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What's Waiting for the Winners in Trenton? Education Reform

Debates on the big issues -- like charters and tenure -- are just going to get started in the lame duck session.

Education reform may not have come up much as an issue in individual races leading up to tomorrow's legislative election, but it has remained a big topic looming in the background for both the candidates and the special interests backing them.

For the candidates, it is arguably the biggest issue the legislature will face in the coming months. Whoever wins on Tuesday will almost immediately face a slate of education proposals on the legislature's docket, including charter school regulation, tenure reform, and school funding.

Meanwhile, a key player in the election is not on the ballot but may prove as potent as any: the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the statewide teachers' union.

The union's PAC has spent more than $1 million on a combination of individual races and statewide support, intent on making its presence felt both in the election and in the coming debate.

Adding to the urgency for the union, the debate on at least some of these issues is expected to start in earnest in the lame duck session this month, before the next legislative session even begins.

"Elections matter, and in terms of the education reform agenda, there has been talk that this election could be decisive," said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the NJEA's government relations director.

"But I think much could happen before they ever take their seats," she said. "While we have worked hard on this election, we are very much preparing for the lame duck session as well."

In the election itself, the NJEA has been in putting its considerable muscle and money behind candidates that supported the union in last spring's fight with Gov. Chris Christie over pension and healthcare changes, a battle the union lost.

In turn, it refused to endorse some high-profile Democratic incumbents who normally would easily win its backing, including state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).

"The NJEA made a very calculated, strategic move in terms of its politics," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "It used to be about supporting everyone to make sure it had a seat at the table, but with the passage of the pension law, the NJEA chose in this one to only help its friends."

And while few expect many seats to change with this election, Dworkin said that show of support will matter in the coming debates. "When they go into a fight and say they will stand by you, this is what that means," he said.

A side story has been a new player on the political scene: Better Education for Kids, an organization funded by two hedge fund managers to promote teacher quality and other reform measures.

It is advertising itself as a counterweight to the NJEA, and has provided its support in the form of more than $50,000 total to four candidates in different districts across the state. This summer, it also launched a statewide ad campaign promoting tenure reforms that are now pending in the legislature.

According to the most recent state filings, the NJEA has spent more than $1.2 million on this year's legislative elections, including close to $400,000 in recent television ads in four races, Districts 4, 16, 38 and 40.

All of them have either NJEA members in the race or strong NJEA backers that could be vulnerable. District 38 in Bergen County is arguably the most hotly contested race in the state, with state Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) facing a tough challenge.

"This is where we have to make a difference," Schnitzer said. "If he's vulnerable, we have to be there."

And for all the public's misgivings over the union and where it stands on some issues, Dworkin agreed that it still can pack an election punch. "Bob Gordon is counting on every teacher and everyone who is related to a teacher coming out for him," he said.

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