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Christie's State of State Offers Little New for Education

Education plays reduced role in yesterday's address to legislators, residents, and wider audience.

It's fair to argue that 2011 could qualify as Gov. Chris Christie's "Year of Education," given his ambitious agenda and the number of initiatives he pushed through. That would make 2012 his “Year of Education, Redux,” with the governor following up on unfinished business.

And where would that leave 2013?

From the tone and content of Christie’s State of the State address yesterday, it's a good candidate for the “Year of Education Rehash,” for resting on the accomplishments of the past without presenting much of anything new for the immediate future.

For a governor who has made education a core priority of his tenure, Christie's 42-minute address barely touched on the topic until the very end, and even then it was largely to list past accomplishments.

That’s not a short list, especially with the bipartisan enactment of a teacher tenure law in 2012 that for the first time directly ties tenure to classroom and student performance.

“Who would have thought, just three years ago, in the face of entrenched resistance, that I could stand here and congratulate us today for the following,” Christie said yesterday, then listing everything from state funding increases to new charter schools. State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said in a statement afterward: “The Governor is justly proud of his many accomplishments in K-12 education, not only because of their substance but also because each was accomplished through a bipartisan process that put the interests of children above politics.” Yet Christie presented no new education initiatives at all in yesterday's speech and didn’t touch on older ones that were once priorities, most prominently the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give school vouchers to low-income students in certain communities.

The omission was hardly surprising, since Christie has said that the OSA would likely be pushed onto a back burner during an election year, given the polarizing debate that surfaces each time the long-floundering proposal pops up.

The bill’s prime Republican sponsor in the Senate -- Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union) --said he remained optimistic it could rise again, including in Christie’s state budget proposal, to be presented in late February.

“There is still time,” said Kean. “What he talked about was what he achieved in the past in 2012, and there are still many miles to go to the budget address and beyond.”

Christie did take something of a new angle when it came to his education agenda. He mentioned charter schools -- always a favorite -- but also the less contentious interdistrict school choice program being pushed by Democratic legislators that is quietly gathering backing throughout the state.

As expected, he also played up the Newark teachers contract and its first-ever provision for performance bonuses for teachers, citing his own role in negotiations and its eventual passage.

But for a governor who has been all about tax limits and spending constraints, he highlighted the state’s continued aid increases for schools, albeit after historic cuts three years ago.

“In New Jersey, we have combined more funding with needed reform,” Christie said. “Both money and reform of our schools are essential, but neither alone is sufficient. In New Jersey, we are leading the way for the nation by providing both.”

Whether that staves off the perennial fight over state aid to schools in the face of a widening budget gap, not to mention a potential court challenge involving the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings, is yet to be seen.

Often one of the governor’s favorite targets but spared yesterday, the state’s dominant teachers union was withholding judgment, at least for now.

“It was a masterful political address, but very short on specifics about how he's going to address the state's fiscal situation,” said Steve Wollmer, the New Jersey Education Association’s communications director.

“Teachers and school employees want to know if he will make the legally required contribution to the pension system, and how public education will fare in the state budget, because the last three years have been difficult."

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