Debate Report Card: Final Question Addresses Issue of School Vouchers

John Mooney | October 9, 2013 | Education, Politics
Christie calls them necessary antidote to ‘failure factories,’ while Buono says desperately needed funds are being diverted

Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Millie Silva being interviewed (left) and state Sen. Bonnie Watson-Coleman (right).
Through nearly two dozen questions, there was no mention of public schools during last night’s debate between Gov. Chris Christie and state Sen. Barbara Buono.

But in the penultimate question, the candidates were asked about Christie’s support for school vouchers through the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act and Buono’s opposition to that legislation. And the ensuing exchange ended up summarizing nicely their positions on a couple of education issues.

Here’s the full transcript of that exchange, along with a scorecard ranking who won or who lost – at least on this topic.

Question from Alfred Doblin, editorial page editor, The Record: “If New Jersey were to allow parents to obtain vouchers to attend any public or private schools, would this undermine our system of public education or would it force needed improvements in under-performing districts?”

Buono answer: “It would certainly undermine it. I am a proud graduate of public schools, and this governor’s overreliance on vouchers and his support of vouchers reflects his belief that public schools aren’t worth fixing. He couldn’t be more wrong. I believe you build up our public schools by funding them according to the School Funding Reform Act and close the achievement gap by investing in preschool. We know that’s what works, and it’s not some glorified babysitting.”

Christie answer: “It is very clear to me. We have 200 failing schools in New Jersey, and there is only one candidate on this stage who said that is not a bad percentage, and that was Sen. Buono. We need to change what is going on in failing schools, and I’m an advocate for vouchers in failing school systems to create competition and most importantly to give those parents and those children a choice to walk out of those failure factories and reach their full God-given potential. The interest of children should be put before the interests of adults.”

Buono scorecard: Buono is tapping into a public wariness of school vouchers and, even more, its continued support of the public schools. How far that gets her is arguable, though, as vouchers are gaining support even among Democrats. The last Monmouth University Poll on the topic this summer found that 45 percent of registered Democrats in New Jersey supported the concept of providing financial help to low-income students to leave the worst districts. But education is still a big issue for voters, and both a strength and weakness for Christie. And while he does better with public sentiment on issues of tenure reform and school accountability, vouchers remains a polarizing topic. With her answers last night kept to 30 seconds, Buono also quickly – but vaguely — referred to Christie’s under-funding of the state’s school funding act, even as he has slowly increased aid to a new high following the drastic cuts of three years ago. And she also very quickly got in a reference to Christie’s comment in his 2009 campaign about preschool as “glorified babysitting,” but those unaware of his earlier remark would have easily missed the connection.

Christie scorecard: Christie has indeed championed a school voucher program for the state that would focus on the lowest performing districts and serve low-income students. Unable to win passage of a more expansive plan that would include up to 30 districts, his latest proposal was for a $2 million appropriation to run a pilot out of one or two districts. That didn’t pass, either. But Christie has said it remains a priority, and he’s now saying it might be something that can pass in the lame duck legislative session after the election. And Buono did indeed say what he contends, about 200 failing schools being a small percentage of the 2,500 schools statewide, even if he’s taking it a little out of context. According to her campaign, her full comment related to what she called his scapegoating of all schools for the failures of a fraction of them. Nevertheless, he has rarely backed off his argument that there are many low-performing schools as determined through state testing – lately calling them “failure factories – and he’s not about to hedge now.

The verdict: The governor continues to tout his education record in New Jersey as one of his prime accomplishments, and he didn’t lose any of his talking points last night. Education is not a bad issue for Buono to emphasize, given Christie’s reform agenda and his battle with teachers unions. But 30 seconds is not a lot of time, and she didn’t draw enough of a clear distinction on the issue beyond her opposition to vouchers.