Gov. Chris Christie clearly placed education at the top of his priorities from the day he was elected three years ago, making his very first stop a Newark charter school and promising a host of reforms to come.
Since that day, the governor has left a strong and often controversial stamp on school policies and practices. These include signing a new teacher tenure law, revamping school finance with new caps on property taxes and administrator pay, and infuriating unions by cutting back their pensions.
On Friday, he came back to Newark for what may be the capstone of his education agenda: the ratification of a Newark teachers contract that for the first time ties pay to teacher performance.
“By far, this is the most gratifying day of my governorship,” Christie told a crowd gathered at Speedway Elementary School in Newark, with both school officials and union leaders flanking him.
Notwithstanding the fact that a third of the members of the Newark Teachers Union voted against the contract, it was clear victory for the governor, who helped shepherd the deal between his appointed superintendent, Cami Anderson, and a union that has run at least one state-appointed superintendent out of the district.
Still, what may make the contract a culmination of his reform agenda may be the timing just as much as the victory itself.
The governor himself acknowledged that the next 12 months and the possibility — if not the likelihood — of him running for reelection and the attendant politicking will make at least some the remaining pieces in his platform difficult to nail down.
Elusive School Voucher Law
Arguably, the biggest piece of unfinished business is a school voucher law, currently in the form of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act. The long-evolving bill would provide low-income students in certain districts the chance at “scholarships” to attend outside schools, public or private.
Christie has on and off again called passage of the bill a top priority, and he reiterated on Friday that he would like to see it approved. But he was hardly raising expectations in a year where not just the governor will be up for election, but the entire Legislature.
‘I’d like to get it done, but I don’t know if it is possible going into an election year,” he said.
There may be some opportunities with other proposals, albeit long shots.
One that drew some attention on Friday was Christie’s ongoing hope to rewrite the state’s school-funding law, something he said could be a place for even some new financial incentives to districts to try the kind of performance bonuses that Newark agreed to.
“I would be willing to consider that,” he said.
But he quickly followed that it would need to be in an overhaul of the whole formula, a daunting task to pull off under the most cooperative of the relationships with the Legislature. Thus far, the Democrat-led one has shown no inclination to even tinker with the school funding law, let alone rewrite it.
The next test will likely be in the report due to the Legislature before the end of the year from state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf as to the adequacy of the current School Funding Reform Act. Cerf said Friday that he planned to meet the deadline.
Another hot-button topic that remains in the shadows is a rewrite of the state’s 15-year-old charter school law. That was one of Christie’s early priorities, right up there with school vouchers, but at the time he was looking more to allowing greater flexibility for the approval and operations of the alternative schools.
Christie has since softened his tone in the face of community pushback against new charters, especially in suburban districts. Even if a new law is approved and signed in the next year, it is unlikely to open the floodgate for new schools but instead only tighten their accountability.
United We Stand
Nevertheless, the very fact that he stood with union leaders on Friday was not lost on him or his counterparts. Among them was Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, which oversees the NTU. She said afterward that Christie proved a strong partner on this contract, at least. Weingarten was part of the final negotiations.
“My sense is that on this issue of how do you recruit, support and retain teachers and how do you focus on teaching and learning, all the issues that have been memorialized by the new tenure law and now this contract, we have found common ground,” she said of the governor.
“It doesn’t mean we will find common ground on other things,” she added, “but you can bet your bottom dollar that if there is real confidence in public schools, those other things will not be front and center.”
“The real issue is you have a Republican governor who said today that public schools are important and said that collective bargaining is important,” she said.
That’s not to say Christie has lost his combative streak when it comes to education or its unions. On Friday, he warned that other unions who resist such contract agreements could find themselves “dinosaurs.” He was clearly referring to the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s dominant union and unaffiliated with the AFT or NTU, which has opposed such performance bonuses.
“The change is coming, and you can either get on board or get under the train,” he said.
Reflecting back on his education record so far, Christie said getting most of what he has wanted has been satisfying. He noted that his agenda for schools has not been about one proposal or another, be it school choice or tenure reform or financial restraint.
“There are all different pieces to this process, and I’m satisfied we keep knocking one off after another,” he said. “We’re getting there.”