Schundler Grilled on Hot Topics in Education

John Mooney, Education writer | February 22, 2010
Proposed state education commissioner is quizzed about prayer in school and sex education

Bret Schundler’s first appearance before the Senate on today ran the gamut of the hot topics in education, from school vouchers to school takeovers to how Schundler’s Christian faith will influence his school policy.

Schundler was before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of his confirmation to be Gov. Christie’s state education commissioner. Most expect he’ll be confirmed easily after testimony concludes next week.

But Democrats have said they want to put him to test over his sometimes-controversial political stands in the last two decades, first as Jersey City mayor and then as two-time Republican candidate for governor.

The committee’s chairman led the way, and Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) immediately peppered Schundler with questions about how his outspoken Christian faith would influence his policy and regulatory positions.

Concerns Raised About Prayer in School

Scutari cited a recent high school graduation where Schundler led a prayer, and asked him if he supported prayer in schools when the courts have largely found it off-limits.

Or how about sex education, Scutari asked. How would Schundler’s faith reconcile with policies that conflict with his beliefs, including safe-sex instruction?

Sitting alone at a long table before the committee, Schundler coolly took each question, and said he would follow the law and not impose his own religious views on what’s now on the books.

Schundler said his faith remains the driving force in his public service, much like that of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But he said he does see the importance of a line between church and state, and would not act contrary to the legislature and state board of education.

“I don’t think my job to particularly endorse curriculums,” he said to one line of questioning. “It’s really not my job to dictate to districts what types of approach they take.”

Schundler said at another point: “I don’t think this position is about the commissioner using it to advance his preferences.”

At times, it was a rhetorical dance. Scutari cited the extensive powers that a commissioner holds in setting policy and ruling on legal disputes. “You will have powers that maybe you don’t even know,” Scutari said.

But Schundler tried to diffuse any suspicions he has a personal agenda, saying ultimately he would follow the governor’s and Legislature’s call.

The testimony was ultimately cut short due to a scheduling conflict. The hearing was slotted to resume at the committee’s next meeting on March 1.

A Strong Advocate for School Choices and Vouchers

Before the break, considerable time was also given to Schundler’s well-known support for school choice and vouchers, causes he first pushed in the 1990s as Jersey City mayor.

Christie has voiced strong support for vouchers, and while a statewide voucher proposal isn’t now on the table in New Jersey, a bill is pending that would create a voucher-like scholarship system in a dozen districts.

At the hearing, Schundler balked from outright endorsing the bill, but he pointed out a similar plan was put forward in his unsuccessful campaign for governor in 2001.

“I do believe that choice is a human right for parents, to direct the education of their children… and the constitutional rights should be for all Americans to exercise, not just those with money,” he said.

In maybe the most important issue facing schools in the coming year, Schundler gave some hints to the Christie administration’s thinking for the upcoming state budget. Christie already cut $475 million in local school surpluses for the current year, and has told districts to prepare for further cuts in state aid for the next budget.

But Schundler said any cuts would not likely be across the board, and may instead be weighted off the existing school funding formula that was enacted under former Gov. John Corzine.

If a district was to gain under the formula, that would help offset any potential cuts, he said. “We hope to get as close as possible to flat, stable funding, and if we were able to do that, some would go down in aid and some would go up,” he said.

Schundler was less supportive of the state monitoring system set up under Corzine and his education commissioner, Lucille Davy. Schools are reviewed under hundreds of indicators, resulting in scores that dictate how much the state intervenes.

“We’re doing something with all the right intentions, but just the sheer volume of regulations and the degree they are so picayune in their requirements, in my opinion they become counter-productive,” he said.

“When it’s all said and done, there will be more paper than we ever have the ability to actually read.”