Education Issues Will Help Shape Christie’s Second Term — and Political Future

John Mooney | January 6, 2014 | Education
Running in GOP primaries might push governor further to the right on school reforms

Credit: Amanda Brown
Gov. Chris Christie
After four years of political drama involving school reform and education policy in New Jersey, could Gov. Chris Christie’s second term be even more eventful?

Three major speeches by the governor over the next two months are sure to highlight education.

In the meantime, many observers are already speculating about Christie’s unfinished education-related business as he begins his next term – and possibly embarks on a run for a certain higher office.

“Education is always an important political issue, because it involves two things everyone cares about: kids and money,” said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University.

“Even in a second term after a first term that saw some significant accomplishments, Chris Christie will still prioritize it,” Dworkin predicted. ”There are still schools that don’t do well, still issues in fully funding the state’s school funding law, and challenges around charter schools and vouchers.

“And, in addition, because he will be running for president, the country will be paying close attention to his education agenda,” Dworkin said.

Even before looking at any new initiatives, there is much involving Christie’s agenda for the last four years that should keep education team, led by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf, busy during the new term.

In one of the governor’s bigger accomplishments, the state’s new tenure-reform law has been enacted and the new teacher-evaluation systems have been ordered for schools, but even Christie has said proper implementation will be critical.

“They will have to go through all the hiccups and bumps of the new testing and aligning curriculum, and then applying that to teachers,” said Ginger Gold, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union. “Before he moves onto new ground, his administration will have a lot to do.”

That’s not to say Christie won’t try to generate some new headlines, too, or at least dust off some proposals that were less successful in his first term.

For instance, school vouchers — either under the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act or as a budget line-item — remain one of his unaccomplished priorities.

And a central tenet of Christie’s education platform has been to dismantle the Abbott v. Burke rulings and the school-funding formula, another feat he has yet to pull off in the face of Democratic opposition. But this week, he reportedly withdrew one of his latest nominees for the state Supreme Court, Robert Hanna, raising prospects that he is seeking a compromise to win approval of others initiatives.

Legal Challenges Possible

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation, is on alert to head him off, and its director, David Sciarra, said this weekend that he stands ready to challenge the administration on other fronts as well.

“The high level of (funding) equity that New Jersey had built over the last four years is eroding,” Sciarra said. “We are still a fair state that funds more for concentrations of poverty, but we are losing ground and it is starting to take its toll.”

Sciarra cited lower-income districts that do not fall under the Abbott rulings and have seen a widening gap between state aid received and what they are entitled to under the funding formula.

Also pertaining to the Abbott rulings, the ELC has been especially critical of the administration’s slow progress on court-ordered school construction.

“We have seen $200 million in overhead costs and not one new school started and finished under this administration,” Sciarra said.

As to whether he might return to court on any of these issues, Sciarra wouldn’t say for sure.

“If there is another four years where we don’t have relief, we very well may see additional or new legal action under the Supreme Court’s precedent,” he said.

These are just some of the key education-related topics on the horizon in the months and years ahead.

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School funding for non-Abbott districts is a perennially critical issue, too, as a vast majority of those districts are still catching up from the loss of state aid four years ago.

“So much will be determined by how much money there is,” said Michael Vrancik, lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

He and others said the next state budget – education aid makes up one-third of it – could face stiff pressures, especially with commitments to make required state pension contributions. Add in Christie’s continued push for an income-tax cut, and that doesn’t leave much cushion in the budget for schools, Vrancik said.

“Funding is going to be really stressed, given the realities of the pension payback,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban school group. “There is a serious pressure cap on that.”

Unresolved Issues, Initiatives

Strickland said she hopes school districts will at least get some help in addressing rising special-education costs. “We are ever hopeful and optimistic, but we are also realistic,” she said.

Leading Democratic legislators have also said one of their priorities will be to enact a new, revamped charter-school law to replace one that is now nearly two decades old.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chairwoman who shepherded the new tenure law, has said she will have legislation ready in the coming months, but given the vitriol around charter schools the last four years, the debate is unlikely to be quick and easy.

New student testing next year and the advent of the Common Core State Standards already under way will surely put even more pressure on the state’s schools. The outcome off those two initiatives is unpredictable at this point, but other states’ rocky transitions offer a cautionary tale for New Jersey.

And then there’s the nowhere-near-resolved debate over reforms in the state’s takeover districts, most notably in Newark and Camden.

Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has just unveiled a new organization plan for the state’s largest school system that has brought loud cries of protest, especially over her plans to close or relocate a half-dozen schools.

Camden has its own new state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, who is about to present his own strategic plan. It includes the continued expansion of so-called “Renaissance Schools,” a hybrid version of charter schools enacted by Christie two years ago.

How all these issues play out in the context of a presidential election – or initially, for Christie, in Republican primaries – are a key component in predicting what the governor might do, as well as how long he might stay in office.

“Everything is colored by what he might do,” Vrancik said.

Among Republicans, especially those voting in primaries, tough-minded school reform is good politics, Vrancik and others said. Christie’s frequent combat with the NJEA is even better politics, and while his relations with the union have improved of late, Dworkin said he doesn’t expect much of a détente if the governor commits to a presidential run.

“Taking on the public unions, including the teachers unions, will certainly play well with Republicans in a competitive primary,” he said. “Why would he run from it? He gets more votes in doing that, than in currying favor with them.”