Sweeney Calls State House Summit on School-Funding Plan, But Where is NJEA?

John Mooney | July 12, 2016 | Education
Christie cancels suburban town hall meeting on his school-funding scheme to be at Trump’s side

Gov. Chris Christie
When it comes to the theater of school funding, Gov. Chris Christie has opted for two approaches, promoting his plan for equal funding either in big venues or intimate kitchen-table conversations, always with a receptive audience.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney has gone for a roundtable feel, pulling together educators and experts for a more academic discussion around the room.

Such choreographed strategies — with matching websites — have come to mark what has become an unprecedented public sparring over school funding by arguably the state’s two most powerful politicians, one Republican, one Democrat.

Yesterday marked just the latest chapter, when Sweeney hosted in the State House virtually all of the top education groups in the state to discuss his proposal for a state commission to revise the existing school formula.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucster)
It went well for Sweeney, with his more measured plan gaining widespread support from most the groups — barring a conspicuous absence from the state’s largest teachers union.

Christie was to have his own larger-scale event in suburban Fair Lawn to promote his one-size-fits-all approach — in which funding is divided up equally among every student in the state and promising significant property tax relief in three-quarters of the districts.

The Bergen County gathering promised to be another town hall-styled gathering that has been the hallmark of his governorship.

But it, too, came with its twist, when Christie cancelled at the last minute to appear in Virginia with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president who may or may not pick the governor as a running mate.

The governor’s proposal to equalize state funding for schools is at best a long-shot legislatively, but with the prospect of property-tax relief for mostly suburban districts, it still resonates politically in a state with among the highest property taxes in the country.

“It’s tough politics,” said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools and a backer of Sweeney’s approach. “It’s politics of sound-bytes, rather than rational discussion, but for people with high property taxes, these are tough issues to face.

“There have been emails, phone calls,” she said of the governor’s campaigning. “This is a very concerted campaign on both sides.”

Sweeney, leading the discussion yesterday, acknowledged Christie’s approach has its popular appeal, describing even Democrats in favor of a plan that claims it would bring hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in tax relief to residents.

“This is why we need all these organizations to help get the word out,” Sweeney said. “If you are a local mayor, [the governor’s plan] is tempting as hell. I’m hearing Democrats, too, saying this is great, without looking at the consequences.”

He said this in front of top advocates from the state’s school boards and supervisors groups, as well as the state PTA and the executive director of the Education Law Center, the state’s most steadfast fighter for equitable aid who said Christie’s plan would set back school equity 40 years.

“This would really take New Jersey back to separate but unequal education,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s director. “This would really take us back to the dark days in education.”

But notably absent were leaders from the state’s dominant union, the New Jersey Education Association. Whether not invited or not accepting the invitation, it was not certain, but a NJEA spokesman yesterday said the union had its issues with Sweeney’s approach and wasn’t ready to get on board.

“We don’t support the bill, so we weren’t there at an event to promote it,” read an email from Steve Baker, the NJEA’s communication director. “We are still in conversations regarding changes we’d like to see that would allow us to reassess our position.”

No fan of Christie’s approach, the union has said Sweeney was not aggressive enough in restoring full funding for schools, nor in addressing what it terms the negative impact of charter schools.

But that’s no small absence; the NJEA brings the resources — potentially millions of dollars — to any public campaign.

Not always close with the NJEA to start with, Sweeney wasn’t thrilled afterward. When asked how far he could get without the union’s support, Sweeney said he was still hopeful to get his bill through both houses by the end of summer — albeit not necessarily with enough support to override the governor.

“I have everyone else here, where are they?” Sweeney said of the union. “You have on the other side the governor’s plan that would absolutely devastate their school districts.”