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Opinion: Christie's 'Fairness Formula' Leaves Ugly Legacy for 2017 Race

The governor has yet again positioned himself as a dominant figure capable of establishing the frame of reference for a political discussion the candidates can’t dodge

carl golden
Carl Golden

For nearly seven years, Gov. Chris Christie has been unrelenting in his assault on the New Jersey Education Association, utilizing his platform to direct a steady stream of invective at the 125,000-member union and its leadership.

He’s called them “pigs” for advocating on behalf of their pension and health benefits.  He accused teachers of using their students as drug mules to transport propaganda home to their parents. And in a remarkably tasteless episode, he compared the association leadership to the Mafia don who was the central figure in the book and film “The Godfather.”    

Other than whatever inner satisfaction Christie derived from his gleeful public flogging, the impact on the association has been negligible.  It remains one of the most organizationally and financially potent groups of its kind, whose endorsement and campaign contributions are sought eagerly by legislative and gubernatorial candidates.    

Now, though, Christie has raised the stakes to an unprecedented level, carrying the fight directly to the Legislature and to the Supreme Court, teeing up a struggle not merely between him and the association but one that will spill over into the 2017 gubernatorial election.  

Christie has asked the Supreme Court to break with more than 30 years of precedent and freeze state aid to special-needs school districts (colloquially referred to as “Abbotts”) until a new formula for aid distribution is enacted.  

And in what many consider a serious overreach of executive authority, he is seeking court approval to override certain provisions of locally negotiated labor contracts in those districts if, in the administration’s judgment, those provisions stand in the path of the constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education.  

In announcing his latest steps, Christie denounced the Abbott districts as “failure factories” and said he’d had his fill of sending additional billions of public dollars to them only to see them continually fall short of expectations.  He cited persistent low graduation rates and tests scores as evidence the experiment had failed.  

Arguing that dollars have not made an appreciable difference, Christie cited other factors to consider -- children in poverty, living in dysfunctional home environments, ill-fed, or facing language barriers.   Combined with his proposal to implement a new funding formula to allocate an identical amount of aid -- $6,599 per pupil -- to every district, Christie’s court challenge has woven a pattern for a reform agenda that will dominate the political and policy debate well into the 2017 election year.  

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), a probable candidate for the gubernatorial nomination, has already rejected Christie’s proposed formula changes and, as a labor leader seeking support from public-employee unions for his candidacy, it’s unlikely he’d accept handing a Cabinet officer unilateral power to breach negotiated contracts.  

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, who is seriously considering seeking the nomination, and former ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy, who announced his candidacy two months ago, have yet to weigh in on Christie’s legal maneuvers, but their views may be anticlimactic.  Both are sure to voice their opposition and belabor the governor as a union-busting skinflint with no qualms about turning his back on thousands of inner-city youngsters while offering an enormous windfall to their wealthier neighbors in suburbia.  

Christie has shown shrewd political instincts by cloaking his proposed “fairness formula” as the most significant and long overdue property-tax relief program in the state’s history.  It would, he said, result in property-tax reductions in 75 per cent of the state’s municipalities, some as high as $3,000 per year.  

Taken together, his court challenge and reworked aid formula, sends a message to overburdened property taxpayers that not only would he ease that burden but, by eliminating the disproportionate aid to Abbott districts and exerting control over labor settlements, would guarantee the financial relief was permanent.  

Christie understands his funding formula proposal won’t be considered by the Legislature and that a favorable outcome of the court challenge he’s mounted is problematic, but he has succeeded in pushing the relationship between the state and local school districts in all its aspects to the top of the policy debate priority list.  

He has yet again positioned himself as a dominant figure -- politically and governmentally -- capable of establishing the frame of reference for a political discussion in which candidates to succeed him will be forced to participate with some degree of specificity.  

As sponsor of legislation to establish a commission to study and develop recommendations to eliminate funding disparities in the school aid system, Sweeney can claim credit for staying ahead of the curve on the issue. It will be necessary for both Fulop and Murphy to move beyond merely criticizing Christie and offer ideas of their own.  

Sweeney’s resolution has won Senate approval but, in a troubling turn of events for him, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) has been decidedly cool to the commission idea.   

Speculation quickly arose that the Speaker’s reluctance to schedule a vote on Sweeney’s legislation is an effort to benefit Fulop by denying a victory to the Senate president and heading off the possibility of Sweeney gaining the upper hand in dealing with an issue as politically fraught as the school funding formula.   

Despite the denunciations and accusations that he’s written off the well-being of students in urban schools, Christie has emerged as leading the effort to remove from the hands of an unelected Supreme Court the power to establish and enforce education financing policy and restore it to its proper place in the legislative branch.  Why he waited until only 16 months remained in his term is unanswered.  

He’ll certainly not shrink from combat with the NJEA and he’ll likely continue to dip into his seemingly bottomless bag of insults to describe the association standing in the way of his reform agenda.   

It’s a scene New Jersey taxpayers have seen played out since January 2010.  As the campaign season unfolds, hope springs eternal that the curtain will at long last fall.

Carl Golden served as press secretary for Republican Gov. Thomas Kean for eight years and as communications director for Republican Gov. Christie Whitman for three years. He is currently a senior contributing analyst with the William J. Hughes Center for Public Policy at Stockton University.

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