For Christie, 2012 Is the Year to Act on Education Reform — Again

Teacher tenure gaining traction among lawmakers as debates on education continue to swirl

There was no declaration that it would be the year of education reform this time at Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address, and certainly no star educator of national prominence in the audience.

Christie continued to keep education a priority, but it was not with the same fanfare of a year ago when he trumpeted an aggressive reform package before the legislature and enjoyed the front-row audience of Michelle Rhee, the famous former Washington, D.C., chancellor.

But even while the reform message didn’t carry the same oomph it once did, that is not to say education won’t get a lot of attention in the year ahead, just maybe in different ways and hanging on different issues.

On the reform front, much of Christie’s platform centering on teacher tenure and charter schools is already underway and being carried by others, including prominent Democrats.

Of the six proposals he made yesterday, many mirroring those from last year, at least four of them have Democratic sponsors in the legislature.

The most notable one is tenure reform, a proposal to more closely tie teacher evaluation with student achievement that is being led by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

Her bill is different from Christie’s in the severity of its sanctions, but it still would remake how tenure is granted and taken away. And gaining support from both sides of the aisle over the last several months, Ruiz said yesterday she will move quickly on the measure in the Senate Education committee that she chairs, filing a new bill last week that she said had some modest changes from the previous bill.

“Pronto,” she said. “I want to have discussion with leadership to ensure we have a bill that is quality and is effective, and then we’ll move.”

Maybe more significant, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) promised there would be action on the bill sooner than later.

“We are going to do tenure reform this year. I am committed to getting it done, very much so and hopefully before the budget break,” he said in an interview.

“In my mind, tenure will take longer to obtain, it will be harder to obtain, and it will be easier to lose,” Sweeney said. “It’s going to be pretty simple.”

But while tenure reform has gained traction in Democratic circles and even the New Jersey Education Association has shown some support, albeit with its own package, not all of Christie’s proposals have taken off as he once hoped.

While he proposed it again yesterday, Christie’s push to end seniority as the determinant of when and whether a teacher is laid off appears no further along than a year ago.

“We’re not going to do that,” Sweeney said, echoing the comments of other leadership as well. “I have said it over and over again. He can call for that all he wants, it’s a non-starter.”

And while a year ago, Christie spoke of merit pay for teachers who excel, he instead said yesterday that bonuses should be for those in hard-to-fill positions, without mentioning merit pay.

“Pay teachers more when they are assigned to a failing school or to teach a difficult subject,” he said. “Compensation should be designed to attract and retain effective teachers where we need them most.”

The light also has dimmed on Christie’s charter school push of last year, with his administration on the defensive against a barrage of criticism from suburban districts that are fighting back against the experimental schools.

Hearing the backlash, Christie yesterday didn’t say suburbs should be spared entirely, but he repeated previous comments by pledging “to focus on our failing school districts … We must give parents and children in failing schools an alternative.”

The comments may not be just rhetoric, either, since the administration is about to announce a new round of charter approvals. That raised some concerns in other quarters, with the head of the state’s charter school association saying he hoped the schools would be approved in all kinds of districts if they can prove to “enhance local learning opportunities.”

“For those in New Jersey consumed with the suburban vs. urban charter school debate, their focus is misguided,” said Carlos Perez, the association executive director.

But when it comes to education debates, the biggest one this year may concern money, not a new topic for Christie and one he only ratcheted up yesterday.

Christie has never hid his antipathy toward the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke decisions that have led to hundreds of millions of additional dollars to urban schools districts, including last year when the court ordered an additional $477 million on top of Christie’s budget. Yesterday, Christie again called Abbott v. Burke a “failure.”

“It is time to admit that the Supreme Court’s grand experiment with New Jersey children is a failure,” he said. “Sixty-three percent of state aid over the years has gone to the Abbott districts and the schools are still predominantly failing.

“What we’ve been doing isn’t working for children in failing districts, it is unfair to the other 557 school districts and to our state’s taxpayers, who spend more per pupil than almost any state in America,” he said. “Basic human decency and simple common sense say it is time for a different and better approach.”

He didn’t detail what that approach will be, but his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, continues to work on a report that will lay out how the current funding formula can be adjusted, if not rewritten.

Democrats hopped on Christie’s promise of 10 percent cut in income tax – or roughly $1 billion in state revenues – as inevitably draining money from public schools, and probably urban ones.

“Where is that money going to come from, that is the key,” said state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the new Assembly majority leader. “Will it be coming from urban school districts? Suburban school districts?”

Sweeney said the insinuation was clear. “We can’t put any more money in education, that’s what he said,” the senator said. “That means he’s taking it out.”

But that’s for Christie’s next appearance before the legislature, when he presents his state budget in late February. And maybe 2012 will be the year of education after all, something that Christie himself conceded has taken a little longer than planned.

“Over the course of the last year, since outlining my proposals from this podium, I have worked with this legislature – on a bipartisan basis – to put in front of you a package of bills that will address the biggest challenges facing public education in New Jersey,” he said yesterday.

“We have had a year to debate, discuss and deliberate. Now, in 2012, it is time to act.”