Education was the last big section of Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address yesterday, and in some ways, the one with the most surprises.
One was the news that he would be increasing direct school aid to the tune of $249.3 million. The total was about a quarter of the $1 billion he cut from schools last year, but any increase was unexpected, given that the early signals from his administration were to prepare for more cuts.
There were some predictable parts, too. The governor excoriated the current teacher tenure system and argued once again for private school vouchers for low-income students, insisting that "children's futures" are being wasted.
Christie also boosted funding to charter schools by 50 percent and doubled the amount of money going to school choice.
Essentially, Christie is giving across-the-board increases to every school district, including some he lambasted in the same speech for overspending.
"It could have been a lot worse," said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group. "It’s about time we got some good news."
Just as intriguing is how the governor intends to restore the cuts. His plan is to restore each district the equivalent of 1 percent of its fiscal 2010 budget, after cutting up to 5 percent the year before.
The details will come out when district-by-district numbers are released this week. But for a governor who has roundly criticized the high rate of spending and low rate of achievement -- especially in urban schools -- Christie made no mention of moving money from the urban to suburban schools.
He even appeared to toss aside a proposal being circulated by some Republican lawmakers to rewrite the school funding law, including scaling back urban preschool programs. Two weeks ago, Christie himself said at a town hall meeting he would address preschool in the budget speech. He ended up silent on the subject.
But Christie's change of heart, if there was one, may have been as much a legal decision as a political one, some said, with the state Supreme Court currently hearing the latest challenge of the Abbott v. Burke school equity case.
“I think the governor has come to the conclusion that without changing the Supreme Court, he cannot take any legislative steps," said state Assemblyman Joseph Malone (R-Burlington), who has been critical of the court’s decisions sending additional funds to the urban districts. “He’s an intelligent man, and the reality is the reality.”
Further, others said Christie’s increase appeared a nod to the court in its current deliberations.
The Christie administration is being challenged over its cuts last year and whether they were in violation of the latest Abbott rulings. The state’s main defense is that while the cuts may have been difficult, they were necessary and equitable across districts. Now that the administration is restoring some of the money, weighting them toward certain schools would have run counter to that argument.
Still, Christie was no less the firebrand in his budget address, even if the budget did not entirely back it up. He used the occasion to again trumpet his plans to revamp how teachers are evaluated and retained, and he spoke at length about the need for the legislature to finally enact a tax credit bill that would provide private school vouchers to low-income students.
"How many more children’s futures are we willing to waste in order to support a failed status quo demanded by the moneyed interests that stalk the halls of this building?" he said. "Haven't we waited long enough to act?"
"The time to fix our schools is now," he said to maybe the loudest applause of the day.
He also again called for a further expansion of charter schools, backing legislative proposals that would allow state colleges and universities to serve as authorizers and overseers of charter schools. He also played up how his budget expanded state aid to charter schools by 50 percent and doubled school choice funding.
Compared to local funding, state money is limited when it comes to charter schools, with his budget calling for a total of $13 million. The school choice aid -- going up to $22.3 million -- is for the state’s inter-district school choice program that allows students to cross district lines for their public schooling. Due to a change in the law, the number of students participating is slated to significantly grow next year, prompting the increased funding.
For all his education proposals, Christie’s budget also did not include any additional funds for the state Department of Education, which will implement the promised reforms. One especially critical – and expensive -- area is the state's student data system, which would be used in evaluating teachers based on the performance of their students.
His budget leaves the department's spending virtually unchanged from this year’s $66.2 million, and down from the $70.8 million in 2010. Still, that’s better than most departments, a few of which are seeing double-digit percentage cuts.
The reactions to the education proposals were pretty much along party lines, with Republicans largely praising the increase with Democrats remaining critical.
"One percent is not enough," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), a member of the Assembly’s education committee. "A lot of districts have really cut to the bone, and 1 percent is not enough to put any meat back on."
Marie Bilick, executive director of the state’s school boards association, voiced “relief" that the governor did not call for further cuts, but said it will still be a tough season for district budgets. "During the legislature’s budget deliberation process, [the association] will advocate for restoration of additional school funding," she said. The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant teachers union and a frequent target of Christie's, focused on the governor's separate budget proposals to reform health care and the pension system, in part by requiring public employees to pay more out of pocket.
"He promises to provide property tax relief to senior citizens, but only if teachers and school employees pay thousands more in higher healthcare premiums -- on top of what they already pay," said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian in a statement. "Educators have already shown they’re willing to share in the sacrifice," she added, "but Chris Christie is singling them out to pay the entire tab for this budget."