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Opinion: Christie Mess Does Major Damage to Education Reform Efforts

School choice may survive on life support; vouchers, extended days, and seniority-blind layoffs are pretty much dead on the table

laura waters
Laura Waters

How can we calibrate the damage done to education reform in New Jersey these past few weeks?

Quick recap: First, Gov. Chris Christie's political leverage takes a big hit as he runs heads first into the Bridgegate imbroglio. On Saturday national papers were plastered with the Nixonian allegation that "His Fleeceness" knew about the Fort Lee lane closures while they were happening.

Christie-haters, including those who yearn for a return to the glory days of charter-free school districts and profligate school-funding formulas, buzz with glee.

Next, there's Newark, New Jersey’s hotbed for educational equity, which recently lost ardent school reformer Cory Booker to the logjam that is Washington, D.C. On Tuesday night at First Avenue School, state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson walked off the stage while 500 enraged residents and school employees jeered at her "One Newark" plan, which involves expanding school choice and charter schools, and consolidating traditional schools with declining enrollment.

Meanwhile, Newark mayoral-frontrunner Ras Baraka has found a handy wedge issue to differentiate himself from more moderate candidates. Baraka, who doubles as principal of Newark Central High School and South Ward Councilman (he’s on leave from his administrative duties while he campaigns), is blazingly antireform and has compared efforts to upgrade Newark’s bleak school system to “the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

There’s no point in sugar-coating the damage done to Garden State efforts to reform a public school system that funnels children into school districts based on parental wealth.

In the wake of this wreck, and as Christie embarks on (whatever’s left of) his second term, let’s assess the prognosis for four items on his school reform agenda in 2014: vouchers to private and parochial schools, extended school days, seniority-based lay-offs, and charter school expansion.

Let’s start with the easy one: The Opportunity Scholarship Act is toast. As supporter Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union) gloomily conceded, “stick a fork in it.” It’s time to write the obituary for this politically wrought proposal to fund scholarships to private and parochial schools through corporate tax credits.

Next patient: extending the six-hour a day, 180-days-a-year school calendar to accommodate higher learning goals. Just a little over a month ago (!) in his State of the State address, Christie argued that “our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally. Life in 2014,” he intoned, “is much different than life 100 years ago and it demands something more for our students. It is time to lengthen both the school day and the school year in New Jersey.”

He’s right.

Just about everyone agrees that more time in school leads to better academic achievement, especially for low-income students. But the proposal’s ground time here will be brief. Additional salaries for instructional time are prohibitively expensive and subject to negotiations between school boards and local unions.

There’s just no money: Already our school districts squirm under the squeeze of an annual 2 percent tax cap increase. And don’t look for any state aid because we’re broke. A recent report ranked long-term fiscal solvency among U.S. states; Jersey was dead last, primarily due to $25 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and $59 billion in health benefits.

We can barely afford to fund our current length of day, let alone an extended one.

One sign of life: During his State of the State Christie paid homage to a 2010 bill sponsored by Assemblyman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson (D-Camden). The bill proposes a pilot program that would pay for extended school days in 25 poor districts through corporate tax credits. Prognosis is guarded but hopeful.

Next we move to LIFO, or the student-unfriendly policy of laying off the least senior teachers first, regardless of classroom effectiveness.

This practice has long been the bane of education reformers. Cory Booker called it “archaic,” and the National Center on Teacher Quality delicately notes, "[t]he factory model approach of last-hired, first-fired is unusual among white-collar professions.”

Christie has long sought to eliminate LIFO, but suddenly Senate President Steve Sweeney’s star is ascendant. You may remember that during negotiations over NJ’s 2012 teacher tenure reform bill, TEACHNJ, Sweeney said succinctly, "seniority I'm not doing." Odds: poor.

Finally, let’s examine the prospects for school choice expansion. If you’ve been following education politics you know that reform foes like Ras Baraka claim that school choice is really a conspiracy to get rid of neighborhood schools and “privatize” public education. So let’s ask the neighbors.

  • Among Newark’s total school enrollment of 41,000 children, 7,921 attend charters, a 20 percent jump from last year. Another 10,000 students are on waiting lists. (Across the state, 30,000 children attend public charter schools and 20,000 are on waiting lists.)

  • Last year 80 percent of Newark’s 8th-graders applied to magnet schools. (There was room for only 2 percent.)

Apparently, Newark families want educational options that extend beyond the nearest neighborhood school.

The city, however, is now the site of a mayoral campaign sickened with antichoice fever and a tin-eared school administration that has made matters worse. As Christie passively stated in his State of the State: “mistakes were made.” Time for a little outreach, a lot of consensus-building, and a renewed focus on the needs of children, not grownups.

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