Candidate Christie’s Signing of School-Testing Bills Continues Shift in Views

After his earlier endorsement of Common Core, support of new legislation reflects further move to GOP’s right

As he campaigns for the GOP presidential nomination, Gov. Chris Christie has lately kept people guessing about his views on education issues.

Yesterday, he added to the unpredictability as he signed two bills pertaining to state testing that he once would have been unlikely to endorse.

One bill bars any commercially developed standardized testing in grades kindergarten to second grade, a restriction pressed by testing critics.

The second bill was similarly a win for the New Jersey’s opt-out movement, barring the state from exacting any financial penalties on public schools with high numbers of students refusing to participate in state testing.

How much will actually change is uncertain, as both bills are notable more for their political messages than actual consequences. Depending on how you define it, there is little, if any, standardized testing in the earliest grades, anyway. As for opt-outs, funding penalties against schools were never seen as likely, either.

But the bills – each winning overwhelming bipartisan support — nonetheless fly against the administration’s earlier push for expanded and more sophisticated testing in schools, led by the new online PARCC exams that are now seeing their first results released.

Christie’s actions yesterday raised eyebrows among those who have spent years in the midst of the battle over the issue.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly’s education committee and a prime sponsor of the two bills, said Christie’s reversal of his position on the Common Core State Standards last summer made him a bit unpredictable when it comes to education policy.

“His positions have become somewhat muddled with the whole Common Core thing, so I wasn’t entirely shocked,” Diegnan said last night. “But I would say I was still pleasantly surprised.”

“This is a truly important issue for a lot of folks, and he recognized that,” Diegnan said.

One of the staunchest critics from the right also called it a welcome victory, saying that Christie was coming around to the conservative cause against both the Common Core and the related PARCC testing.

“With the Governor’s signing of these two bills, we are coming closer and closer to the end zone and ultimate defeat of Common Core/PARCC in New Jersey,” said Carolee Adams, of the Eagle Forum of New Jersey.

On top of presidential politics, Adams said the decision also stems from state politics that is turning against the testing movement, and she cited the Republicans’ loss of four seats in the Assembly last week as a warning sign.

And in what has been an unlikely alliance from the left, the New Jersey Education Association also praised the signings.

“Students, parents and educators are the winners today,” said Wendell Steinhauer, the union’s president. “These new laws give our youngest students an important new protection from inappropriate high-stakes testing and ensure that taxpayers and schools aren’t penalized when parents exercise their right to refuse that testing for their older children.”

The bill signings came as the Legislature this week started its lame duck session following Tuesday’s statewide balloting, which saw all 80 Assembly seats up for election.

In the realm of education, at least, few predict any major moves during the two-month transition period before the new Assembly takes office.

Both the Senate and Assembly education committees are expected to meet, but no major bills have been posted.

The Senate’s education committee is slated to meet next Monday, and its chairman, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has posted a number of relatively routine measures, including several dealing with increasing training and guidance pertaining to special education.

The Assembly’s education committee will also meet next week, and Diegnan said one priority will be moving a bill that would loosen restrictions on districts facing caps on administrative spending.

But Diegnan said another bill lifting the controversial salary limit on superintendent salaries altogether will likely wait until next year, and he was putting even lower odds on some of the other major legislation still pending, including a rewrite of the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

“That’s still a work in progress,” Diegnan said.

Still, he noted the Democrats’ majority will only strengthen in 2016, so there no need to rush into action.

“The only difference between the lame duck and the next session is a month,” he said. “To me, it’s not life and death that we get these done by Dec. 31.”