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Back-to-School Special: Policy, Politics, and the Upcoming Elections

Education always plays a big part in New Jersey politics, but this year it’s going to be an even more critical factor thanks to the gubernatorial race

back to school

The line between education policy and education politics is often a blurry one in New Jersey, and that is never truer than at the start of a new school year.

The summer behind us, public education will likely be playing a big role in the 2017 gubernatorial and legislative elections, with both the issues and the key players front and center in the various campaigns.

There will be other issues in play, too, including what happens next with Newark’s expected return to local control and the fate of the state’s controversial PARCC testing.

But whoever takes the State House come November will shape these issues, as will Gov. Chris Christie’s all-but-certain imprinting of his final legacy.

In the spirit of how politics can drive policy, here are a few of the key outstanding issues as we enter a new school year:

How big a part will education — and the NJEA —play in November’s election?

Education is always a big issue in statewide elections. After all, it’s a third of the state’s budget, and it affects every community and arguably every home. But this year a number of education issues are at the forefront of each of the major candidate’s campaigns.

Democratic candidate Phil Murphy’s stump speech starts with a promise of full funding of the state’s school finance law, a $1-2 billion price tag, depending how you count it. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the Republican nominee, has called for a new property-tax system that could place considerably more weight on the state, but also seeks to reduce school spending and the burden on local taxpayers.

Meanwhile, Murphy has been against student testing, while Guadagno is less so. The lieutenant governor has been a big advocate for expanded charter schools, while Murphy has hedged on the topic and called for a pause in approving new ones.

A big player will be the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union that was one of the very first to endorse Murphy and brings considerable political muscle and money to his campaign.

Murphy has rarely strayed from the union’s positions on school policy, and he said last spring that the NJEA would have an even stronger voice on his state education commissioner, maybe his most consequential Cabinet decision.

A wildcard is the NJEA’s open combat with state Senate President Steve Sweeney, also a Democrat but one who has bucked the union on pension and health-benefit reforms. The NJEA is backing Sweeney’s opponent Fran Grenier — a Trump-supporting Republican from Salem County — and spending generously on his behalf.

But at least so far, Murphy is remaining supportive of Sweeney, maybe a key player in moving his agenda when and if elected. Perhaps another question is in order: will Murphy have to pick sides between the NJEA and Sweeney?

Is Newark finally getting back local control — and what will it mean?

The State Board of Education is expected this fall — maybe even this week — to start the process of moving Newark schools back to local control after more than 20 years of state operation.

As has long been expected, State Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington said last month she will recommend the transition, citing ongoing progress in the district on a number of key fronts such as instruction, finances, and governance.

But what will local control look like and what does it mean for Newark students and their families?

The process is a slow and deliberate one, with a number of steps required in the coming months. The most significant one will be the state giving up its powers to appoint the district’s next superintendent, which will be the first one it hasn’t hand-picked since 1994.

The current superintendent, Chris Cerf, will see his contract expire in June, and is all but certain not to be rehired. But guessing who the newly empowered board will pick to replace him will be a tough bet, especially with Mayor Ras Baraka sure to take a prominent role in the decision.

And even a change in leadership does little to vanquish the challenges faced in New Jersey’s largest school district, from the time-worn ones of combatting poverty to newer pressures from the ever-expanding charter-school sector.

Will PARCC survive?

It has been one of Murphy’s definitive pledges: no more PARCC if he is elected. But what exactly does that mean?

Murphy’s position is not a surprising one, given the controversies engendered by the online testing and the rancor it has caused among education groups and within local communities.

The test’s launch in 2013 sparked off one of the broadest opt-out movements in the country, and the debate has only been heightened by the Christie administration’s continued reliance on PARCC in evaluating teachers and ultimately determining whether a child can graduate high school.

The opt-out movement has died down, but there remain plenty of questions as the state faces the end of its four-year contract with PARCC consortium after this school year.

If Murphy holds to his promise, will he replace it with yet another test? What about existing state (and federal) law that all but requires some statewide testing, including for graduation?

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