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Op-Ed: Our Schools Survived Christie — How Do We Move Forward?

What's crucial is taking steps to fundamentally alter the way Trenton fulfills its obligations to our 1.4 million public school children

David. G. Sciarra
David. G. Sciarra

Former Gov. Chris Christie made no secret of his disdain for New Jersey's public schools. He set the tone in the 2010 state budget - his first - when he pushed through a $1 billion school-funding cut, wiping out two years of increases under the School Funding Reform Act (SRFA), the landmark weighted funding-formula enacted in 2008.

In his budgets over the next seven years, Christie refused to fund the SFRA formula, blowing a $1 billion annual hole in district budgets and forcing cuts to essential staff, programs, and services. But there's more: He staunchly resisted expanding preschool; pushed for vouchers; allowed the state school construction fund to run dry; approved big expansions by out-of-state charter chains with no regard for the impact on district budgets; opposed restoring local control to state-operated districts; and ignored the need to support improvements in struggling district schools. He even tried to replace the SFRA with flat per-pupil funding.

As Gov. Phil Murphy takes office, he inherits the Christie legacy of profound neglect and chronic under-investment, leaving him with the daunting task of moving our schools forward.

So where do we go from here? First, let's recognize Christie's false narrative of public school failure for what it is: fake news. We need a new vision for our work over the next four years, built on the recognition, as research confirms, that New Jersey's public schools are among highest performing in the nation, on par with top-performing countries in the world.

Second, let's rebuild and strengthen equity in our school system to drive improvement for all students, especially at-risk students, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities. To this end, Gov. Murphy's priorities should include:

  • School funding: Move toward full SFRA funding for every district, without cutting formula-adjustment aid from districts spending at or below their thorough and efficient level.

  • Preschool: Continue the expansion of Abbott preschool under the SFRA to high-need communities and at-risk 3- and 4-year olds across the state.

  • Vouchers: Keep our state voucher free and restrict 529 savings accounts for tuition in private K-12 schools.

  • School construction: Increase bond financing for a new urban capital plan and for priority projects in other districts, while streamlining the Schools Development Authority.

  • Charter schools: Reject opening or expanding charter schools where funding loss and student segregation threatens a thorough and efficient education for all students.

  • Department of Education: Transform the DOE to a high-capacity agency able to deliver timely data, support, research, and assistance to districts, schools, teachers, and parents.

These issues will not be resolved overnight. What's crucial is a sustained focus on these priorities, taking steps to fundamentally alter the way Trenton fulfills its obligations to our 1.4 million public school children.

In 1998, the landmark Abbott V ruling launched a decade of positive change in our schools, advancing the cause of education justice. In doing so, the Supreme Court observed that the lessons of the struggle to bring meaningful education opportunity to all children "render it essential that their interests remain prominent, paramount and fully protected." Let's take this wisdom to heart as we usher in a new era of progressive education reform.

David G. Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center

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