It’s time to start another school year in New Jersey! Let’s take roll and see who’s here:
Students? Rested and ready. Teachers? Present, after a summer of planning and preparation.
Parents? Here. Administrators? Here. School boards? Here.
Gov. Chris Christie?
Is Chris Christie here? Has anyone seen Gov. Christie?
Uh-oh. Looks like Gov. Christie won’t be around for the 2015-16 school year. And that’s a big problem — because we have many big problems with New Jersey’s education system, and we need our governor here, ready to work on them.
But like a 17-year-old with a bad case of senioritis, Christie is living in his imaginary future, rather than concentrating on this state’s here and now. All of his policy decisions, including those related to education, are affected by his increasingly unlikely bid for the White House.
Why else would Christie, previously a stalwart defender of the Common Core State Standards, suddenly claim they weren’t working after only one year of formal implementation? Clearly, he is pandering to the national conservative base, which sees Common Core as an unwarranted federal intrusion.
Reasonable people can debate the merits of Common Core; personally, I have my doubts about its developmental appropriateness and overemphasis on language skills in its mathematics sequence. But Christie is in no way involved in a serious critique of the standards. Hamstrung by the ideologies of the primary voters he is courting, he has no choice but to bend to their will.
This need to indulge the far right is also why the governor continues to flout the law and underfund schools. According to the Education Law Center, New Jersey’s state aid to schools is, once again, far less than it should be under the School Funding Reform Act: this year, $1 billion dollars less. Over the past seven years, the accumulated underfunding comes to over $6 billion dollars.
Those who make the claim that New Jersey has “thrown money” at its schools — like Christie — should acknowledge that the state has not supplied schools with the money its own law says they need to provide an adequate education.
But solving this problem would require raising taxes. And any Republican presidential candidate who agrees to a tax hike has about as much chance of winning the party’s nomination as Hillary Clinton. Christie knows this, which is why he signed conservative icon Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge just last month.
So now New Jersey’s school budgets are being held hostage by right-wing politics — as is any chance of resolving the state’s ongoing pension problems. Christie’s own pension reform law, passed back in 2011, also continues to be underfunded, even as public employees pay more for their benefits but receive less.
This year, teachers, police, state workers, and many other public employees will take yet another hit to their paychecks as the fourth year of the “pen-ben” law kicks in. The share of their health insurance premiums they pay is larger than it’s ever been, as is their contribution to their pensions, which means smaller take-home pay for people doing jobs that even Christie acknowledges should be attracting the best candidates.
Yet the state continues to underpay what its own law says it should contribute to the pensions, digging an even deeper hole for taxpayers. Blaming public workers for problems they didn’t create, however, is the bread-and-butter of Republican primary politics.
Which is why even simple changes everyone should be able to agree to — like quarterly payments into the pensions — are off the table under the Christie administration. Better, apparently, to let the problem fester and then point the finger at teachers and cops.
One of the more intriguing ideas to address the problem comes from Senate President Steve Sweeney: working with the federal government to secure loans for the pensions. Granted, it’s a long shot; but it’s a no-shot without a governor who is willing to reach across the aisle and collaborate with President Barack Obama.
Working with a Democratic president, however, is a suicide pill for any Republican candidate. Christie has had to work hard to convince the GOP faithful he didn’t hug Obama on the Jersey shore after Sandy. What chance is there, then, that he would even attempt to find common ground with national Democrats on any issue while he continues his primary campaign — even if he could help his own state by doing so?
It’s bad enough that the governor is not around much these days to run the state (although some would argue that’s actually a good thing). But what’s worse, particularly for our schools, is that Christie has to bow to the most extreme elements of his own party just to be heard above the din of the crowded Republican field.
It’s past time for Chris Christie to choose: Is he going to lead the state and help New Jersey solve its education and other problems? Or is he going to continue his quixotic quest for the White House? He’d better choose soon if he cares about New Jersey’s students: they can’t afford to have a governor who only shows up to class when he feels like it.