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Opinion: Chris Christie’s Surprisingly Solid Record in Public Education

It’s easy to mock the soon-to-be-ex governor; it’s harder to admit he’s leaving NJ’s public schools in better shape than he found them

laura waters
Laura Waters

A favorite hobby in New Jersey is throwing shade on Gov. Chris Christie. Some view with chagrin, others with schadenfreude, his freefall from fleecy, empathetic, bipartisan hero of Hurricane Sandy bro-hugging President Barack Obama to Bridgegate-stained President Donald Trump sycophant. Pillory aside (not to mention a 14 percent approval rating), it’s easy to forget that our governor will leave with a decent record of increasing equity within a profoundly inequitable state school system.

In fact, during Christie’s eight years in office he presided over an impressive list of progressive education reforms within this change-averse area: increasing school choice, tying teacher evaluations to student growth, strengthening tenure laws, and adopting high-quality standards and assessments. There were failures too (remaking our unsustainable school-funding formula tops that list), and the reforms themselves are fragile, vulnerable to reversals by future regressive administrations, and the tendency of bovine systems to revert to the mean.

As our scorned chief executive bumbles out of Trenton, let’s evaluate his educational legacy.

School choice

Christie’s most significant achievement was expanding public school options for poor families, primarily of color, who have been traditionally ghettoized in the state’s most dysfunctional school districts. When Christie came into office in 2010, New Jersey had 70 public charter schools; now we have 89. Doesn’t seem like much for eight years, but his administration’s Department of Education exercised appropriately rigorous accountability: If a charter isn’t meeting benchmarks it is shuttered, even if its performance is better than neighboring traditional schools. During the Christie administration, the DOE closed down 20 low-performing charters and approved expansion plans for high-performing ones. His administration also strategically skirted (mostly) the wrath of suburban local-control fanatics by targeting approvals for new charter applications in long-troubled systems where parents are desperate for other options.

When Christie came into office in 2010, 25,000 students were enrolled in these alternative public schools; that number will rise to 56,000 next fall. Not enough to satisfy demand, but the increase in seats offers more opportunities for parents who lack the resources to exercise our state’s most common form of school choice among middle-class and upper-class families, moving to a better district.

Teacher tenure and evaluation laws

The Legislature’s adoption of a new teacher tenure and evaluation law was a partial win for Christie. Shepherded through the State House by Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the bill added an additional year of effective instruction before earning tenure (from three years to four), shortened and economized the profligate process of removing tenure, and tied a small portion of evaluations to student growth measured by standardized tests. But the most important part of the bill — eliminating the indifference to teacher quality during layoffs and relying solely on seniority (also known as LIFO for “last in, first out”) — was struck at the last moment after intense pressure from NJEA lobbyists.

Thus, New Jersey remains one of 10 states that maintains this instructionally blind, student-unfriendly system that paralyzes the teaching profession and turns educators into widgets. True, we incorporate a smidgen of objective data into evaluations, but when more than 97 percent of teachers are rated “effective” or “highly effective, we’re still in la-la land.

Think I’m too harsh? From a statement released by the staid leadership of New Jersey School Boards Association regarding the failure of the bill to eliminate LIFO: “School leaders need to consider a teacher’s job performance when recommending who would retain a position.  They don’t have the authority to do that now, and they still won’t have it under the current version of [the new law]. NJSBA will continue to fight for elimination of ‘last in-first out.’”  

Higher-quality standards and assessments

Under Christie, the state Legislature adopted the Common Core, a set of course standards developed by educators around the country that emphasizes critical thinking over rote memorization. Our old annual standardized tests (required under federal law) called ASK and HSPA didn’t evaluate student mastery of the new standards and so three years ago we switched to new aligned tests called PARCC.

And here’s a harbinger of Christie’s loss of integrity when he abandoned New Jersey to seek national office, lost badly, and then clung like a dog on a bone to Trump’s signature disinterest in equity and accountability.

Christie in August 2013: "We are doing Common Core in New Jersey and we're going to continue. And this is one of those areas where I have agreed more with the president [Obama] than not."

Christie in May 2015: “It’s now been five years since Common Core was adopted and the truth is that it's simply not working …Instead of solving problems, it’s creating new ones.”

There’s that self-sabotage at work: Whether posing for photographs on a private beach down the shore while public beaches are closed due to a government shutdown or fetching Big Macs for Trump, he’s his own worst enemy. Christie’s pander to right-wing isolationist voters aside, Common Core (renamed “New Jersey Student Learning Standards”) works just fine.

So does PARCC, NJEA broadsides to the contrary. Higher-level standards are good for schoolchildren (ask any teacher) and so we need new assessments because our former easy-peasy basic skills tests allowed New Jersey to perpetuate the pretense that almost all our kids are academically on track, a pretense that Christie’s former Education Commissioner Chris Cerf tried hard to pierce. In fact, ASK and HSPA overstated student achievement by almost 50 percent, compared to the “gold standard” NAEP tests. Who wants to face the hard truth that less than half of New Jersey students are at grade level in reading and math?  Or that 70 percent of New Jersey high school graduates who enroll in two-year colleges and 30 percent who enroll in four-year colleges have to take no-credit remedial classes?

Facing that truth takes courage. Christie had that quality — stronger than the storm! — when he first won the governorship. Then he lost it because he abandoned the needs of schoolchildren in a futile quest to gain the approval of adults.

(A tip to Gov.-elect Phil Murphy: Face up to hard truths about deficits in our state school system, ignore the pleas and money of special-interest groups, and do what’s best for kids.)

Sure, mocking Chris Christie is easy. Transforming schools is hard. Despite the flounders of Christie’s second term, he leaves New Jersey public education in better shape than it was in 2010.  That’s worth a hug.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She was a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 12 years and served nine years as president.

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