Obama to create DACA, and I thought it was the right decision. President Trump undid it. So I have been working most recently with what we call the “Gang of Six”—three Republicans, three Democrats—trying to fashion an opportunity to create a permanent process for these young people to be able to adjust their status legally in the United States. We came up with an agreement. We took that agreement to the White House. Unfortunately, President Trump rejected it. So I’ve signed on to a series of amicus briefs on litigation that is moving through the federal courts. I’m going to continue to fight through the legal process and for whatever legislative opportunity there is to give these young people the chance to realize their dream.
I believe that every student who wants to get a college education should not have to graduate under a mountain of debt in order to achieve it.
4. The federal government has never come close to its required 40 percent funding for students with disabilities as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—or IDEA. What have you done to get the federal government moving in the right direction on IDEA funding?
IDEA was supposed to fund nearly 40 percent of the unique costs of a student who has some form of a disability or challenge. In reality, it’s hovered around 15 to 20 percent. I have sponsored previous legislation for the full funding of IDEA. Sen. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland has new similar legislation—we’re supporting his legislation. We’re going to continue to fight to meet the federal promise and, in my view, the federal obligation we have to every child so that any challenge they may have in their life doesn’t become a disability. We can remove roadblocks and make those challenges highways of opportunity.
A budget is a reflection of our collective priorities as a nation. Education—having every person in our country, regardless of the happenstance of where they were born, what station in life, or what physical, mental, emotional challenges they may have in fulfilling their God-given potential—is an essential part of a national imperative. It is one I’ll continue to fight for in our appropriations process.
5. You voted against the appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. You noted that the Senate ignored the thousands of parents, students and teachers who lit up Senate office lines in strong and overwhelming opposition to her nomination. Why did you oppose her nomination?
Public education is one of our nation’s great institutions—it’s an all-taker system. Public schools accept all young people who walk through the doors—they can be the brightest ones or they could be the most challenged ones, they could come from well-off families or very poor families, they could come from any race, any gender, or any creed. Not only do we in New Jersey produce a great education for these students—we’re the envy of the nation, I believe—but at the same time, public schools are one of the great socializing elements in our society.
Secretary DeVos is devoid of any real knowledge of the public school system in our country and what it has meant. She has such antipathy toward it and constantly seeks to undermine it—from the questions of vouchers, which deprive public schools of critical funding to, most recently, talking about using federal dollars to arm teachers in classrooms.
Secretary DeVos’ suggestion to use federal funds to arm teachers is especially outrageous, since I haven’t met a teacher who wants to be armed even though I’ve seen plenty of teachers who have risked their lives in a moment in which a shooter has gone into their schools. We’ve seen those stories, and I’m moved tremendously by their courage.
This is really about reasonable gun safety measures. It’s about ensuring that no one can get access to a gun unless they go through a universal background check including a criminal background check, making sure they have no mental illnesses, making sure they’re not a domestic abuser, and making sure they’re not on a terrorist watch list, whether you buy or seek to buy a gun at the click of a mouse online or at a gun show.
It’s also about making sure that we have the right mental health workers in our institutions so that any challenge that a young person might have, or that someone in the broader community might have, can be identified and treated.
It’s also about stopping this march that my Republican colleagues have in Congress to permit concealed carry weapons permits from other states to be nationally accepted so New Jersey would be forced to accept someone from another state with a concealed carry permit. This would mean that they could have a gun inside their pocket and be able to come into New Jersey with it.
New Jersey has some of the strongest gun safety legislation, which is why we have one of the lowest homicide rates by gun violence.
This is how we ultimately fully work to protect our schools. Not by arming teachers.
So Secretary DeVos is devoid of what is necessary to be an advocate for public education and for millions of schoolchildren in our country. That’s why, I not only opposed her nomination with my vote, I vociferously spoke out against her nomination during her process.
When the children who enter our public schools are healthy and well-fed, they are going to be in a lot better position to be able to realize their full potential.
6. You have consistently opposed private school vouchers and other voucher-like schemes. Can you explain why?
I oppose vouchers because they drain critically needed money from the mission of public schools. Very often the money goes to institutions that can cherry-pick their students, leaving behind students who may have some challenges along the way. Many of those institutions that would receive vouchers don’t have the same high-quality standards that we insist upon in our public school system, such as teacher certification, transparency and accountability—so I’m not about to see our public schools denied critical resources, hindering the education of children.
7. NJEA members—including our members who work in charter schools—are concerned about the unchecked proliferation of low-quality, corporate charter schools. While we believe charter schools can play a constructive role in public education, we know that low standards and lack of oversight create negative consequences for students and the communities where they live. We’re especially concerned, given Secretary DeVos’ record in Michigan of bankrolling legislation to make that state’s charter schools virtually unaccountable to parents and taxpayers. What are your thoughts on charter schools?
For charter schools, if you are not going to require certification of your teachers—New Jersey does, but many other states do not—if you are not going to have the same accountability, the same transparency, and if profit is your ultimate motive versus the fulfillment of the educational ability of every child, that’s a whole different paradigm and a whole different mission. I can see where charter schools can play a role in enriching our public schools, but I do not believe that having corporate charter schools, and charter schools that don’t meet the same standards that we require of every public school and every public school instructor, is a way that ultimately creates a better opportunity in education.
For people who are willing to commit a part of their lives toward public service, loan forgiveness is a way to both inspire public service and to reward it.
8. Congress has tried several times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Through regulation, the Trump administration has worked to weaken it. Congress has also attempted to reduce Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Many students rely on these programs to come to school healthy and ready to learn. In addition, efforts are regularly proposed to “reform” Medicare and Medicaid in ways that would diminish them. What are your views on health care as it affects the students our members serve? What are your views on health care in retirement?
No New Jerseyan, no American, should go to sleep at night worried that they are one illness away from bankruptcy. That is the mission that I worked on as one of the authors of the Affordable Care Act, which brought a million New Jerseyans health care who didn’t have it before. The Affordable Care Act protected 3.8 million New Jerseyans who have a pre-existing condition—a child born with a birth defect, a husband who may have had a heart attack, a wife or daughter who may have cervical cancer—any of those conditions were a cause for insurance companies to say, “You have a pre-existing condition and we will not give you insurance, or the insurance that you get will be so costly that you won’t be able to afford it.” No longer can that discrimination take place.
We also ensured that if anyone in New Jersey—or for that matter in our country—had a significant illness such as cancer or Alzheimer’s disease, which took my mother’s life, there were no lifetime limits on their insurance policies. Before the Affordable Care Act, for even those who were privately insured, there was a lifetime limit on the policy. If you had a serious illness and you hit that ceiling, and you were still ill, that illness could lead you to bankruptcy. Lifetime limits were eliminated under the law.
The ability to have your son or daughter on your policy until the age of 26, while they find their own pathway in life with their own health insurance, is part of the Affordable Care Act. Before the law, women were discriminated against in terms of the cost of insurance, paying twice as much as their male counterparts in the same age group and in the same geographic area. That was eliminated under the law.
The law isn’t perfect. But President Trump, in his desire to kill the Affordable Care Act, is driving up health care costs by undermining the very system—including cost-sharing elements—that keeps premiums and co-pays arrested. They’re going up because he refused to keep the cost-sharing elements.
The bottom line is we need to build upon the Affordable Care Act, not destroy it. We need to continue to preserve protections against pre-existing conditions discrimination, not—as the Trump administration is doing—argue in a federal court that that provision of the law is unconstitutional.
In my mother’s own case—a woman who worked so hard in the factories of New Jersey—and in the twilight of her life, she faced a long good-bye with Alzheimer’s—she would not have lived with the dignity that she deserved in the twilight of her life, but for Medicare and Medicaid.
That’s why I refuse to accept the assaults that Republicans are levying against these programs. When they approve a $2 trillion tax cut and then automatically say, “Oh, we have to cut entitlements,” they mean Medicare and Medicaid. I will continue to stand up for Medicare and Medicaid as we know it.
That’s also why I was the champion, and successfully so, of extending the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 10 years. It was up for reauthorization—Republicans wanted to reauthorize it for a shorter period of time; we fought back and got a 10-year extension. When the children who enter our public schools are healthy and well-fed, they are going to be in a lot better position to be able to realize their full potential. That’s why health care has been such a passion for me, and I will continue to be that advocate in the United States Senate.
9. The average amount of debt per college student loan borrower in New Jersey for the Class of 2017 is $30,790. Debt that high can cause students to shy away from careers in public service, including public education. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program offers an incentive for students to choose a career in education, but the Trump administration appears poised to eliminate the program. What is your position on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program? What do you believe Congress can do to make higher education more affordable, not only for recent high school graduates but for older adults seeking training for a new career?
I believe that every student who wants to get a college education should not have to graduate under a mountain of debt in order to achieve it—not only for their own personal fulfillment, but because it is a national imperative in a global economy that we have the most highly educated generation of Americans the nation has ever known.
As someone who was poor and grew up in a tenement, I know firsthand that if it wasn’t for Pell Grants, Perkins Loans, work-study programs, and other student loans, I would have never have gone to St. Peter’s College, I would never have gone to Rutgers Law School, and I certainly wouldn’t be the United State Senator from New Jersey. I’m driven to make that opportunity a reality for each and every student.
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is something I’ve championed. For people who are willing to commit a part of their lives toward public service, loan forgiveness is a way to both inspire public service and to reward it. That’s why I’m proud that despite the efforts of the administration to cut it, we actually achieved a $350 million expansion for some categories that had not been covered before. I’m going to continue to fight to preserve it.
It is why I believe in, and have joined onto, legislation that makes the first two years of community college universal with accreditation toward a four-year college degree. I think community colleges are great portals of educational opportunity. They also can work with the private sector to make sure that we are developing the skill sets that are needed in the job market.
That’s why I believe that two years of education at the community college level for free is incredibly important. I also think it’s important that students maintain certain standards to have that opportunity.
I’ve introduced legislation with Elizabeth Warren, my colleague from Massachusetts, to refinance the over a trillion dollars collectively of student loan debt to the historically low interest rates that are available right now. We could cut student loan debt in the country almost by half, simply by allowing students to be able to refinance. You can refinance just about anything in our society, but somehow student loans are not allowed to be refinanced, and that’s ridiculous. It would be a tremendous economic boost in our economy—young professionals might want to start a business, be an entrepreneur, or maybe buy their first home. This would unlock enormous potential.
I’m glad to see that we have the highest increase in Pell grants in years, and I’m going to continue to fight for those educational opportunities. It’s also, why, as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m looking to how we can use the tax code to help middle-class families who don’t necessarily qualify for some of these programs to get tax benefits that will help their young son or daughter be educated without being burdened with an avalanche of debt.
10. In 2011, Gov. Christie signed Chapter 78 in to law. This legislation increased public employee contributions to the pension fund and mandated health care contributions according to a formula. That formula required public employees—including teachers and educational support professionals—to pay an increasing percentage of their health insurance premiums. Because the percentage is based on the premium, it has resulted in public employees experiencing what we call a “negative net.” In other words, every year their take-home pay has decreased—so even if a teacher or educational support professional gets a raise in salary, it is more than eliminated by ever increasing health insurance premiums. A bill recently introduced in the State Senate, S-2606, would switch the payroll deduction from a percentage of the premium to a percentage of salary. The law also allows districts to exempt increased health care costs—including those resulting from a lowered employee premium share—from the 2 percent property tax cap. Most important, under S-2606, members would finally see their take-home pay moving in the right direction. What can you do as a U.S. senator to help educators in New Jersey around this issue?
We have to work to incentivize individuals who want to enter the teaching and educational support professions. That, in part, comes down to your salary and the deductions from that salary—whether they be for health care or other matters—which diminish how much income you’re deriving. I think people go into education—as teachers and as support staff—because they have a passion for it, but they also have families, they also have obligations, and they also have their own aspirations.
We need to keep working at the federal level to control health care costs. We need to make sure that we continue to drive down the cost of co-pays and premiums. We need to make more efficient heath care decisions so that we reduce the cost of prescription drugs. The difference between my opponent and me is that I am trying to make sure that prescriptions are more affordable and not to gouge cancer patients, for example, with 200 percent increases. I have legislation to address that.
When we think as New Jerseyans about how to incentivize a generation of great teachers—those who are in the profession and could be lured away and those who we want to enter the profession—we must think about health care as a critical element of their overall benefits in considering whether to enter the profession.
11. Several times in the past eight years, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly have passed legislation that limits a school district’s ability to privatize the work of our educational support staff (ESP) members—only to have the previous governor veto it. The Legislature has also several times passed legislation to extend just-cause job protections to ESP staff—only to have the previous governor veto it. We now have a governor who would sign those bills, which are once again moving through the Senate and Assembly. Please share your thoughts on legislation to place limits on a school district’s ability to privatize ESP jobs and on providing just-cause job protections to ESP staff.
We should not underestimate the importance of educational support professionals in the totality of the learning experience of the child. Educational support professionals are a critical part of the overall educational environment—from the school bus driver who picks up the child near their home, to the school safety officer that greets them at the school, to the janitor or engineer who keeps the school clean and operating, to the nutrition aide who makes sure they’re getting a healthy lunch—these are all essential elements of a great school environment. So I believe that they should have protections like any other professional in terms of their employment security and their employment rights. I don’t believe this is a place where we have a rush to the bottom; making it the cheapest doesn’t always make it the best by any stretch of the imagination.
We should not underestimate the importance of educational support professionals in the totality of the learning experience of the child.