Christie or Buono: Will the Real ‘Education Governor’ Please Stand Up?

John Mooney | October 28, 2013 | Education, Elections 2013
Governor and challenger are fiercely committed to education, without agreeing on any of a myriad of details

christie and buono
This is the sixth in a series of articles exploring the critical policy challenges that the next governor and Legislature will face, as well as their positions on these issues.

In a long line of politicians who claim the moniker, Chris Christie and Barbara Buono have two very different visions as to what it means to be the “education governor.”

Christie is a darling of the so-called school reform movement and its free-market ideals. State Senator Buono, his Democratic challenger, is a darling of the New Jersey Education Association.

The Republican governor has been tight-fisted with school spending and aid. Conversely, Buono is one of the authors of the state’s generous school finance law that she has pledged to fully fund.

The difference in style, along with substance, was clear in one of biggest education stories of the year: the Camden school takeover. After Christie proudly announced his administration was seizing control of the long-troubled district, Buono talked more about making sure there was community input and an exit strategy.

In all, with the stakes high and changes already underway in public education, the governor’s race has brought a clear choice between two distinct approaches as to how to improve and support the schools.

NJ Spotlight tries to boil down a few of the key education challenges facing New Jersey and where Christie and Buono stand.

School Funding: Follow the Money

When it comes to school finance, Christie has left his imprint like few others.

In the first year, with the economy imploding and New jersey’s share of the federal stimulus spent by former Gov. Jon Corzine, Christie cut more than $1 billion in aid to districts. It was the biggest cut in the country, and sent districts reeling.

He has since brought the total in direct state aid back to just short of $8 billion in 2013-2014, which he readily reminds voters in his campaign ads is the most in state history. Yet the fact remains that by the state’s own numbers, more than 80 percent of districts are still getting smaller checks from Trenton than they did 2009-2010.

If that wasn’t enough, Christie with the Legislature’s support imposed tough 2 percent tax caps on districts, limiting their ability to make up the lost money elsewhere.

And there hasn’t been much sympathy. After all, this is the governor who in the middle of cuts three years ago urged voters to reject school budgets if teachers wouldn’t take salary freezes. Voters in more than half of districts did.

Christie continues to be unapologetic in his tough-medicine approach to school finance, and there is little indication it will change if he is reelected. He has said the state needs to rein in its spending on education, especially in urban districts where the results have been spotty at best.

Urban spending has been a personal crusade for the governor. He has sought to remake the state Supreme Court that for over three decades has repeatedly backed increased funding for the poorest districts as part of the Abbott v. Burke rulings.

If he stays in office, it is almost certain Christie will not give up that fight, especially since the court has continued to draw his ire with its rulings against him on affordable housing and gay marriage.

Buono comes from a different place. She has responded with a strong pledge to boost funding to schools to their full amounts entitled under the state School Funding Reform Act, a law that she was the prime sponsor of in the Senate. She has said that Christie has only beat down schools, not supported them.

Yet with few expecting the state to be flush with cash in the immediate future — maybe just the opposite — how Buono would do so is less certain.

She has said she would tap the so-called millionaire’s tax that Christie has staunchly opposed, but even if enacted it would fall far short of the $1 billion or more it would take to fully fund the formula.

In one of her televised debates with Christie, Buono said it could take as much as a decade to catch up with the formula, hardly a reassurance to districts when so much else can happen in that time.

Still, Buono appears the more likely to protect school aid when the tough budget choices inevitably come, and she has been an especially outspoken backer of the Supreme Court’s independence, including through the Abbott rulings.

School Reform: the New Normal

New Jersey schools are in the throes of some pretty big changes in the classroom, some forced on them by the federal government, others by the state, and some coming from the districts themselves.

And change is the just the way Christie likes it.

From his 2009 campaign onward, the governor has been the embodiment of the school reform movement that has rolled through schools across much of the country.

He has pressed for teacher tenure reform, more rigorous standards for students to be “college and career ready,” the growth of charter schools, and forceful interventions in low-performing schools.

And by and large, he has met many of his goals.

The biggest victory was probably his work with the Democrat-controlled Legislature in enacting a new tenure law that puts in place a clear structure for evaluating, supporting, and, if necessary, dismissing teachers.

New high school graduation requirements are also on the way, and he has embraced the national Common Core State Standards and the online testing they will bring to New Jersey starting in the next school year.

Charter schools have been a bumpier ride. Christie visited a Newark charter in his first outing after his election, and proudly announced a record amount of new approvals in his first year.

But after suburban schools and their supporters pushed back in their communities, the Christie administration’s far-smaller roster of recent charter approvals has largely been isolated to the cities and established charter networks.

And drawing some criticism from inside his own reform circles, Christie’s administration has even held at bay the advent of virtual charter schools — at least so far.

Christie has one missing piece in his reform agenda. The Legislature has repeatedly beat back attempts to pass the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, the school voucher measure. Christie has said it is not dead yet, but how hard he will fight the battle is in question.

Buono, in contrast, could hardly be considered a reformer, and her strong backing of the NJEA seals the distinction. In her campaign and in television ads bought by the NJEA’s Super PAC, she is seen decrying the “corporate takeover” of schools that critics contend has come with reform.

The NJEA is not against every plank of the reform platform, and it was a key player in the final tenure law, but it has found itself more in battle with Christie over his plans than in concert with them.

Buono follows that line. While she voted for the new tenure law, for instance, she has echoed the union’s and others’ concerns that the new evaluation systems that came with the law are moving too far, too fast. She is especially critical of the reliance on student performance measures like test scores, the prime complaint of the NJEA.

On the issue of charter schools, Buono said she is not opposed to them entirely, but claims they are not being held accountable to the public and local interests. And she has been unequivocal in her opposition to school vouchers in any form.

For the Democratic challenger, school improvement is more in the programs that can be added to the current framework. For instance, she has pledged to expand preschool and kindergarten, another big-ticket item but a favorite of education groups who see the long-term benefits.

School Construction: Slow Pace Under Debate

Launched more than a decade ago as an edict of the Abbott rulings, New Jersey’s school construction program for its neediest cities was once touted as among the nation’s most ambitious. After a few years, it was called one of the most wasteful and corrupt.

And then, when Christie took office and promised to clean it up, the program virtually stopped, at least for a while.

This year saw the Schools Development Authority pick up speed, but as a slimmed-down operation, to say the least. Before Christie, more than 50 projects were cleared to proceed. Since Christie, fewer than half have actually gotten underway, and only a fraction of those are seeing shovels in the ground. The repairs of existing schools haven’t moved much quicker, with a list of hundreds of emergent projects slowly being whittled away.

With such a slow pace, the SDA has been an easy target for Christie’s critics, including Buono. Exhibit A has been Trenton Central High School, just a few miles from the Statehouse, where leaking ceilings and crumbling masonry greet students each day.

In one of her visits to a school in the campaign, Buono traveled to Trenton Central to criticize the governor and pledge that school construction would begin in earnest if she were elected.

Urban Education: How and When Does the State Intervene?

Ultimately, much of the state’s education policy is geared toward a handful of districts where the troubles are the greatest, usually in New Jersey’s poorest cities and towns.

And by and large, New Jersey has been a national leader in a number of efforts, from the aforementioned Abbott decrees to the takeover of four school districts that the state has claimed hit rock bottom.

Christie and his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, have hardly let up in that aggressive approach on the state’s toughest schools.

In Newark, the governor helped broker the high-profile donation of $100 million from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. He was an active partner in the choice of Cami Anderson to be the new school superintendent, and he personally signed off on her contract with the Newark Teachers Union, including the state’s first large-scale performance bonuses.

The Camden takeover is another case in point, with Christie clearing the way for it this spring and appointing a young superintendent this summer.

The issue has not given Buono much opportunity to respond. With few arguing the Camden schools don’t badly need help, for example, she has been left more to talk about how the process has unfolded, as opposed to whether it was warranted in the first place.

Buono has particularly seized on the ongoing tensions in Newark, where Anderson — and in turn Christie — face loud criticism over the newest initiatives from some education advocates in the city.

She has said that the administration has not followed its own rules for how to end the takeovers and return the districts to local control. But whether she would have taken a different approach is unclear; many prior Democratic administrations have also grappled with how to get out of the state takeovers without letting previous problems resurface.