At Start Of School Year, An ‘Incomplete’ On Report Card For Murphy

John Mooney | September 4, 2019 | Education
Governor who campaigned on education platform has boosted school funding, but a number of to-do items remain unchecked

Phil Murphy
When Gov. Phil Murphy stepped to the podium Tuesday at a Union City preschool center for New Jersey’s unofficial first day of school, he brought nothing but good news.

He can only hope it will last.

The announcement was the next expansion of state-sponsored preschool in New Jersey, another $20 million in state money designed to bring quality early-childhood programs to another 28 districts and nearly 1,500 students.

The issue has been a good one for the governor in his first two years in office, the chance to announce new funding for not just preschool but all of public education after what had been a tumultuous decade under former Gov. Chris Christie. This year’s state budget added more than $200 million overall for public schools.

“Every first day of school is marked by promise, a feeling of optimism,” Murphy said before a crowd of educators in Union City. “And today, I am feeling especially optimistic about our children’s future.”

But as the governor enters his third school year as the superintendent-in-chief, his administration is facing no shortage of lingering questions and issues around public schools — all with far less certain results.

Here are a few:

What’s the plan with student testing?

Reform of the state’s student-testing system was a plank of Murphy’s campaign platform in 2017, and it has yet to be resolved: How and when does New Jersey test its students, and to what end?

Two years into Murphy’s tenure, we’re still waiting.

The administration, under state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet, has taken strides to address mounting protests over the existing high-stakes exams, including a recent court-approved agreement that lightened the testing load as a graduation requirement for the next three years.

But the agreement went only so far, as incoming high school freshmen have no clear delineation of what will be required for them to graduate. And beyond them, Murphy’s and Repollet’s whole notion of a “new generation of testing” has yet to be realized.

Repollet planned to issue a “request for proposals” for a new testing regime this summer, but it has yet to be announced. The State Board of Education meeting today promises some updates, but there is much to be decided to what the tests will look like and what they will dictate.

And it’s not all the administration’s decision, either. New Jersey has a 20-year-old statute that requires taking an exit test in 11th grade to graduate from high school and the current Democratic leadership of the Legislature has shown little inclination to eliminate it.

Will courts get to decide school construction?

Much of the recent debate over education policy has been waged between the governor’s office and the state Legislature. But anybody who has followed the issue in New Jersey over the last three decades knows a powerful force lies in the wings: the courts.

A number of high-profile education cases now stand before state judges. One contests the deep racial segregation in New Jersey’s schools, among the most segregated in the country. Settlement talks between the two sides appeared to break down last spring, and the case is back in Superior Court for what is sure to be protracted deliberations.

Another is an ongoing dispute on the spread of charter-school networks in the state, a case borne out of Newark but spreading to other cities and communities. The next step is potentially before the state Supreme Court, which has yet to decide whether it will hear the case.

But even more significant — and maybe more immediate — are the lingering questions about school construction funding, first ordered for New Jersey’s neediest districts by the Supreme Court as part of the epic Abbott v. Burke rulings. The funding has now stalled, with no more new projects being funded going forward.

Credit: SDA
Groundbreaking for an SDA school construction project
Separate from all this, the program has seen its own political drama in recent months, as Murphy oversaw a purge of the leadership of the Schools Development Authority under the weight of ethical questions over patronage and nepotism.

But while reforms have been announced, they haven’t erased the reality that the SDA has run out of money, with vast needs still unmet. And the Education Law Center, which has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, has not hidden its intention to eventually ask the court to step back in.

Yesterday, Murphy kept it vague as to own intentions, only saying he recognizes more money is needed but that he is not so sure how to get there. He was asked by NJ Spotlight whether he would support a new bond for school construction, likely in the billions of dollars.

“In concept, yes,” he answered. “But at the same time, we have also inherited a number of big structural deficits: pension crisis, property-tax crisis, and an indebtedness that is among the highest in the country. So we have to take this case by case and have to be careful when making these decisions.”

Does Sweeney’s ‘Path to Progress’ have legs?

Often a lead presence these days in anything that involves state policy and politics, Senate President Steve Sweeney has his own public-education agenda, led by his “Path to Progress” campaign that seeks changes on everything from pension and health benefits to the very makeup of school districts.

But so far, there have been few details around actual legislation and policy, opening a number of questions to how much is rhetoric and how much is concrete action.

Credit: NJTV News
Senate President Steve Sweeney
Over the summer, Sweeney trumpeted his hopes for legislation that would open the way for districts to at least start studying consolidations as a way to bring efficiencies and savings. He said he has spoken with a number of districts ready to merge and/or share services.

But nothing has been announced as yet, and there are a couple of wild cards that could influence the timing.

Most obviously, the entire Assembly is up for election in November, which puts a tight squeeze on a consolidation issue that hits directly at stubborn home-rule sentiments. The best guess would be that most meaningful action would likely wait for the lame-duck session after the election.

Regardless of the issue, New Jersey politics always comes with its own score card, too, as Sweeney continues to feud with the New Jersey Education Association, arguably the state’s most powerful union and one of Murphy’s staunchest defenders.

The feud hardly seems to be cooling. The NJEA this summer announced its sought-after Assembly endorsements, skipping over some of Sweeney’s South Jersey allies. Will the union support consolidations, something it has been reluctant to back in the past?

For what it’s worth, Murphy yesterday in Union City played nice with the Democratic legislators standing on the dais with him.

“No matter what good an idea you have in government, you need partners,” Murphy said as he stood with state Sens. Teresa Ruiz and Brian Stack.

The next couple of months could answer how true that will be.