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To Get a Sense of Trump’s Education Policies, Look No Further than Christie

Teachers union, Democratic leaders argue that Trump’s ‘bully’ culture perfectly aligns with Christie’s treatment of NJ teachers

christie trumpsplains His Candidate's 'Riot'
Credit: WHYY NewsWorks

What exactly is Donald Trump’s education platform? Democrats are hoping voters look to New Jersey and Gov. Chris Christie to find out.

In a campaign defined so far by sound bites and histrionics, it has been anyone’s guess as to what the now-presumptive Republican presidential nominee has in mind when it comes to federal education policy, among any number of issues.

But a day after Trump all but secured the GOP nomination by winning the Indiana primary, Democrats weren’t waiting to find out, and they used Christie and New Jersey as Exhibit A.

In a series of press phone calls, the Democratic National Committee yesterday enlisted New Jersey’s biggest teachers union and two Democratic leaders to discuss how Trump would emulate Christie in his education policies.

The committee followed up with a call with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, with much the same message.

None of the criticisms were new. From the unions, it was Christie’s full frontal attack on their leadership from Day 1. Trump’s own one-liners about gutting the federal education department and the checkered history of Trump University fit the pattern, they said.

Weingarten described a “'bully” culture that Trump was bringing to the presidential race and the country as a whole, one she said that Christie has already embodied in New Jersey.

“It’s not a surprise that one of Trump’s top surrogates, and possible running mates, is the infamous ‘I want to punch teachers in the face’ Chris Christie,” Weingarten said on the call.

“Chris Christie as governor has been vehemently anti-teacher and anti-public education, she added.”

From two Democratic leaders -- state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) -- the focus was on Christie’s cuts to education funding in 2010 and the underfunding since.

“For seven years now, Gov. Christie has used the Trump game plan,” said Diegnan, chair of the Assembly’s education committee. “It is ironic that ‘The Donald’ -- Mr. Trump -- locked up the nomination on [national] Teacher Appreciation Week, when Christie has disrespected teachers and public employees.”

How much all this plays with the general public is hard to say in a presidential race that has been anything but orthodox and predictable. Education policy has been sidelined in the Republican contest, save for a few debate exchanges over the merits or not of the Common Core State Standards.

But with rivals vanquished, Trump’s education opinions have nevertheless been especially vague. He, like Christie, has been critical of Common Core as a federal overreach, but also like Christie, he has been so far be less critical of the testing that has come with them.

In a quote or two, Trump has called for the dismantling of the federal education department, but hasn’t much said what that would look like. And while he has also supported greater school choice and competition -- presumably a pro-charter school position -- that too comes without specifics as to what is the federal role.

Nevertheless, there is always question about how much federal education policy plays into voter sentiments in a national elections, and this year may be particularly tricky coming off an administration under President Obama that was as reform-minded as any in recent years.

The recent reauthorization of the chief federal education law -- the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) -- also took some of the punch out of the debate as to what’s next in Washington’s role, with the new law already embodying a more state-centric focus.

Christie stayed silent on the topic yesterday. At a press conference focusing on the fate of Atlantic City, the governor took a couple of questions about Trump and the governor’s now-famous endorsement of his candidacy.

But he only broadly answered the questions, saying he and Trump were longtime friends and he stood by the GOP nominee, even if not on every single position.

“Donald is my friend, he’s been my friend for 14 years,” Christie said.

When his press office was asked specifically about the criticisms of Christie’s education policies and how they relate to Trump, a spokesman declined to comment.

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