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Buono Begins to Divulge Details of Her Ambitious Education Agenda

But gubernatorial candidate remains vague about finding funds for some of her proposals.

Sen. Barbara Buono
State Sen. Barbara Buono has begun to release details of her education priorities and policies.

The school year is just getting under way, but at least two New Jersey pols are already showing up on college campuses like eager freshmen, ready to deliver their education-centric electioneering.

Democratic gubernatorial challenger Barbara Buono made Rutgers her first stop out of the Labor Day starting gate yesterday, talking up what she called her “comprehensive” education platform for New Jersey.

It's a plan that some critics claim is long on ambition but short on details, especially when it comes to costs.

Meanwhile, Gov. Chris Christie visited New Jersey Institute of Technology to announce more than $80 million in renovations and projects at the Newark campus -- and not missing an opportunity to take some swipes at Buono and the state Senator’s education plans.

Get used to it: two months and counting to Election Day.

Buono's announcement and press conference were held at the heart of the university’s College Avenue campus on the first day of classes. It dealt, in large part, with providing more funding for state colleges and universities, as well as their students.

The candidate said tuition at state schools has doubled in the past decade, and she laid much of the blame on Christie for his minimal increases -- if not outright cuts in some years – to state funding for schools and financial-aid programs.

Buono is scheduled to be in Trenton today and will focus on K-12 education, filling in more details about her approach to a topic that has dominated much of the political discourse under Christie.

Yesterday at Rutgers and in an interview afterward, Buono said she would take a distinctly different tack than the governor, especially when it comes to school funding. She proposed expanding preschool and making all-day kindergarten universal, and implored the state to fully fund the school finance law.

“The fact of the matter is budget is about priorities, and this is the plan for my first term in office and it will be enacted within fiscal constraints,” she said. “But I will tell you that my budget will reflect middleclass values and not policies that coddle millionaires and those who already have it all.”

But the costs of what Buono proposes would significantly exceed the increased revenues from her "millionaire's tax," and that’s where she was vague about details.

When asked afterward how she would find the $1 billion to fully fund the school finance law, she said it would likely take some time.

“The whole idea of the funding formula was to phase in a lot of those costs, over as much as a 10-year period,” she said.

Buono did provide more substance to her stands on nonfinancial issues.

For instance, she said that while she voted for the state’s new teacher tenure law, she is now having second thoughts about the speed of its implementation and its reliance on student test scores and other performance measures. Many of the same concerns have been raised by the state's two largest teachers unions, both of which have loudly endorsed Buono.

“I did vote for it, but I had grave concerns that it seemed to be the tail wagging the dog without a meaningful evaluation piece already established and tested,” she said. “Unfortunately, I think some of my fears are being realized.”

When asked what measures she would include for student performance, she did not rule out test scores entirely, but she said at a lesser degree than the 30 percent maximum that is planned for the first year by the Christie administration.

“It would have to be a small piece,” she said. “I’d have to do the research on that.”

Buono also said that while she endorses charter schools as a laboratory of school innovation, she asserted that they should not replace traditional public schools, adding that Christie appears poised to do just that.

“Some charter schools perform well, and some don’t,” she said. “They are not a panacea . . . We have gone far afield of the legislation creating charter schools, and the overemphasis on charter schools and draining of funding for traditional schools should be a concern for anyone.”

And on an especially timely issue, Buono said she would not have necessarily seized control of Camden schools -- as Christie has done, starting this fall -- without a clearer exit plan for the state’s school takeovers in general.

“As governor, I would ensure that there is a process in place to make sure these districts have a pathway to come out from under this forced dependency,” she said.

But when asked what she would have done for Camden schools if sitting in Christie’s chair, she hedged.

“I am not sitting in that seat, but let’s just say I am concerned about the track record we have with school takeovers,” she said.

Christie’s campaign shot back at the proposals, and even tried to get ahead of them with a midmorning release of a video from his February budget address where the governor said that state funding for schools has returned to a historic high –- leaving out the $1 billion cut that he made three years ago.

“Barbara Buono has made a career of marching to the beat of special interests, the NJEA most notably -- and that is no clearer than in her being wildly out of step with reform advocates and members of her own party on matters of education and education reform,” said campaign spokesman Kevin Roberts in an email. And while Buono will lay out her plans further today, Christie has put together his own education show and will return to the Shore and the Beach Haven elementary school to play up its reopening after Hurricane Sandy.

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