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Christie, Trump, and Public Education in New Jersey

The governor may go, the president-elect is something of a cipher, but it’s still possible to rough out a few likely changes to education policy

christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

With education largely getting short shrift from both campaigns, public schools in New Jersey and elsewhere have been left scratching their heads about what comes next with the election of Donald Trump as president.

By his speeches, Trump is largely pro-school choice, anti-federal regulation, and certainly no fan of unions. But that’s about as much as anyone knows concerning his education stands.

It gets even more murky in New Jersey, given the travails of Gov. Chris Christie and questions about whether he will leave early to serve in Trump’s administration.

Here’s a few of the most prominent questions and what President-Elect Trump’s victory means for public education in the state:

For all the talk of Christie leaving, what if he doesn’t?

One day mentioned on the shortlist of high-profile Trump appointments and the next day subject to rumors of a falling out, Christie’s fate may have as much of an impact on education in New Jersey as any issue.

Christie has long said school reform is one of his lasting legacies, but still has some unfinished business, and whether he stays for his last year will certainly determine how much that business progresses.

School finance is front and center, with Christie publicly pressing his “Fairness Formula” for leveling state aid to districts — no matter the need. The plan could lead to wild swings in how much local districts receive from the state, and is now before the New Jersey Supreme Court.

But even before the court decides, Christie has a state budget to present in several months. Could he take matters into his own hands and include his new school-funding formula in the upcoming proposal? It would surely be challenged in court and elsewhere, but the move would dominate the debate for months.

But it’s more than just school finance. The administration is trying to get new charter regulations through the State Board of Education, and their passage is by no means a certainty. New graduation requirements are on the way, as is continued testing under PARCC — all started under Christie. And there are his caps on spending, including superintendent pay.

None are likely to change much in the next year, whether Christie stays or goes, but the governor’s influence will certainly be important if he’s around to push his causes.

What does Trump portend for New Jersey schools?

David Hespe, New Jersey’s recently departed state education commissioner, said the one common theme with Trump and education is nobody is quite sure what he will do.

“We’re all guessing at this point, as he really didn’t put out much of a specific platform,” Hespe said in an interview this weekend.

One likelihood is that Trump will promote greater school choice, including additional federal aid for charter schools, and parental choice programs such as school vouchers or tax credits.

The latter are yesterday’s news for New Jersey. By most accounts the issue has been largely settled by the Democratic Legislature’s repeated refusal to advance Christie’s latest proposal for a pilot voucher program. But with the help of federal dollars or other incentives, they could be revived.

At the same time, Trump has talked about dismantling or at least vastly scaling back the federal Department of Education, a conservative cause dating to former President Ronald Reagan.

But Hespe points out that every function fulfilled by the department is connected to constituency to be served, including for Congress.

“Just getting rid of a department is very difficult to do,” Hespe said. “Every piece [of the agency] is a function that somebody has to do.”

Nonetheless, Hespe guessed that there will be less federal oversight on states and local schools, including about assessments and teacher evaluation. Both are already being scaled back under new federal law — the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) — and Hespe guesses the next administration will go further still.

“Even though the law has been passed, I think he’ll take a run on limiting the authority even further,” he said.

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