Spotlight Q&A: Gov. Jim Florio

The former governor talks about school vouchers, his own educational history, and the difference between spending and investing when it comes to public education

Former Gov. Jim Florio
Former Gov. Jim Florio has long been outspoken about his opposition to school vouchers in New Jersey.

This spring, he is making his opinions known again through columns and commentary, at a time when the ever-evolving Opportunity Scholarship Act continues to gain political momentum.

NJ Spotlight spoke with Florio yesterday, delving into his opposition to OSA but also asking questions about education reform in general and how he would fix today’s ailing schools.

Question: Why are you speaking out on vouchers, and why now?

Answer: This isn’t an issue that I have come to lightly or lately: the thought that the whole voucher system is a real threat to public education. It is a legitimate philosophic approach, just not one I agree with. It seems to be gaining in ascendancy, part of a whole move against the public education system, with charter schools, online schools, and for-profit schools.

Q: What about the timing now at the end of the budget session, when OSA by all accounts looks to be on the back burner until at least fall? Do you think it could pass sooner than later?

A: Everyone knows this is a crazy period in the budget deliberations, where a lot of strange things can happen, similar to the lame duck session of the Legislature, where things can come out of nowhere. But also, with the budgetary difficulties we have in New Jersey, this would be the least appropriate time for us to be raiding our treasury.

These proposals that are pending will have the program funded by businesses writing off contributions to these “scholarships,” which are really vouchers. Any economist would tell you that a tax credit is the equivalent to the loss of tax revenues. The estimates have been between $700 million and $1.4 billion, and it is both fiscally imprudent and educationally irresponsible at this time to finance something that, in my mind, is a threat to the whole system of quality public education.

Q: But what about these students in schools that are clearly low performing? You are more than familiar with the Camden school system, probably the lowest performing of all.

A: First of all, when you have a bad situation, you don’t make it worse. We’re taking away the money and then taking away the more motivated students, and it just compounds the problem. We know what has to be done: pre-school programs, smaller class sizes, quality teachers, modern facilities, and the financing necessary to provide a quality education. We need to do these things.

Public education is really an investment. It’s not spending, it’s an investment that pays dividends. What you don’t do is just write off a whole group of students as not qualified for that. It’s a matter of priorities and we know what needs to be done. We just haven’t had the will to go out and do it.

As you know, I was a high school drop out, went on to get my GED and then my degree from Trenton State Teachers College. I know from my own knowledge that education is opportunity. And one of the things that is under assault in this country right now is the opportunity for upward mobility. We are turning into a bifurcated society. The voucher program is one more step in writing off a whole cluster of people from receiving the opportunity of a quality public education. What this program would do is take out the most motivated students and do nothing to fix these failing schools. The 80 percent or 90 percent left behind are being written off — collateral damage.

Q: What else needs to be done for these schools? What do you think of the current education reforms being debated, led by the push to overhaul teacher tenure rules?

A: I agree with reforms. Clearly the whole system as it now exists is inefficient. It’s something I’ve said in the past. I agree with merit pay — but if it is done on a school-wide basis. I don’t want teachers competing against each other but collaborating with each other.

Education is a collaborative effort where everyone works together. The principal is especially important, the most important person in the school. But nobody is willing to do all that hard work and pull it all together. Instead, we go along with the short, easy answer, the one-shot ideas of charter schools, vouchers, online schools, privatization. I am troubled about the prospect of the for-profit sector coming in and taking over. A few years back, we had the Edison Schools coming into Philadelphia and it turned out to be a disaster.

Q: Your administration was behind the takeover of Paterson district schools in 1991, one of three districts where the state has taken control. Would you do that again?

A: In so many of these cases in those years, there were not a whole lot of alternatives. At that point in the Abbott v. Burke litigation, we didn’t have the knowledge we have now. The Supreme Court said very candidly that we don’t know what constitutes thorough and efficient education, but we do know that the amount of money makes a difference. And we saw that the affluent schools were doing well, therefore, Abbott schools should have the same amount.

Things have changed. We now have the documented evidence of what preschool can provide toward a quality education, we know that having adequate buildings is required. Would we/I do the same again now? Maybe not, but the State can still play a vital role in providing the resources and the support needed to provide for a quality education.

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