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NJ Education Reform To Take Prominent Spot at Democratic National Convention

Senator Ruiz and Mayor Booker to participate in 'education town hall.'

It’s not exactly the keynote speech, but when it comes to education reform New Jersey will still be well represented as the Democratic National Convention kicks off today in Charlotte, NC.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) will be among a dozen panelists and Newark Mayor Cory Booker will give the closing remarks at a “education town hall” hosted today by the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), the five-year-old advocacy group making its mark in New Jersey and nationally.

New Jersey’s place in the spotlight at this week's convention further bolsters the state’s rising prominence in the national discussion about school reform.

Long a reform advocate, Booker brings his own celebrity. He also is speaking at 6 p.m. to the full convention as co-chairman of the Democrats’ platform committee.

At the same time -- and in large part due to Booker -- Newark is getting some extra attention, thanks to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to the city’s public education system in 2010, a project still very much in progress.

Ruiz last month helped pull off a nearly unprecedented unanimous legislative passage of the state’s new tenure law, one that rewrites the rules for how and when teachers receive job protections.

The state Senate’s education committee chairman, Ruiz was chief architect of the measure and widely credited for building the coalition that won its passage, including Christie himself.

“It’s a lot of fun to be here from New Jersey,” said Kathleen Nugent, director of DFER NJ and its chief lobbyist in Trenton, upon arriving in Charlotte yesterday. “Out of a total of 15 people on the stage, two of them are ours.”

Today's town hall will comprise two panels. Ruiz will serve on the panel on school leadership at the state level, with other legislators from like Colorado and North Carolina.

A second panel, on technology in schools, will feature the nation's top two education labor leaders: Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers and Dennis Van Roekel of the National Education Association. Booker will give the closing remarks.

Founded in 2007, DFER continues to expand on its network of coordinators in a dozen states, including New Jersey. Led by a mix of education reformers and hedge fund managers with resources to promote the organization, DFER has played a part in passing key legislation on teacher evaluation and quality in several states over the past two years, from New York to Colorado.

Nugent quickly credited President Obama for pressing this cause through the federal Race to the Top grant funding. But in New Jersey at least, Nugent and DFER ended up a key presence at the table in Ruiz’s coalition-building efforts for the tenure law. Christie went so far as to publicly thank DFER when he signed the tenure bill last month.

This week is also a big step up for DFER. It attended the last Democratic convention in 2008, but this year brings a bigger audience and stature for the group.

“Four years ago in Denver, it was a small cast of regulars,” Nugent said. “This year, there are so many names new to the [education] reform world. This is the new norm for the Democratic party.”

The New Jersey office opened in 2010 with the hiring of Nugent, and she said yesterday it is not stopping with the tenure law. Nugent said she will work next on policy issues like charter schools and teacher preparation.

She said while the word Democrat is in her job title, working with a Republican governor like Christie on tenure reform was not as hard as it sounds.

“The governor wanted to sign a strong tenure reform bill and was always focused on getting to a result that would work for kids,” Nugent said, pointing out Christie education commissioner is a Democrat as well.

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