The List: Top 10 Education Highlights of Christie’s First Term

The governor has left his mark on almost every aspect of New Jersey's public school system, from charters and salary caps to testing and tenure

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Since being elected in 2009, Gov. Chris Christie has made education one of his keystone issues, and in his first term, there’s no doubt there has been a plethora of changes for New Jersey’s public schools.

Not everyone has agreed with his agenda, but few would disagree that changes have come on all fronts, from tenure reform to charter school expansion, from school funding to caps on spending.

As Christie is about to embark on his second term, not to mention a possible run for the White House, it’s a good time to look at what actually happened in K-12 education over the past four years.

By its very nature, this Top 10 list of education highlights involves a number of judgment calls — not least in the order of the list itself. Entries are roughly in order of significance, which shouldn’t obscure the fact that each is significant in and of itself.

1. Pension and health benefits reform, wage freezes, and the NJEA

Christie’s landmark changes in how pensions and health benefits are paid and the sometimes-nasty tensions it fueled with the state’s most powerful union and its members has left an indelible mark on his first term both in building his tough-guy image and in angering his critics. His demand for wage freezes or the rejection of school budgets in his first year only turned up the heat.

Relations with the NJEA are a little better since the early going, but Christie is still prone to blast away at an occasional teacher who gets in his face, and the NJEA has hardly been shy in making its sentiments known, including record spending in the last election.

2. School funding’s downs and ups

Christie has left an equally indelible mark on how schools are funded. Faced with a $1 billion hole after federal stimulus funds were spent by his predecessor, the governor cut that much from school aid in 2010. He has since built it back up and boasts the highest total school aid in New Jersey history, but three-quarters of districts are getting less from the state than they did before Christie took office. And the state’s school finance law remains underfunded by billions.

3. 2 percent cap and November vote

Working with the Legislature, Christie imposed a 2 percent cap on local property tax increases, give or take some exceptions. That has held down tax bills, but also prevented many districts from restoring programs and making up what they lost in state aid in 2010.

Meanwhile, the annual rite of school budget votes has all but vanished in districts, as long as the districts stay within the caps. Budgets no longer need public approval at all, while the annual elections of school board members has been moved to November in more than 500 districts.

4. Tenure reform and teacher evaluation

Maybe the biggest education reform of Christie’s first term, although he can hardly take full credit for it, the governor in 2011 signed the first major change in New Jersey’s century-old tenure law, bringing new accountability to how teachers are judged and their fates determined.

It was as much a Democratic initiative, led by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), and Christie didn’t get everything he wanted in compromises to win NJEA support. But it still wouldn’t have happened without Christie’s backing. And it rewrote the equation for teachers’ job security and how they are evaluated. Still, 18 months later, it remains very much a work in progress, with the new evaluation systems only now in place and many questions as to how well they will work.

5. Newark, Camden, and new aggressiveness in state takeovers

Almost 30 years ago, New Jersey was the first state in the country to take over troubled school districts, and it has been trying feverishly since then to figure out how to relinquish that control. But Christie has only stepped up the state’s oversight in his first term, installing an aggressive reformer in Cami Anderson to be superintendent in Newark and taking over a fourth district in Camden last year.

Both districts are deep in changes, including Newark’s performance-based teachers contract and its continued use of $100 million in funds donated by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a deal in part brokered by Christie. But Newark also faces deep divisions and unrest over Anderson’s plans.

6. Abbott rulings and the Supreme Court

New Jersey’s reputation for having one of the most activist courts when it comes to school funding was reaffirmed in Christie’s first year, when the state Supreme Court ordered that $500 million be restored from his cuts to the state’s 31 neediest districts.

That only emboldened the governor into more open hostility with the court’s liberal wing, and spurred his attempts to remake it with new appointments. At least so far, he has been blocked by the Democratic legislature.

7. Schundler, then Cerf

Perhaps Christie’s biggest day-to-day impact is in his choice of state education commissioner, and that decision hasn’t been without drama. His first commissioner was former Jersey City mayor and gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler, but that ended badly when the state screwed up its application for federal Race to the Top funds and Schundler was summarily fired.

His replacement, Chris Cerf, has been even more aggressive — and controversial — in pressing for reforms and remaking the state Department of Education, and he has overseen the boldest of the changes in his nearly three years in office.

8. Testing and data

While it began before him, among the initiatives that Cerf has helped lead has been the advent of more sophisticated — and polarizing — data systems for tracking students, schools, and soon, teachers. There will only be an increase in data as the state moves to more-frequent testing under the new Common Core PARCC exams in Cerf’s second term.

9. Charter school expansion

Christie came in as a crusader for more charter schools, and his first year saw unprecedented growth in that sector. But while the alternative schools have continued to expand, with more than 80 now in place statewide, there has also been new and unprecedented pushback from suburban and, more recently, urban districts. Nonetheless, charter schools increase the options available to students, especially in places like Newark, which is on track to see a third of its students in charters by 2016.

10. Superintendent pay

It only directly affects a small handful of individuals, but it has been argued that Christie’s unilateral caps on school superintendent pay (the upper limit is $175,000 — the governor’s own salary) have made it difficult to attract experienced, talented supers to the state. The rules have been legally challenged in vain, but face a possible expiration in 2016 if not renewed.

Honorable mention:

  • The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights: Not a Christie initiative and signed quietly, if not reluctantly, by the governor.
  • Common Core and PARCC: Adopted by the state board of Education in Christie’s first summer, but part of a movement well underway before his arrival. Nevertheless, he and Cerf have embraced the changes.
  • The Schools Development Authority: This may be a story of what hasn’t happened, since Christie all but stalled the school construction program while he revamped the agency.
  • School vouchers: Another nonevent, since the governor’s push for the Opportunity Scholarship Act has so far been unsuccessful — despite seemingly endless debate.
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