How much will the election impact education in NJ?

School spending and the property taxes that pay for it, also under local control will Newark thrive and will PARCC survive? Education policy always intersects with politics, especially this election year. Few people are better schooled in the nuances than NJ Spotlight CEO and education writer John Mooney. He sat down with Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron.

Aron: John Mooney, how does education play into this year’s governor’s race?

Mooney: Well, it’s always a big issue in the governor’s race. Public education aid is a third of the state budget. It impacts every single district. Obviously there’s a lot of attention on what happens with public schools in the state. This year will be especially interesting. It’s the first new governor of the decade in terms of Gov. Chris Christie who’s had a big impact, he’s now stepping out. We have a couple of options. We have Phil Murphy who so far has been embracing a lot of the Democrat positions, the traditional Democratic positions, around school funding, around charter schools. I think he’s really going to seek to really make a mark in public schools if he gets elected. Kim Guadagno, the Republican nominee, follows some of Gov. Christie’s positions, but not all of them. She’s certainly very pro-charter. I think she’ll continue a lot of the accountability measures that Christie began, but she’s also going to break away from him on some, so it’ll be interesting how it plays out.

Aron: Is she for taking money away from so-called “overfunded” districts?

Mooney: I mean, she hasn’t really taken a strong position on the School Funding Reform Act and the changes that we’ve seen in the last few months which will start taking hold this year. The Legislature approved a new budget and Christie went along with it. It does take some money out of overfunded districts and puts it into underfunded districts. We’re starting to see that. We’re not nearly closing the gap on that yet, but it will be interesting seeing how that plays out. And one of the big issues around funding, also, and she hasn’t really taken a strong position, is pre-K and preschool. They started putting some additional money…

Aron: Twenty-five million dollars.

Mooney: Which is nothing. The need is close to a half billion. But it gets the ball rolling on expanding preschool. And whether Murphy or Guadagno continue that will be interesting to watch.

Aron: When Murphy talks about fully funding schools, he’s talking a phase into full funding?

Mooney: Right, and it’s a lot of money.

Aron: An extra billion dollars?

Mooney: It depends on how you define it, but it could be as much as $2 billion, so that’s not happening in the first year by any means. He can’t afford it and I’ll be curious to see if he continues to phase it in. It’s a real question mark going into it because obviously the state has a ton of needs besides education. And whether it can afford even putting an extra $100 million, or $200 million a year, we’ll see.

Aron: At the legislative level, in terms of the election, the NJEA is at war with Senate President Steve Sweeney. It’s basically funding his opponent Fran Grenier, who I don’t know anything about. I don’t know if you do?

Mooney: He, at least so far, has been clearly, obviously, a Republican, but also a pro-Trump Republican. The fact that the NJEA is supporting a pro-Trump Republican right now is interesting, to say the least.

Aron: Are they playing in other districts or is it all Sweeney?

Mooney: No, they’ll be playing in the closer districts, but they have plenty of money to go around and they have an army of people who can work. Now, whether Sweeney has something to worry about, that will be, I’m told he’s a little nervous. Obviously it’s something he’s going to have to address. He also has some money available to him. But the fact that they’re taking him on like this, it certainly may imperil him staying as Senate president if he doesn’t win. At the same time, they’ve gone all in for Murphy. So how they balance those two, Murphy is somewhat playing along with Sweeney at this point, but I’m not sure I can see him breaking away entirely but I’m curious. I’ll throw it back at you, do you see there being a rift between those candidates?

Aron: I think Murphy and Sweeney need each other. I don’t know how Murphy is going to navigate the fact that the NJEA supports him and hates Sweeney. Sweeney did call the NJEA extortionists about a year ago and he was serious that they should be charged with extortion. Right now, I think the pressure is on Murphy to declare himself for Sweeney or for the NJEA.

Mooney: Yeah, one way or the other.

Aron: I think he’s ducking it so far.

Mooney: He ducks a lot of issues so far. I guess that’s what we’ve all noticed. He hasn’t taken firm stands on a bunch of issues. Charter schools is another issue where he’s been playing the middle and that’s a big issue.

Aron: He was involved in that issue about a moratorium on charter schools that the NAACP promulgated?

Mooney: He’s on their national board and he somewhat voted for a pause, as he could call it. And that’s a big issue, certainly in the cities.

Aron: So when he’s running for governor, is he sort of for a pause on charter schools?

Mooney: That’s what he says until we can figure out a better accountability system and a way for them not to be drawing funds from traditional districts. That has been a landmine of an issue in the state, especially in cities where in Newark its a third of the kids that go to charter schools now. Camden is close to that, ultimately it could be half.

Aron: From your vantage point, you’re so on top of education issues, has the charter school experiment worked?

Mooney: I would say, it’s hard to say that it hasn’t worked. I don’t think it’s been an abject failure by any means. Some of theses schools, and I would say a good number of these schools, are very strong. In providing a better education for children, I think you can make that case.

Aron: So in slowing down charter schools, you could make the argument that anybody who’s for slowing down charter school expansion is for hurting kids in urban settings.

Mooney: That would be the argument against it. But there’s also schools that are not strong that I think the state should be taking a harder look at. And certainly the financial issue, that’s the big one. They’re drawing a large chunk of money out of the traditional districts, because they’re also drawing kids. But it’s really causing quite a hardship for some and that’s something we have to think about as well.

Aron: How about Newark schools. They revert to local control this fall, this winter?

Mooney: It’s a process, and it hasn’t officially started yet. The state Board of Education meets next week and it’ll likely be acting on, expected to be acting on, a resolution that would start the process. But it takes many months. There’s actually a referendum that’s involved with the local community on what kind of board they want, whether it be an elected board or an appointed board.

Aron: Appointed by the mayor?

Mooney: Appointed by the mayor. They have generally, and I think Mayor Baraka in Newark, has said he would support an elected board, not one that he appoints, or the mayor appoints. But it is a process, and ultimately it will be a question of what real difference it makes. The biggest one is a local board will select its superintendent, that’s the big one where they can choose its leader going forward. Now it’s Chris Cerf, the former state commissioner, who is now in Newark. He was appointed by Christie. Likely, I can’t see him staying. He may quit before he’s fired.

Aron: But he’s okay with it? He’s not angling to keep this job?

Mooney: No, and he recognized part of his job was to smooth this transition from Cami Anderson, the previous superintendent who not very popular, so I give him some credit.

Aron: Finally, what happens with PARCC testing this year?

Mooney: Well, that’s back to the politics. In terms of Phil Murphy, he’s said he’s against them and he would do away with them day one. You can’t really do that, actually, but this is the last year of the contract. So would we move away from them and come back with another test? Do we really want another test? But it is required by law that there be an assessment.

Aron: By state law or federal law?

Mooney: Both, to a degree. And I think most educators say having some kind of an assessments of value, it’s just how it’s used. There’s a lot of concern it’s used too much to evaluate schools and students, and too much to evaluate teachers. And he may pull back a little bit on that, but we’ll see. Also a balancing act.

Aron: A lot of politics in education to stay on top of.

Mooney: Always is.

Aron: John Mooney, thank you very much.

Mooney: Thank you.