With eight months to go until the primaries, charter schools already have become an early issue in New Jersey’s 2017 election for governor.
The annual “NJ Spotlight on Cities” conference, held Friday at the NJ Performing Arts Center in Newark, brought together for the first time four men who have either declared their candidacies for governor or said they were seriously considering running.
In a wide-ranging discussion that touched on issues from neighborhood gentrification to the state’s economy to pension reform, charter schools were one of the more pointed topics as the four men staked their positions on where the alternative schools should stand in New Jersey’s cities.
At the center of attention was Phil Murphy, the former U.S. ambassador and Goldman Sachs executive, who has become a frontrunner for the Democratic nomination.
Murphy has become a sudden focal point in the charter school debate since he faced a vote on Saturday as a national board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on a resolution that called for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools nationwide. It comes a week after he won the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union that has called for a moratorium on charters in New Jersey.
When he was asked on Friday whether he would support, Murphy didn’t quite answer the question. “I can’t give you a yes or no, because this has been very distorted and it’s very complicated,” he said from the panel. ”I believe this moratorium is asking that we stop the public funding of charter schools, and I am opposed to that. It would wreck schools across this state, and across this country.”
But regardless of the resolution, when asked whether he would support a moratorium on new approvals in general, Murphy indicated that he might support at least a pause to improve on the process.
“I am a big critic of the governance and the way that charters have been established under Gov. Christie, I’m a big critic of that,” Murphy said. “The way it has been done is not the way I would support or the way I would do it.”
On Saturday, Murphy did not oppose the extensive package of resolutions adopted by the NAACP board, including the charter school measure. But he stressed afterward that he opposed the resolution as written, specifically a reduction of public funding for charters.
“As I have said publicly, the resolution as presented went too far from my own position,” Murphy said in a statement. “A 'time-out' to gather facts would have relevance to policy, but an immediate defunding of charter schools would put kids at risk.
"I am encouraged that the board agreed to the formation of a task force — a path I recommended and vigorously supported — to move us away from talk of 'us versus them' and bring together both sides of this contentious debate in a search for fact-based common ground and a path forward.”
The other potential candidates at the NJ Spotlight conference opinions some of which were quite different from Murphy’s.
Among them was state Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), best known for his role as the Assembly’s transportation committee chairman. He was clear that the state should at least take a pause in further adding charter school seats.
“Over the years, they have ceased to be laboratories of innovations as much as boutique schools,” he said. “So in terms of creating new charters, until we can get a handle on how the regulations have really gotten out of control, we shouldn’t really be creating any new ones until we are sure they are only being created to provide educational opportunities to parents and children who don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Less supportive of a timeout was state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset), the first Republican to declare his candidacy for governor. However, his opinion came with caveats, too.
“I have never been a fervent advocate of charter schools in school systems that are phenomenal already,” Ciattarelli said. “That makes no sense to me. You don’t make a school system better by taking money out of the school system.
“Having said that, if there is a system that by all reasonable measures is failing, and there are a number of reasonable measures … that family, that student deserves a choice,” he said. “I don’t see how anyone would disagree with that.”
Thomas Byrne, the former Democratic State Committee chairman and son of former Gov. Brendan Byrne, said he too would not support a moratorium.
“I don’t see charter schools as a panacea, but where they have worked, they have worked well for a lot of children in urban areas,” he said. “I am in basically in favor of what has worked best for kids, not what is best for other entrenched interests.
“You can study an issue without a moratorium,” Byrne continued.
NJ Spotlight will be providing further summaries of this and other panels from the conference in the coming days.