Gov. Christie’s State of the State Puts Education Reform Front and Center

Charter schools, vouchers, and a public call for the end to tenure: Christie's push for change starts as early as next week

Credit: (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)
When Gov. Chris Christie announced his education reform agenda at a town hall meeting last September, it took him a few weeks to even appoint a task force, let alone take more concrete steps.

In the wake of his State of the State address yesterday, in which Christie called education reform one of his top priorities for 2011, there may be little time to even catch one’s breath before the action begins.

In the next week, the administration will start showing its hand, beginning with the announcement of what is expected to be a big round of new charter schools on Tuesday, as well as longer-term proposals for further expanding the scope and number of the innovative schools.

His new education commissioner, Chris Cerf, also starts next week, with the legislature expected to start its own review of the appointment soon after.

And key legislators whose committees are already considering proposals that go to the heart of Christie’s agenda — charter schools, teacher tenure, and private school vouchers — all said yesterday they were poised to renew their work, although some said not necessarily in ways that will be to the governor’s liking.

With that crowded docket ahead, NJ Spotlight looks at where some of the key education issues now stand with the administration and the legislature:

Charter Schools

Probably the furthest along of his central proposals, Christie’s plans to expand charter schools in New Jersey will get a sure boost in the coming weeks from both the administration and the legislature.

On Tuesday, the administration will announce the next round of charter approvals, said a spokesman yesterday. With 50 applications to choose from, Christie made clear in his State of the State address that a sizable number of new ones will be approved — certainly more than the half-dozen OK’d in Christie’s first year.

“We approved six new charter schools in New Jersey, a small first step,” Christie said, “but with many more to come — and soon.”

He added later: “I am ready to work with you, the members of the legislature, to attract the best charter school operators in America to New Jersey.”

And that is where the debate will begin. The administration is expected to make its own proposal that advocates say will include both more freedom for charters and more accountability in the way of “performance contracts.” These would establish specific conditions and goals that schools must meet if they are to keep their charters.

At least one bill that would expand the number of agencies empowered to authorize and monitor charter schools is already sparking heated debate in the legislature. While poised for approval by the Senate, it is likely to be greeted by competing bills in the Assembly.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairman of the Senate’s education committee, said she is taking one step at a time, pressing to get her authorizers bill completed first.

“I think it’s a great disservice when we try to pull all things of great discussion piled into one,” she said. “When we talk about an authorizer bill, it is about accountability. When we talk about expansion, there should be time for more discussion.”

On the Assembly side, one of the chief players in Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), who said she is awaiting final wording of her own authorizer bill, which includes performance contracts.

The controversial aspect of Jasey’s bill, however, would allow local school boards to act as authorizing agencies. This could create a potentially tense situation in districts that so far have been reluctant to embrace charters, let alone write them their annual funding checks.

“It is something that has been done in other states,” Jasey said. “We are looking at ways to include them.”

Opportunity Scholarship Act

None of this is close to the controversy that continues to be generated by the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill with sponsors from both sides of the aisle that is probably the nearest New Jersey has yet come to a private school voucher program.

And as he has done before, Christie yesterday again called for the legislature to enact the measure that would open up the way for students in low-performing schools to tap into a voucher of up to $9,000 to attend a school of their choice.

“Send help now to children in failing schools by passing the bipartisan Opportunity Scholarship Act, without any further delay,” he said.

Yet exactly what that bill will look like remains the subject of conjecture, after several months of jockeying among sponsors as to which districts should be included and what strings will be attached.

The latest version of the bill would have 12 pilot districts, including virtually all of the largest urban districts, said one of the key sponsors. And he was emboldened yesterday at the prospects.

“We have a governor who has put his full vote of support behind the Opportunity Scholarship Act and it has broad bipartisan support,” said state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr. (R-Union), one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

“We have found common ground on a pilot program that will seek to achieve the results and on which we can build success.”

Still, it has some high hurdles to pass, with Democrats saying there is a willingness to consider the measure, though little to approve it. One member of the Democratic leadership in the Assembly said his caucus saw only about a half-dozen votes of support for the proposal.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate budget committee, said his committee has agreed to hear the bill but not much more.

“It may get a hearing, but I don’t think it will get out of committee,” he said. “If we do hear it, it’s an exercise in futility.”

Teacher tenure

In maybe his boldest statement of the State of the State address — and one going further than he has before — was Christie’s call for the outright end of teacher tenure.

“The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now,” he said to prolonged applause, including from many Democrats.

But exactly what that means is more complicated, and the complexity of the challenge can already be seen on several fronts.

The administration has a task force in place that is developing a statewide system for evaluating teachers and principals, with an eye on changing how they are paid, promoted and protected under tenure.

Ruiz is also developing her own tenure reform bill. She was among those applauding the governor’s call to eliminate tenure, but said afterward that it’s a matter of how that’s defined.

“Is that eliminating tenure as it stands today? Eliminating the word? Changing it?” she asked. “There will always have to be due process, but what has happened over the course of time is that tenure has developed into something massively different than what purported at its inception.”

Instead, Ruiz said she plans to propose a system that would hold teachers and principals accountable over the course of their career, with tenure protections granted maybe later in one’s career and also contingent on educators continuing to perform at satisfactory levels.

“It will be a lifetime teacher bill, and will support and follow a good leader in the classroom to the end of their careers,” she said.

And unlike the voucher bill, there is clearly more support for tenure reforms in the Democratic leadership as well.

In what was a roundly critical press conference after Christie’s speech, both Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) yesterday saved their few – albeit faint — words of support for Christie’s tenure proposals.

“This is something we need to look at,” Sweeney said. “We’re not saying it’s dead on arrival. We are willing to talk about it.”

Oliver alluded to tenure reform proposals coming from the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) as a signal of a new opportunity to make improvements. (In another sign of maybe a peace at hand, the NJEA — the governor’s chief target in Year One — was only called out for criticism once in his State of the State yesterday.)

“I think the issue of tenure and retention of jobs is something that not only legislators are willing to sit down and look at, but the representatives of the educators are willing to have that discussion, too,” Oliver said. “I do not see that as some obstacle that cannot be overcome.”

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