Opinion: Could Christie’s Education Agenda Be Swept in on His Coattails?

Laura Waters | July 30, 2013 | Education, Opinion
If enough GOP candidates are carried along for the ride, it could put vouchers, seniority-based tenure, and even Abbott v. Burke within reach.

Laura Waters
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono appears to have acquired a reverse momentum in her long-shot campaign. With three months until the election, a combination of elements drag her down, including weak fundraising, lack of support from national and state party powerbrokers, and a charismatic opponent.

More than 37 Democratic officials have endorsed Christie. Milly Silva, the union vice president whom Buono just chose as her lieutenant governor, has a prospective political appeal that mirrors that of her running mate, further narrowing any plausible road to the governor’s office.

So let’s call it now: Christie will win in November. Until recently, however, conventional wisdom has confined this victory to the governor alone. He has no coattails, said the pundits; according to a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this summer, “Christie’s only good for Christie.” All 120 seats are up in the state Senate and the Assembly, but the Christie shoo-in will provide no lift to Republican candidates.

Times change. Buono’s campaign is underperforming, and the governor seems determined to run up the spread in order to make a hefty national impact. Patrick Murphy, a pollster at Monmouth University, has suggested that Christie’s self-serving decision to hold the special election for the late Frank Lautenberg’s U.S. Senate seat in October may depress Democratic turnout in November, which could benefit Republican contenders.

Last week on NJ Spotlight, Mark Magyar reconsidered the possibility of a power shift in the state Legislature, which now tilts Democratic by a margin of 24-16 in the Senate and a margin of 48-32 in the Assembly:

“[Christie] has not made winning control of the Legislature a political priority by targeting potentially vulnerable Democrats, many of whom were among the “Christie-crats” who backed his controversial pension and health benefit reform. But that doesn’t mean Christie won’t do so if he is still up by 30 points in October and believes control of the Senate or Assembly is in reach. And it doesn’t mean he’s incapable of sweeping in a Republican majority without really trying if his margin is big enough.”

So maybe Christie has some coattails, particularly in the Senate. (Turning over the Assembly is a far less likely prospect.) If so, what are the implications for his education reform bucket list?

Christie has been largely successful in ushering in many elements of his education agenda, which are bipartisan anyway. During his first term the Legislature passed pension and health benefits reform (Buono was a notable dissenter) and approved a tenure reform bill. New Jersey also secured a small pot of federal Race to the Top money and expanded public school choice through an increase in charter authorizations and a growing Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. Legislators are currently reviewing improvements to NJ’s charter school law.

But three educational items remain on the Governor’s to-do list, and those indeed have been stymied by Statehouse Democratic domination. Dear to Christie’s heart is the Opportunity Scholarship Act, or “the voucher bill,” which has died a thousand deaths. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (currently running a pulseless campaign for U.S. Senate) has sworn enmity to the bill and refuses to bring it to the floor for a vote. The NJEA, New Jersey’s primary teachers’ union, has mounted a “vigorous campaign” against the OSA.

Even Christie’s meek proposal of a one-year $2 million pilot program for 200 kids was killed by the Legislature this year.

A GOP majority in the Statehouse, however, would eagerly approve some version of OSA, perhaps the more temperate Assembly draft.

Last year Democrats and Republicans alike celebrated New Jersey’s successful passage of a tenure reform bill that raises the bar for job security and ties evaluations to student outcomes. The legislation, drafted by Democratic Senator Teresa Ruiz, originally eliminated the obsolete practice of retaining teachers based on years served, not classroom effectiveness. However, relentless NJEA pressure (and political reality) intervened, despite entreaties from New Jersey School Boards Association, reform advocates, and DOE officials.

New Jersey is one of eleven states in the country to cling to the obsolete practice of seniority-based layoffs. A new power structure in the Legislature, however, might provoke advocates to give it another whirl.

Finally, the most important item of unfinished educational business in Christieland is the revision of New Jersey’s school-funding formula, which is shaped by the long series of Abbott decisions handed down by the State Supreme Court. (Here’s a great history from the Education Law Center, as well as a summary in last week’s Explainer on NJ Spotlight.

New Jersey is one of 17 states with progressive school funding; in other words, more money is allotted to poorer students. The practice is ethically and educationally sound, but some wonder if the Court’s involvement has distorted actual need. Right now, 60 percent of all school state aid goes to our 31 poorest districts, leaving suburban districts largely on their own. Former Gov. Jon Corzine, for example, was desperate to achieve some funding latitude (and was partially successful through the State Supreme Court’s conditional acceptance of the School Funding Reform Act).

But any further changes in funding allocations depend on the consensus of the Court’s jurists, and the Senate must confirm the governor’s nominations. Currently two seats are open on the seven-seat panel because Christie didn’t reappoint the highly regarded Justice John Wallace Jr., and, in retaliation, the Senate has refused to confirm all other nominees, with the exception of Anne Patterson. (Christie-friendly Justice Helen Hoens is up for reappointment in the fall, and her confirmation is anyone’s guess.)

If the GOP gains dominance in the Senate, Christie’s nominations would likely pass muster. That newly comprised Supreme Court might agree to change our school funding formula, with enormous implications for all school districts, especially those that serve our poorest children.

So much depends on the warp and weft of Christie’s coattails.

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