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Education 2017: You Can’t Tell the Players Without a Scorecard

Can Christie continue to dominate? Will the chief justice shape the state’s top court’s ruling on Abbott? Who’s likely to head up the NJEA …

Rabner, DeVos, Harrington, Blistan
Chief Justice Stuart Rabner; Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education; state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington; NJEA Vice President Marie Blistan

A new governor to be elected, an old governor looking to cement his legacy, and, oh yeah, there’s that guy moving into the White House later this month. Two days in, and 2017 is already shaking out to be an eventful one for New Jersey.

That’s nowhere truer than in education: The Garden State is already facing a host of challenges about funding, charter schools, and teacher quality — to name just a few.

But NJ Spotlight is looking beyond just the issues, to some of the people and personalities that will likely help shape New Jersey’s public schools and the policies and laws that guide them.

Here’s just a few to keep an eye on:

Betsy DeVos, nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education

Any discussion of 2017 starts with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, a landmark transition for the country and for each of the states as well.

The president-elect is already shaking things up for schools with his unorthodox choice to head up the federal Department of Education, philanthropist Betsy DeVos.

Best known for her advocacy — and private funding — of charter schools and private school choice in Michigan, DeVos has virtually no direct experience of the schools themselves.

What she will bring to education nationwide is unknown; the first clues will come with her confirmation hearings in the coming month. Safe to say she will at least present some bold ideas, including carrying through on Trump’s pledge of a $20 billion program to bestow grants to states for charters and private school vouchers.

Beyond that, the details are sketchy. In New Jersey, where the charter movement is strong and established, will such grants make a big difference?

Further, a new law about assessment and accountability and the feds’ role in both — along with roughly $1 billion in annual funding — will doubtless influence state policy.

Gov. Chris Christie and state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington

The governor isn’t much of a shrinking violet, so it’s hard to imagine him being less than his usual unbridled self when it comes to education in 2017.

Christie has always made public education a centerpiece of his administration, whether it’s hammering out teacher-tenure reform, pushing for more online testing and less Common Core, and expanding charters. And 2017 is unlikely to be an exception.

School funding could play an especially prominent role; after a year of promoting his plan to revamp the system, the governor could make a last dash for the daylight.

His School Fairness Formula would essentially level state aid to schools at $6,600 per pupil, no matter the district. It would mean a boon for some communities, and Draconian cuts for others, especially poorer ones.

The plan has no prospect for legislative approval in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Assembly, but there is widespread speculation that Christie could force their hand by including it in his annual state budget this spring.

Such a move would cause considerable tumult and surely be challenged, if not overturned, but Christie will have once again dominated the conversation.

And much will rest with Harrington, his education commissioner, to carry through the proposal for the department. Serving out Christie’s lame-duck term, Harrington faces a formidable task in holding the line on her boss’s agenda while also trying to craft her own — on a tight timeframe.

Harrington is the first former public educator to hold the position in a decade, and she is especially active on issues like teacher and student standards. But will she get a chance to exert her influence on those issues, while trying to calm the political waters stirred up by Christie?

NJ Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Associate Judge Jaynee LaVecchia

Whatever Christie decides about funding, there is little doubt that the state’s highest court will have a say one way or the other. If so, both Chief Justice Rabner and Associate Judge LaVecchia will surely play prominent roles.

Christie has already petitioned the court to clear the way for his funding proposal as part of its 40-year-old Abbott v. Burke deliberations, which have yet to be heard.

Rabner is an intriguing personality. He has long recused himself from the case but could now step back in. His recusal comes from his role as state attorney general under former Gov. Jon Corzine in arguing for the current funding system, but that was a decade ago — a legal lifetime.

If he rejoins the case, it’s a likely vote for upholding the current system. If he doesn’t, it adds to the question of what the court will decide next. And that’s where LaVecchia steps in.

She wrote the last opinion in favor of the state’s current funding system, and while there are four new members on the court, her stature of setting legal precedence is sure to be a big influence on the court’s ultimate decision.

Vice President Marie Blistan and chief lobbyist Ginger Gold Schnitzer, New Jersey Education Association

Just as the state and the country will see a changing of the guard this year, so will an organization that wields significant power in the Garden State: the New Jersey Education Association.

Arguably the state’s most powerful union, the NJEA will elect a new president, and if the organization’s history of succession follows, it will be the current vice president, Marie Blistan.

A former high school special-education teacher, Blistan will bring her own style to the position that is sure to coalesce around funding, charters and, of course, pensions and health benefits. Outgoing president Wendell Steinhauer has hardly been quiet, but Blistan has appeared even more outspoken and has the union‘s megaphone to transmit the message.

Meanwhile, more behind the scenes has been chief lobbyist Ginger Gold Schnitzer, who heads the union’s government relations office and one of its campaign committees. Gold Schnitzer has been in the position for more than a decade, and is well regarded in the halls of power in Trenton. Her say is not to be overlooked.

Phil Murphy, Democratic candidate for governor

Murphy, the presumptive Democratic nominee and immediate frontrunner for governor, is the final question mark for 2017 — at least for now.

A former U.S. ambassador to Germany, Murphy has been vague so far on his school positions. He has straddled the fence on charter schools, for instance, while saying he’s against certain state testing but is unclear on what he would replace them with.

A favorite of the NJEA and open advocate for the union, he has nonetheless not laid out his own proposals for backing the union’s position.

But that is sure to change in 2017, when his self-funded campaign of the past year gives way to closer public scrutiny of his positions as the actual nominee. Whether that brings out specific plans or more hyperbole is yet to be seen, but the governor’s race is sure to see education as a prime issue and set up the same discussion when it comes to 2018.

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