Spotlight Interview: Former Gov. Thomas Kean Talks Education

Former Gov. Thomas Kean Sr. has never really left the education conversation in New Jersey – he just maybe stepped back a little.

Since leaving office more than two decades ago, the man who enacted the state’s first salary minimum for teachers and created the Education Opportunity Fund for college students has obviously kept himself busy in other fields like health and homeland security.

But Kean, at age 77, is stepping back into the fray a little, with the announcement yesterday that he will co-chair a new school-reform organization focused on research, policy and advocacy.

JerseyCAN, an offshoot of the national 50CAN network, has launched under the leadership of Janellen Duffy, former education advisor to Gov. Jon Corzine and more recently the policy chief for the Charter School Fund of Newark.

The group is independent and nonpartisan, but it doesn’t hide its leanings toward the current school-reform movement’s focus on accountability and assessment, which is seeing its day in New Jersey under Gov. Chris Christie and his education commissioner.

NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney spoke with Kean yesterday about what attracted him to the new group, and to hear his take on the current state of education in New Jersey.

Question: How were you drawn to JerseyCAN?

Answer: They approached me quite a while ago, and we met down at (fellow JerseyCAN board member and philanthropist) Ray Chambers’ office. At that point it was more conceptual, and they said they’d get back to me. Ray then approached me again and said he thought it was an important organization. I liked what they said and asked ‘What way can I help out?’ They said you can help out by being co-chair. (Laugh.) That is the way life sometimes works.

Q: What did you like about it?

A: I think it will fit in well to what we need to do in New Jersey. It’s independent, bipartisan, both of which I like, and it has no particular agenda, no ax to grind. It’s taking a realistic look at where we are now, and not exaggerating the problems but saying that New Jersey schools, particularly in poor areas, are not doing the job that’s required given the society we live in.

It’s a national problem, not a New Jersey problem, but certainly in New Jersey, we are spending more money than anywhere else and not getting the results. And so, we need find time to find your way through policy dilemmas and find what works and replicate it, particularly to help students who come from difficult backgrounds. Particularly as it involves young men, we are not creating opportunity for them.

Q: What do we need to do? This is not new problem.

A: The research has shown a number of things can make a difference. One that the president is supporting and I do, too, is early childhood education. But you can’t do that without doing the research further and finding out what happens in middle school, where in many cases you lose all the advantages that you had by doing early childhood education. You have to do some research and look at that.

This is a research and policy organization, not an implementation organization. What you then do is take the basic research that you can find and see if you can get the people on the policy area to listen. In the 1980s, and I don’t mean to blow my own horn, but two presidents of the United States mentioned us in the State of the Union as the leader in education reform. That hasn’t happened since. We have slipped a bit. We should be on the cutting edge in New Jersey, we should be the leader.

Q: This is a highly-charged debate. Are you saying we are spending too much money in these districts now?

A: We are spending too much without results, without question. To justify spending that kind of money and have test scores where they are is inexcusable.

Q: The New Jersey Supreme Court has heard this debate in the Abbott v. Burke litigation. Are they wrong?

A: The court has been more of a problem than a solution, until recently. The last court decision is really the first one that said we would take into account the science of education reform and what we have learned. Before that, it was all about money and that didn’t work. We are still spending more on those kids than anywhere else in the country, and there’s no excuse for not doing better.

We need to be very open to what works and not look at what some special interest likes or not. If it works and helps kids with special needs and those born in poverty, we ought to be looking at it hard. With the money we have, we should be able to do it. It’s inexcusable to say the status quo is good.

Q: Do you like the direction that Gov. Christie and Commissioner Cerf are taking?

A: I generally support what Chris Cerf is doing because, again, I think he is following the research. He learned a lot of this when working with Mayor Bloomberg in New York, and they were on the cutting edge for a while, anyway.

Q: There has been some criticism that it is bringing in more private interests and privatization of public schools.

A: I have never been for private school vouchers. I have always felt public money should be in public schools, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have good charter schools, which are public schools, or that you shouldn’t have good public school choice.

It doesn’t mean that money doesn’t matter, but it needs to be targeted money and targeted reform. More money into a failing system is just a more expensive failing system. I used to call it educational child abuse, and I think Chris Cerf and the governor are open to what needs to be done.

Q: But Christie is pressing ahead with private school voucher program, at least through a proposed pilot. Your son, state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., is behind it, too.

A: I think pilots are fine. I have never been for private school vouchers, but I think small experiments to see if something works, it is hard to be against that. I am very pragmatic on education these days. It‘s not ideology; it’s what works, what’s going to help the African-American or Hispanic kids in the middle of Newark or Paterson or Camden and feels trapped in a system that doesn’t work.

Q: What about those saying this is an issue of poverty, and we need to get to the root causes?

A: To me, that’s an excuse. I have headed the national committee against teen pregnancy for years — one of the causes, and yes, we have to get at that. We do have to work at the various causes, no question about that, but to say that people are poor and therefore they can’t learn, that’s an excuse I’ve never accepted.

Q: Christie has taken heat from the New Jersey Education Association. What do you say to teachers out there who are a little worried by his policies?

A: First, to stay with the status quo is unacceptable, and I have said that to teachers. But secondly, the solution to this is teachers and a teaching corps that is energized and excited and professional and cares so much about their job and every day is proud of what they do. Any program that doesn’t create that kind of teacher is not going to work. It’s a parallel track. You have to support the teacher, because the teacher is at the heart of the system, and if you are going to implement anything, it has to be with the help and support of the teachers.

Q: But this is a tough time for teachers, and this governor has been tough on them.

A: You have to separate two things, and the governor has tried to do this. There is the teachers union, which like any union feels they have to appeal on behalf of their members, and then there is a whole group of, say, teachers of the year who are members of the union but maybe not active. You need to learn from them, too.

Q: Do you think unions get in the way of reforms?

A: Sometimes they do. They are really to protect the salaries and benefits of their members. That’s what they are there for, and that is what NJEA has done and done very well. They are not always looking to some of the innovations that may not have anything to do with that and that help kids. I think they need to be more open — and they have been more open lately.

Q: Do you think the governor needs to be more open to them?

A: I think everybody needs to be more open.

Q: Will you speak out more on these issues with the new role?

A: This is very beginning and don’t know yet what we will be talking about. Once we know what policies we’ll be advocating, that will take a year to be in place, but once that is in place, I would be inclined to speak out more.

And hopefully that will be developed with input from the unions. They are key players here. It can be contentious, I know, but the fact that none of us will care about elective office or be in government in this administration, I think that will be a help.

Q: It has just gotten so polarizing lately. Can you bridge those divides?

A: I know that, I have been part of that world for a long time. As should be true in the world of legislation and politics, everybody needs to look at everyone else and realize nobody has bad motives here. We’re going to try to do our very best in the interest of the state’s children, but so are a number of other people. In that process, we may disagree, but we need to disagree respectfully and recognize we can learn from each other. That’s what has been missing, and I hope this is the kind of group that can help that.

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