For a governor mired in scandal and seeking to change the political conversation, the proposal to extend the school day and calendar was an interesting choice for Gov. Chris Christie.
Interesting not in the least because such a call has been part of the education dialogue for years, if not decades, with little consensus on how to accomplish it.
In his State of the State address yesterday, Christie announced that he would provide a plan for a longer school day and school year as part of the education agenda that up to now has been the hallmark of his administration.
In the midst of the scandal over his staff’s involvement in the politically motivated closures of commuter lanes to the George Washington Bridge, the education initiative made headlines in state and national media, taking the focus off "Bridgegate" at least momentarily. It was also the one piece of the State of the State promoted by his administration beforehand.
But the governor yesterday offered virtually no details about the plan, leaving education advocates, legislators, and others on both sides of the debate offering general support while raising questions and masking surprise that this was suddenly issue No. 1.
Even the prime sponsor of athat would have furnished grants to a handful of district to extend their calendars said he was surprised when he said the governor called him to talk about it.
“Hopefully, this will have some momentum to this,” said Assemblyman Gilbert “Whip” Wilson (D-Camden), after finding himself in the limelight.
“The question is always the money,” Wilson said after the speech. “But I was really honored to be able to spend five minutes talking with him. I had no idea.”
On paper, it is a popular, even logical, proposal put forth to attract support from Republicans and Democrats alike. The standard 180-day calendar and six-hour day are relics of generations past, something cited as a problem as far back as the 1983 “Nation at Risk“ report.
More recently, President Barack Obama has pressed for extended calendars as part of federal policy, and a number of states and cities have sought to at least encourage longer time in the classroom. Five states are now in a pilot to test out longer calendars in a sampling of districts.
Yesterday, Christie seized on that support, celebrating the progress in New Jersey's public schools in general but emphasizing the need for continued and intensive reforms, especially in urban districts like Newark and Camden.
The state-appointed superintendents of the Newark and Camden, Cami Anderson and Paymon Rouhanifard, respectively, were among his guests of honor in the speech, taking front row seats and being praised by the governor.
“Let’s face it, if my children are living under the same school calendar that I lived under, by definition, that school calendar is antiquated,” Christie said. “It’s antiquated both educationally and culturally for the world we live in.
“Life in 2014 is much different than life 100 years ago, and it demands something more for our students,” he said. “It is time to lengthen both the school day and the school year in New Jersey.”
But details were not forthcoming, and the governor only said that a plan would be proposed by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.
In the resultant vacuum, others raised questions as to what exactly he intended.
Would it be a statewide mandate, or one for the most troubled districts? Would it come with the state money needed to pay staff or have some other source of funding? And what about existing teacher contracts that already set the school day and calendar?
Wilson’s bill would cover just 25 pilot districts and rely on $150 million in individual and corporate tax credits to fund it over three years, according to legislative staff estimates.
Representatives from some of the larger education groups said it is hard to argue against more time in the classroom, but there are questions of funding, facilities, and a host of other issues.
“It has been out there in our dialogue and really needs to be fleshed out,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools group.
“Will it be required, will it be a local option, how will you determine the need?” she said. “What about the cost on all levels, not just teachers but air conditioning and facilities? It’s a major thing, and requires quite a lot of conversation.”
But there is not universal agreement as to whether more time in itself can boost achievement in urban districts, or anywhere else.
In something of a coincidence, former Washington, D.C., chancellor and national reform advocate Michelle Rhee yesterday released a report on state reform efforts that gave New Jersey a grade of D overall.
When asked specifically about Christie’s proposal, Rhee was lukewarm about extended time being a central ingredient.