Opinion: Christie’s Back, and His ‘Extreme’ School-Funding Plan Proves It

Carl Golden | June 28, 2016 | Opinion
A textbook example of a shrewd politician, what’s the governor’s endgame in this seemingly unwinnable fight?

Carl Golden
Eight governors have served as New Jersey’s chief executive since the first challenge to the state’s aid to local school districts program was filed, contending that the distribution formula was unconstitutional and failed to fulfill the mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

For a substantial portion of that time, the state Supreme Court — the only unelected branch of government — has been the de facto decision-maker, ordering the Legislature to increase appropriations principally to districts whose local resources were considered insufficient to support education programs equal to that of more affluent property-rich suburban districts.

Only Donald Trump and his creditors have been in and out of court more often than New Jersey’s school-funding case. It’s been argued about, fought over, and litigated. It’s been amended, tweaked, and fine-tuned.

And, now, after six and one-half years in office, Gov. Chris Christie wants to scrap it altogether and replace it with what he contends is the epitome of fairness — each school district, regardless of size, enrollment, or financial condition, will receive a state allocation of $6,599 for each pupil.

The response from legislative Democrats, the New Jersey Education Association and the Education Law Center was both swift and predictable — Christie’s plan is dead on arrival, illegal, unconstitutional, and pits largely minority urban districts against predominantly white suburban communities.

The governor, they said, has betrayed the state’s cities and, should his proposal ever become law, it will start those school districts on an inevitable path to oblivion. It is, they added, needless punishment inflicted on the poor and will consign children to a substandard education and a subsequent lifetime of poverty and menial labor.

Christie made it clear, though, that he’s all in on the plan and intends to sell it by barnstorming the state presiding over the kind of town hall forums that served him so well politically in the past.

The idea of doling out education aid by simply dividing the $9 billion appropriation by the number of students is not particularly new. Warren County Sen. Michael Doherty has been touting the distribution method for several years, but it never gained any traction.

With Christie’s full embrace, however, Republicans who never spoke up in favor of Doherty’s suggestion are lining up behind it.

It may all become nothing more than political sound and fury, occupying the Legislature and the media for the rest of this year and possibly the 2017 gubernatorial election. Moreover, the Supreme Court may never be asked to weigh in and rule on its constitutionality.

It is highly unlikely Democrats will experience an epiphany and flock to Christie’s proposal. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), both of whom control the flow of legislation to the floor of their respective chambers, have made their opposition clear and are in a position to block any vote. Democrats have the numbers; Republicans don’t.

The Supreme Court would become involved only if the legislation becomes law and, even then, the likelihood of the court turning its back on nearly four decades of precedent is remote.

Christie shrewdly framed the equal distribution scheme as fulfilling a long sought goal of reducing local property taxes, arguing that property owners in three-quarters of the state’s municipalities would experience savings of as much $3,000 as a result of the windfall in aid to their school districts.

The remainder, of course, are so-called Abbot communities — so named after the plaintiff in one of the court actions — and would see their aid amounts plummet by the tens of millions of dollars, resulting in dramatic cutbacks in school staff and programs, crushing increases in property tax rates or both.

In proposing his plan, Christie argued that more than 30 years experience under the court rulings has been a failure, that spending continues to rise while the quality of education and graduation rates continue to fall.

The governor and his supporters contend no additional evidence is needed to support the belief that “money isn’t the answer.” To the obvious follow-up question of “what is,” there’s been little response of substance.

Christie hinted that one answer could be found in greater support for charter schools, pointing out these facilities spend far less than traditional public schools and produce a higher-quality outcome.

The radical change in the aid-distribution program captured the attention and coverage, but an almost equally compelling argument offered by the governor involved the enormous growth in spending for municipal government.

By securing billions in state aid for their school districts, municipal governing bodies, Christie claimed, took advantage of the freed-up tax revenue to expand their own operations, citing some communities in which such spending rose more than 300 per cent.

It is an argument which recognizes that while taxpayers are sympathetic to and supportive of spending on behalf of school children locked into substandard facilities and programs, they bristle in anger at their tax dollars flowing into bloated, patronage-laden city halls.

This message has resonance and, should Christie continue to pound away at it, Democrats will be forced to respond to either defend the increased local spending or express their shock and pledge to take steps to curb the excesses.

The overriding question, though, is the governor’s end-game. What is his motive after 80 percent of his administration has already passed, for taking on a fight which he understands he cannot win in the Legislature? Is it the opening move toward a potential compromise with Sweeney who is pushing the idea of a commission to study and recommend changes in the school aid formula? Or, is it simply Christie reasserting his muscle to build a legacy of confronting an issue whose resolution has eluded eight of his predecessors?

He has carefully and shrewdly blended two issues — an unfair school aid formula and profligate spending by local officials — to produce a message easy for taxpayers to understand and just as easy to maintain high visibility.

Whatever his motive, he’s assured his role as the central and most dominant political figure in the state for the next 18 months. When he abandoned his quest to secure the Republican presidential nomination, Christie told reporters “I’m back.”

He was right about that.