Monday, August 15, 2011

[PART II] Conversations with Candidates: K-12 Teacher Marie Corfield Wants to Shake Things Up in New Jersey

If you are a candidate running for office (city, state, or at the national level) and would like to be promoted by AEM, please contact me at All candidates will have the opportunity to review the material I publish about them, so none of your words will be misconstrued. I'm happy to be of assistance in spreading the word about your candidacy, your values,  and what you intend to do once elected. Last year, I interviewed Kevin Bradley (who ran as a Democrat for the House of Representatives), Rick Staggenborg,, and Jim Holbert. Last week, I interviewed David Hunsicker who hopes to kick out the rascally, destructive Eric Cantor. 

It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to Marie Corfield. (If you want to help a great candidate and teacher out, please, please donate to her campaign).

CCJ: First, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who's Marie Corfield?

MC: I am a K-4 art teacher in the Flemington-Raritan School District in Hunterdon County, NJ. I’m a single mother with a 19-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter.

I was born and raised in New Jersey—Hudson County, about 10 miles outside of Manhattan—the opening credits of ‘The Sopranos’ run through my old stomping grounds. I grew up in a very dysfunctional home, so my three sisters and I basically raised ourselves. As chaotic as it was, we all had a love of learning that sustained us. (My two surviving sisters and I all have master’s degrees and are all teachers.)

I attended 12 years of Catholic School—because my father didn’t know how to raise us. In the 1960s and ’70s that meant very strict rules and regulations, drill and skill learning, and no art, music or PE until high school.

After graduation, I spent a year at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. When I came home that summer, my younger sister was diagnosed with cancer. My sisters and I spent a year caring for her full time. After her death, I enrolled in Montclair State University in Upper Montclair, NJ just to start getting back to life. But after a year I was bored, so I applied to, and was accepted at Parsons School of Design in NYC. I was living on my own at the time, and they wanted me to come in as a second year, rather than a third year student. I said thanks, but no thanks. I just couldn’t afford 5 years of college on a waitress’s salary. I stayed at Montclair State and graduated summa cum laude with a BFA in commercial art/illustration. Since it was a new program, I basically designed my own course of study, which included a lot of classes at Parsons. I like to say that I got a Parsons education on a state university budget.

In the year I cared for my sister, I also got a good education about what's really important in life: helping other people, and standing up for those who can't stand for themselves.

After college I worked for 15 years as a graphic designer/illustrator. However, once my children came along, I wanted to be more on their schedule, and I was bored sitting in front of a computer all day, and tired of hustling freelance illustration work on the side. Someone suggested I’d make a good teacher. After tossing around the idea for a couple of years, I got my alternate route certification.

My first day of teaching was 9/11. How sad that now, 10 years later, public workers—who were hailed as heroes then—are characterized as greedy and selfish now.

I’m starting my 8th year at my current school. I’m very active in my local, serving as a building VP, and social and legislative chairs. In 2008 I earned a Master's degree in the Art of Teaching from Marygrove College in Detroit.

CCJ: Marie, that is so true. It is very troubling to see the way in which teachers have been vilified by these self-serving, pro-corporate politicians like Governors Christie and Walker. I am an educator, too, or I was. Last year, I taught in Korea, and I also taught at the college level at Brown University. I still consider myself an educator, but it is now through my activism and writing.

You confronted Gov. Christie in 2010, and basically told him you were sick of his rhetoric and the way he was beating up teachers and their unions. What motivated you to do that? When you left, how did you feel? What happened after that? Did you receive hate mail?

MC: The 2009-’10 school year couldn’t have ended on a worse note. Once Gov. Christie took office in January of 2010, he immediately began his anti-public schoolteacher rhetoric. He and his Republican legislators slashed public school funding by $1 billion, and recalled school surpluses. When high school students left classes to protest, he accused teachers of using them as ‘drug mules’ to carry their message. He took to the airwaves to convince New Jersey citizens to vote down school budgets if every teacher in the state didn’t accept a pay freeze. (Many locals didn’t take a freeze, and many school budgets were voted down.) And he referred to public workers as ‘bullies’, ‘thugs’ and a ‘privileged’ class with ‘Cadillac’ benefits.

CCJ: Despicable, but in this political climate, I'm not surprised. The politicians we have in office - most of them - are trying to undo the things that have made America such a powerful country - public education, health care, social security, etc. Tell us more about that day you confronted him.

MC: The day he held his town hall meeting across the street from my school in September 2010, I had about $100 in my checking account—certainly not enough collateral to gain me entrance into any sort of privileged class. We had just started back to school and had not yet gotten our first paycheck.

I was very angry at the way Governor Christie’s message had fueled a war against all public schools and teachers. New Jersey has one of the top 3 public education systems in the nation. Out of over 2400 schools, about 200 are not doing a good enough job educating their students—the majority of which are in high-poverty areas like Newark, Trenton, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson. My school district does an excellent job, and Hunterdon County is one of the wealthiest counties in the country, although ironically I teach at a Title I school.

I wasn’t sure if I’d even get into the meeting. We only found out about it the night before. Christie holds his town hall meetings during the day when working people can’t attend.

CCJ: That's a really important point. That's troubling. And yet you made the time, as a teacher to go.

MC: Yes. I walked over on my lunch hour hoping to catch the tail end. Much to my surprise, they were just starting to take questions. So, I walked right up to the microphone and said what I said. I could have asked a question about budgets or funding or anything else that was non-confrontational, but I think the collective anger of New Jersey’s teachers, combined with the fierce need to take care of their students that most teachers have for their students fueled me.

I knew I was in a room full of Republican supporters, and I knew that he would control the mic, so I just stood there and listened. I did get the last word in: I reminded him that although he said he never criticized teachers, he was the one who accused us of using our students as drug mules. I then turned around and walked out.

I exited with my head held high. There was no battle to be won, no changing of anyone’s opinion in that room—just a chance to speak my mind, to stand up to a schoolyard bully. I was, and still am, proud of myself.

CCJ: You should be proud! On your lunch break, you entered a room filled with a pack of wolves and a vicious bulldog. So what did he do with this confrontation?

MC: He put the video on his You Tube channel and it went viral. I have never watched the entire thing—I don’t need to, I was there. I’ve also never read the comments. I was told not to—they’re pretty bad. I did receive hate mail, email and phone calls from people all over the country. Don’t these people have anything better to do?

After a few weeks, everything died down. I was happy to return to my normal life of writing letters to the editor, and reading anything I could get my hands on about education ‘reform.’

CCJ: [Laughing] Oh, how I love the way that word is used. But then something changed, and you were in the spotlight again. What happened?

MC: Then, in late December, The New York Times came calling… On January 1, 2011, I was featured in a front-page story about the plight of public workers. The next night I was on The Ed Show. The day after that I was on his nationally syndicated radio program. CBS Evening News interviewed me the following day. (The interview never aired—it was bumped for the homeless DJ.) And a few days later, I was on Fox & Friends (you can see these interviews on my website). Since then I’ve been interviewed by various media outlets including Swedish National Radio (their equivalent of the BBC).

CCJ: You are now running for public office. What inspired you to do it? Why do you think it is important for people like you, and me, to stand up and say, 'enough with abuse. Let's do something different?'

MC: When I returned home from doing The Ed Show I received a phone call from someone in the County Democratic Party asking if I’d be interested in running for state assembly in New Jersey's 16th legislative district. I was shocked. I took about a month to think about it and said, ‘No.’ I didn’t think it was the right time, nor was I the right person. But they asked me to reconsider. Then I started talking to my colleagues. One of them said, 'Marie, you have to run! Teachers need someone to rally behind!' That’s what did it. 

It’s important for us to stand up because, if we don’t, no one else will. America was founded by a group of people who basically said, 'I’m mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it anymore!' And look what they accomplished! That’s the beauty of this country and Democracy in general—the people have the power to affect change. 

I am so fortunate to have two great progressive running mates: Maureen Vella for Senate, and Joe Camarota, my partner for State Assembly. They are true voices for the working class. Not only are they great running mates, but they are decent human beings as well. 

CCJ: And AEM will certainly be following these campaigns closely. 

Let's turn to something quite serious - the fact that public education across the country is under attack. Why do you feel that education is under attack across the U.S.? 

MC: There are several reasons, but here’s the main one, and I want to quote from an article titled, 'Wall Street Hearts Charter Schools, Gets Rich Off Them:'
At the tail end of the Clinton administration in 2000, Congress passed a new kind of tax credit called a New Markets tax credit. [It] gives enormous federal tax credit to banks and equity funds that invest in community projects in underserved communities and it’s been used heavily now for the last several years for charter schools…
What happens is the investors who put up the money to build charter schools get to basically or virtually double their money in seven years through a thirty-nine percent tax credit from the federal government. In addition, this is a tax credit on money that they’re lending, so they’re also collecting interest on the loans as well as getting the thirty-nine percent tax credit. They piggy-back the tax credit on other kinds of federal tax credits like historic preservation or job creation or brownfields credits.
The result is, you can put in ten million dollars and in seven years double your money.
CCJ: I wish I could express shock, but they have corporatized higher education - it's part of the neoliberal agenda, to make sure that everything is part of the market system. That's why we are facing a student lending crisis in higher education.

But returning to your points. Are there other reasons? 

MC: Yes, I would say the other reasons are the following:

• States are strapped for cash so they go after public workers’ salaries and benefits as a way to save money even though public workers did not cause the financial meltdown. In New Jersey, our Republican legislators would rather see millions of middle class workers struggle to make ends meet than raise taxes on the 16 thousand wealthiest citizens.

• It’s cheaper to privatize public education than to address the real issues surrounding ‘failing’ public schools: poverty, lack of real, sustainable jobs, homelessness, food insufficiency, lack of health insurance and access to quality health care.

CCJ: When you saw the massive protests in Wisconsin and Indiana, how did that make you feel as a teacher?

MC: Proud. I admire their perseverance and collaboration. They worked within the system to change the system. They still have a way to go in Wisconsin, and they didn’t completely win round one, but they sent a powerful message. Stay tuned for round two this week!

CCJ: You were in DC recently for the rally for teachers. How was that event? (I'd also like you to mention that you met your two Senators).

MC: That event was all about the right people being in the right place at the right time. Although we didn’t get 1 million teachers, all the important writers and educators, bloggers and activists, those who are working the front lines against this horrendous ‘reform’ movement, and from the education perspective (including Diane Ravitch), were there. There were so many great ideas, so much energy buzzing around! Educators are intelligent, good communicators and collaborators. I only wish we could have stayed a week. And cudos to Matt Damon for stepping up to defend public education!

The event was well organized, and the workshops engaging. Hats off to Parents Across America and SOS. They did an excellent job organizing the event—especially since their members are spread out all over the country. 

I spent one day on the Hill lobbying with PAA members. I talked with Senators Lautenberg and Menendez about the terrible effects the education ‘reform’ movement is having on our schools. Both are strong Democrats; they get it. Senator Menendez’s message was that teachers need to be the change we want to see. Well, we’re doing it!

This event was the catalyst for more. What that will be remains to be seen, but I’m confident it will be powerful. In the meantime, we must continue to spread the word, run for office, stay engaged and connected to the conversation in any way we can. 

And speaking of running for office, it costs a great deal of money. I’m asking teachers everywhere to donate to my campaign at where I've launched a $20 from Teachers fundraiser. Barak Obama raised $1 billion by people donating $5, $10, $20. While I don't need to raise that kind of money, I do need to raise a lot, so every little bit helps. So far I’ve been endorsed by the New Jersey Education Association, The National Organization of Women-New Jersey, and the New Jersey AFL-CIO. I’m working to make this a grass-roots campaign, taking donations and by seeking endorsements from organizations that support the middle class.

Together we can do this.

CCJ: Marie, thank you so very much for sharing with us. AEM is rooting for you! 


gloria anderson said...

This article is one of the most inspiring that I've read lately; I literally had no idea the real story behind charter schools although suspicions did abound. Public school Teachers have for too long been our most un-appreciated unsung heroes. Thanks to union-busting, so-called anti-gov't zealots like Christie-that is about to change. Thanks, Marie. You have answered the call to positive action. My mother-an 85 year old Teacher for almost a half-century- endured much racism, discrimination & poverty to (with my deceased Father) raise 17- yes seventeen- children- many of whom are quite successful. She taught school at a time when it was illegal to be pregnant & keep teaching. Needless to say- with that many children-such was often the case. I know there are a SMALL number of teachers who may be ineffective (true in any profession); but the vast majority of them are exceptional & dedicated. Good luck & GODSpeed in your endeavors. I will be contributing to your effort.
Gloria Anderson

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

Ms. Anderson - thanks so much for sharing. It is very exciting to see a candidate like Marie Corfield in the ring.

Your mother obviously went through a lot as a teacher. She must have been a wonderful and courageous woman.

I have been a teacher too (as I mentioned), and I agree with you. Most of my colleagues were dedicated, and ARE dedicated, to their students.

Let's see Corfield win!