The State of the Governor’s Education Agenda

Christie was not short on ambition when it came to education, but how did he fare on his own promises?

On the last day of its session yesterday, New Jersey’s state legislature passed one pilot bill to open up a dozen “renaissance schools” and another to allow districts to move school elections to November.

It was an anticlimactic end to a year that Gov. Chris Christie said would bring sweeping changes to public education.

Still, pension and health benefit reform and a 2 percent cap on school taxes are no small accomplishments, and the governor helped drive the debate over issues like tenure reform, merit pay, charter schools, and school funding — all of which are yet to be resolved.

Today, the governor launches the second half of his term with his State of the State address and what are sure to be new calls for education reform.

NJ Spotlight uses this opportunity to take a look at the first half of his term — especially the past year — and his record so far at least fulfilling his own promises.

School Choice

For a governor who came in pushing charter schools and private school vouchers as a fix for failing school districts, it’s hardly a banner term so far. He has seen nearly 30 additional charters approved in the past year alone, but has also put the once-popular charter movement on the defensive in the face of severe pushback from local communities, especially in the suburbs.

The school vouchers plan, as outlined in the Opportunity Scholarship Act, also continues to languish, closer than ever but still sorely lacking a consensus, even among its supporters. 2012 could prove more fruitful for both proposals, but that’s what was said about 2011.

The Urban Hope Act to open up new privately run “renaissance schools” did pass yesterday, albeit watered-down from Christie’s first version. The new program for Camden, Newark, and Trenton will allow nonprofit and for-profit companies to build schools outside of district management, similar to charters but with more flexibility in financing. And inter-district public school choice was expanded in the past year, opening up a system for children to attend public schools outside their towns that in the end may have just as lasting impact in providing choice to families.

School Funding and Taxes

The property tax cap and the pension reforms have fulfilled most of Christie’s promises to change the culture of how schools spend money. Caps on superintendent pay added a zinger to the conversation, angering districts and forcing scores of retirements but certainly accomplishing his goal of stunting high administrative pay. But he suffered a clear setback with the state Supreme Court’s rebuff of his arguments in Abbott v. Burke for rewriting how poor schools are funded, forcing him to spend more than he wanted and leaving uncertain what he’ll do next in coming state budget.

Christie’s 2010 state aid cuts inflicted real pain and hardship on public schools, but his restoration of at least some of the money last year eased some of the sting. Christie and his administration promise still more changes to come in funding, including in the membership of the high court that has driven the issue. But rewriting a school funding law that much of the Democratic leadership supports is a long shot.

Teacher Quality and Tenure

This has been one of the governor’s biggest promises, but while making solid headway, it remains a work in progress. Christie was able to lay out a rough outline for a new system for teacher evaluation and launch a pilot program in 10 districts that has relatively strong buy-in, even from his old nemesis, the New Jersey Education Association. If other states having trouble with tenure reform are any indication, even Christie’s limited progress is notable. But the state is still a long way from Christie’s promises of ending tenure and seniority; creating merit pay for teachers; and cleaning up the teacher evaluation system to reflect whether students are learning. 2012 could be the watershed year for this, with the Democrats now leading the legislative effort, and chief sponsors remain confident. But it probably needs to happen soon, before the politics of the impending gubernatorial election put real progress on most issues in peril.

The Intangibles

With this governor, it’s a lot about the intangibles: the tone he sets, the ideas he proffers, the people he puts in place. In his first year, Christie’s battles with the NJEA were well chronicled, as was the saga of the Race to the Top application and the commissioner fired along the way. But over the past year Christie has started to tone things down — at least his broadsides fired against the NJEA are less frequent. His appointment of Chris Cerf as his second education commissioner has brought some outcry and argument, but by and large, Cerf appears to be gaining footing. The same can be said for his appointment of Cami Anderson as superintendent of the state-run Newark schools. But while Newark was to be his trophy for education reform, especially in the wake of the $100 million Facebook gift, the future of Newark schools under his watch remains an agenda item far from realized — like much of the rest of his education platform.

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