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Can Dems Make Education Pivotal Issue in Governor's Race?

Even with backing of both teachers unions, Buono faces challenge to articulate how she differs from Christie

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It's taken a while, but Gov. Chris Christie’s aggressive school reform agenda -- and the Democrats’ counter to it -- could be emerging as a big issue in the 2013 gubernatorial election.

Christie’s very public involvement in the public schools -- especially in some of the state’s most troubled districts -- has been one of the hallmarks of his education agenda for the past three-and-a-half years.

To recap some of the governor's political -- and personal -- initiatives: appointing a reform-minded superintendent in Newark, and playing a large role in hammering out a new teachers contract there; opposing Abbott v. Burke school-equity decisions; pushing for private school vouchers; blocking the surrender of state control in both Newark and Paterson; and, most recently, launching a takeover of Camden schools.

In the past few weeks, the Democrats in general and their presumptive candidate in particular -- state Sen. Barbara Buono -- finally started countering with what they would do differently. But it's still too early to tell if they can make a case for it being different enough.

Buono, a Middlesex County Democrat, on Thursday accepted the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers in New Jersey, the smaller of the state’s two teachers unions, but one that represents Newark and a few other urban districts.

The senator already has the backing of the state's larger teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association. There's been little question that she would gain the support of both unions, given that Buono was one of the few prominent Democrats to stand with them when Christie overhauled public employee pensions and benefits.

But Buono also used the press conference announcing the AFT endorsement as an occasion to chide Christie’s often-antagonistic relationship with the teachers unions and said she would move to work alongside rather than against them.

Still, it took a bit of prodding to get a clearer idea of how her specific goals differed from Christie's.

For instance, when asked about the Newark teachers contract, which calls for the first large-scale implementation of performance bonuses for teachers, Buono did not decry the pact entirely. Instead, she that it benefited from extra dollars that would not necessarily be available elsewhere. (A large part of the bonuses are to be paid from the $100 million donation made to the city by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.)

She also questioned how the state’s planned takeover in Camden has been handled, although she did not necessarily fault its goals. The AFT endorsement came the same day that state officials were in Camden holding community meetings about the takeover plans.

“I’m not going to comment on the specifics of it without being on the ground,” Buono said in a telephone interview that evening. “But I certainly would have a lot of questions to ask. I think it is especially important for the local community to have input in the process.”

Buono did take more exception to the ongoing state control of the Newark schools, now approaching the 20-year mark and back under both legal and political challenge. She cited the latest legal dispute over whether the district had indeed met the required benchmarks to see at least some control returned to it.

“In places like Newark, it appears there are grounds to end [the state’s control], and that hasn’t happened,” she said in the interview. “That would concern me.”

The Christie campaign is taking some notice, too, shooting back with its own attacks for what they call Buono's conflicting comments on education reform.

“Barbara Buono is more than happy to stand up to collect union endorsements, but when it comes to actually supporting real proposals to reward our very best teachers with merit pay, she’s nowhere to be found,” said Kevin Roberts, a Christie campaign spokesman, in an email preceding the AFT announcement.

How this all will play out in the coming months is unclear. The Buono camp said she is developing her various issue platforms and would be rolling them out in the summer and fall. Doubtless, the teachers unions will put at least some of their considerable resources behind her campaign as November nears.

But there are some wild cards that could be played in the debates, such a how seriously the Camden school takeover will be challenged. The continued state control of Newark and even how the teachers contract is implemented are potentially combustible.

School funding could be a blockbuster issue, depending on whether the Democrats decide to counter Christie’s moves to limit additional funding to urban districts under Abbott v. Burke. The Democratic leadership has opposed the administration in comments and hearings, but with state revenues running behind projections, the proof will come with the final budget struck in June.

The president of the AFT-NJ, Donna Chiera, said it wasn’t a hard call for the union to back Buono. But she knows the challenge now is to draw clear distinctions in both the process and the results.

“I don’t think she would be as top-down heavy as the governor,” said Chiera, a Perth Amboy schoolteacher. “This administration is looking to do things to us, instead of with us.”

“I think Barbara recognizes that to truly have things done and to have the education system changed, those who are doing the job have to be involved,” she said.

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