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Former Governors' Biggest Regret: Failure to Turn Around Urban Schools

Preservation of Pinelands and Highlands, open space initiatives earn bipartisan praise.

The biggest regret for New Jersey’s former governors is their inability to fundamentally improve the quality of urban education during their time in office, despite spending more money per student than any other state.

Yesterday’s “Governors’ Summit” brought together former Govs. Brendan Byrne, Tom Kean, Jim Florio, Christine Todd Whitman, and Jim McGreevey for a rare joint discussion at Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center, whose creation was a shared accomplishment of Kean and Florio.

What was most interesting about the panel discussion was the governors’ view not only of their own triumphs and tribulations, but also of each other’s accomplishments -- an assessment made easier once they were no longer running for office. “We were all critical of those who came before us,” Kean said, smiling over at his predecessor Byrne, whom he blamed for the state’s fiscal problems in his early years in office.

Republicans Kean and Whitman both said their biggest frustration was their inability to transform the Jersey City and Newark school districts they took over almost a decade apart.

Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (Republican, 1994-2001)
Credit: Paul Wusow/Courtesy of NJPAC
Gov. Christine Todd Whitman (Republican, 1994-2001)

“I’ll tell you what I would do differently: I wouldn’t listen to the lawyers,” Kean said of the Jersey City school takeover. Kean wanted to invoke gubernatorial powers to enforce the “thorough and efficient clause” of the New Jersey Constitution in the same way that Byrne unilaterally issued executive powers to protect the Pinelands.

“The lawyers said that’s completely unconstitutional,” Kean recalled. “So we went through the Legislature and the bill got weakened substantially, and it got challenged by Jersey City in the courts and got weakened some more.”

Years later, Kean said he talked to two retired Supreme Court justices and asked them what they would have done if he had declared a state of emergency to take over the Jersey City schools. “Both said, ‘We would have welcomed it.’ That was a terrible missed opportunity,” he said wistfully. “If we were able to use all we knew about education reform.”

Similarly, Whitman also said she “wished we hadn’t listened to the lawyers in our takeover of Newark. Because the law had been weakened, we weren’t able to make the changes needed,” she said, pointing to limits placed by the Legislature on the number of magnet and charter schools.

Whitman discounted the current rancorous pushback by Newark community leaders against a takeover now in its 20th year, noting that the first two state-appointed superintendents faced death threats. “Unfortunately we haven’t seen the advancement in education I would have hoped we would have seen by now,” she said, urging that the state takeover remain in place.

Democrats Florio and McGreevey were equally impassioned in their call for increased focus on urban education.

“We now know what ‘thorough and efficient’ means: It means preschool, it means quality teachers, it means good facilities,” Florio said. “We do have to invest smartly. If you think the cost of education is bad, wait until you see the cost of ignorance.”

McGreevey, who noted that he counsels incarcerated women who can’t read, said “Frankly, if education was failing so miserably for white affluent children, we would have had a revolution. There are best practices, and we know what works and what doesn’t work. The problem is we are tied to a system that is ossified and preserves the status quo at the expense of entrepreneurial efforts. And when you see what Mayor Bloomberg has done in New York City, you see that we need more experimentation.”

McGreevey recalled that as governor, he considered challenging certain school districts that were not spending the money they had been allocated by the state for urban education. “I defer to Gov. Kean who paraphrased Shakespeare that we should kill all the lawyers. We as a state should not tolerate what is an unacceptable situation.”

In Praise of Open Space

When NJ Spotlight cofounder John Mooney, who served as moderator, asked the five former chief executives to assess the major accomplishments of their fellow governors, it was their records on preservation of open space and critical aquifers that drew the most bipartisan praise.

“Gov. Byrne’s preservation of the Pinelands was very special,” McGreevey said. “It marked the beginning of an environmental stewardship we all adhered to.”

Florio singled out the massive open-space preservation initiative launched by Whitman early in her second term. “We need to do more,” he said, “to preserve open space in the most densely populated state in the nation.” He and Whitman both praised McGreevey’s Highlands initiative as a critical preservation effort.

From Policy to Personal

Whitman shifted from considerations of policy to the personal when she considered McGreevey’s difficult decision to resign his governorship in 2004 following his “I am a gay American” speech. “I have to applaud Governor McGreevey for doing what he thinks was right,” Whitman said. “I wish he hadn’t because I don’t think he had to, and that was to decide that he needed to resign. I appreciate and admire the courage it took to do that, but I know that his passion for the state made that a very difficult decision,” she said, noting that it meant giving up the power of the governorship to create the change he believed in.

Gov. Jim McGreevey (Democrat, 2002-2004)
Credit: Paul Wusow/Courtesy of NJPAC
Gov. Jim McGreevey (Democrat, 2002-2004)

“It took a lot of courage for him to do that and I applaud him for that even though I wish he didn’t think he had to do it,” she reiterated as McGreevey choked up and the audience broke into applause.

McGreevey applauded Gov. Chris Christie for his expansion of drug courts that will provide enhanced treatment for addicts and for his commitment to the restructuring of Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey into a single research university along the lines originally recommended to him by a commission chaired by former Merck CEO Roy Vagelos a decade ago.

It was the potential for that restructuring that led the five governors to back Christie in his support for embattled Rutgers President Robert Barchi, despite a bewildering series of management miscues in the recent hirings and firings of Rutgers basketball coaches and athletic directors.

The Rutgers-UMDNJ merger has the potential “to put Rutgers into one of the top 10 research institutions in the nation,” said Kean, who chaired Christie’s higher education restructuring commission that urged the merger. “That’s the ball we need to keep our eye on, not a basketball or any other ball.”

Delving Into the Debt

Byrne focused repeatedly on the increase in the state’s bonded indebtedness to $34 billion, and the state’s passage of a $750 million higher education bond issue last year with no dedicated funding to pay for it.

“Tom Kean and I can brag that we had a triple A bond rating when we were governor,” Byrne noted. "It’s nowhere near that now."

Kean said New Jersey’s “whole taxing structure is wrong. Everyone knows we have an overreliance on property taxes because municipalities won’t share services, won’t combine.” He added that the state is too reliant on high-income taxpayers to pay the bulk of its income tax. “We now have the highest tax rate in the country, and jobs are moving out,” he said.

Florio noted that he recently met with Moody’s, and that “New Jersey is not the worst-off state. Illinois and California have real problems” with their pensions and debt, and state governments may not have the resources they need in the future to meet their long-range obligations.

The answer, he suggested, may lie in shifting some of the financial responsibility to the federal government level, as other nations do, starting with the Medicaid program that is one of the fastest-growing areas of state spending.

Gov. Jim Florio (Democrat, 1990-1993)
Credit: Paul Wusow/Courtesy of NJPAC
Gov. Jim Florio (Democrat, 1990-1993)

In response to an audience question, Whitman criticized the defunding of Planned Parenthood in New Jersey and other states. “Unfortunately, you see this happening across the country, as Planned Parenthood has become a symbol of the issue of abortion, and frankly that’s not what their job is. They provide basic women’s healthcare for a number of women who otherwise cannot afford it.”

While stressing that she would not second-guess Christie on his budget priorities, Whitman said she hoped that other healthcare providers in New Jersey would “step up and fill the vacuum because there really will be a vacuum and that has a bad impact on families.”

Asked what advice they would offer Christie on his reelection campaign, Florio quipped, “I don’t understand Democratic politics any more so I sure as heck don’t understand Republican politics.”

But Florio did say that when Christie called him seven or eight months into this first term, he responded, “The only thing I would say is when I was in office, if I had political opponents, I tried to give them some option other than killing me.”

Whitman said Christie “knows what he has to do and that is to concentrate on the job here. If you don’t do the job you’re in, the next one doesn’t come along.”

As to Christie’s presidential politics, Kean said “he’s the most popular politician in the country, so if he comes out of this election with a huge majority in a blue state like New Jersey, they should be coming to him.

“Now, my party is nuts, so whether they will come to him, I don’t know,” Kean said, provoking a burst of laughter from the audience. “But I don’t know another candidate in the country with more talent.”

Whitman was the only one to offer any encouragement to Christie’s Democratic challenger, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex). Recalling how she almost defeated U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) in 1990 after being given no chance in the race, Whitman said, “You don’t give up because the odds look overwhelming.”

Byrne, who aroused a furor a couple weeks ago by suggesting that Buono should consider dropping out of the race if her poll standing didn’t improve, recalled how “somebody once asked Yogi Berra how they pitched to Ted Williams, and he said we threw him four balls and hoped to pick him off first.

“I’m not giving any advice which is better than that with regard to the governor,” he said, then acknowledged, “I don’t think that that advice is going to be helpful.”

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