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2018 and Counting: Drawing a Bead on Gov.-Elect Murphy’s Education Policies

In some ways, Murphy campaigned as ‘not Christie,’ but now it’s time to start delivering on his education promises and programs

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Gov.-elect Murphy at teachers convention in Atlantic City with one of his many supporters

Over the course of his eight years in office, Gov. Chris Christie grew to be pretty predictable on the issue of public education ¬— trying to revamp school funding, promoting charter schools and school choice, and whenever he could, fighting with the teachers unions.

At the start of his State House stay, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy is not as easy to read in terms of what lies ahead for New Jersey schools — at least not yet.

Sure, Murphy campaigned against most, if not all, of Christie’s education policies — and rhetoric — about funding, testing, and unions. But that was the campaign, and Murphy has said little since about his specific plans. And without a new commissioner named as yet, he’s offering few clues.

As we step into 2018, here are a few questions — and an occasional prediction — about what to expect.

Can Murphy keep his promises on school funding — whatever they are?

As a candidate, Murphy repeatedly made full funding of the state’s school finance formula a top priority. But he never much explained what that would mean and how he would do so.

The current formula could take another $1 billion to $2 billion to match, depending on how it’s counted, and few expect that is anywhere near doable in the near term. But could there be a phase-in to new spending, or even a rethinking of the formula itself that would adjust those amounts? Dare we say, even another task force?

Aside from annual state aid, the state’s school construction program is also out of money, itself a multibillion dollar price tag.

There will be winners and losers, and the implications regarding what happens next in funding are far reaching. For example, for districts seeing a loss in state funding, does that bring changes to the 2 percent local tax-levy cap imposed on schools? The new federal tax code has added a significant wrinkle as well, with its own added pressures on local and state taxes.

What will Murphy’s relationship be with the Legislature vis-a-vis the NJEA?

There is no question that Murphy is close to the New Jersey Education Association, and that is expected to manifest itself in both financial and moral support of public education and its employees.

But the same cannot be said for the NJEA’s relationship with some of the top Democrats in the Legislature, led by state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

The union seems to be in a blood feud with the Gloucester County Democrat over his pension positions. And the feeling is mutual after Sweeney had to fight off the union’s millions in campaign spending against his re-election. The fight grew so acrimonious that 16 other leading Democrats signed a letter urging the union to back off, an almost-unprecedented public display against the powerful NJEA.

On the Assembly side, there are some unknowns, too. The biggest is who will be the next chair of the Assembly’s education committee, replacing former Assemblywoman Marlene Caride, who Murphy named his banking commissioner.

How this all plays out is a big question for not just public education, of course, but it will certainly have special bearing on issues like school funding — a Sweeney favorite — and others that the untested Murphy will need legislative support to make happen.

PARCC or no PARCC?

Murphy has also been unequivocal that the state’s current administration of PARCC student testing has to end, even immediately. And there is no question that something will happen, with the state’s contract with PARCC up for renewal after the 2017-2018 school year.

But it’s not that easy to just say no more PARCC, as statewide assessments are written deep into law and regulations — not to mention school culture — and the question is what would replace the current evaluations.

The whole online testing issue bears more than a passing resemblance to the proverbial shutting the barn door after the horse is out. That said, could there be a hybrid version like that in Massachusetts that would save some of the components while losing the PARCC name?

And short of that, there are less drastic steps Murphy could take to lessen the burden of testing, no matter what it is called. It’s almost certain that we’ll see a reduction in the weight of test scores on teacher evaluations, a longtime anathema to the NJEA that the administration could address without legislative approval. There will also likely be moves to reduce the requirement that students pass the tests to graduate, at least in their current form.

Charter schools: moratorium or pause?

If Christie can claim any legacy when it comes to public education, the expansion of charter schools is high on the list. And as an ally of the teachers union, Murphy has pledged to at least slow that growth going forward, calling for a “pause” in new approvals but stopping short of supporting a “moratorium” as proposed by some Democrats.

If the distinction sounds muddy, the stakes remains high for both school districts facing the escalating pressure on their enrollments and charter schools themselves. Might there be an outright halt to new approvals, or just a slowed pace? New charters in suburban districts grew scarce under Christie, but Murphy might make them harder to open in struggling districts as well.

The fact of the matter is the biggest charter networks in the state — the ones dominating Newark and Camden — already have the necessary approvals to keep growing. But clearly, the pro-charter environment of the past eight years is over, but how that shakes out — like so many other issues right now — is yet to be determined.

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