Christie Kicks Off New School Year with Education Reform Bills

By Brenda Flanagan

Crossing guards whistled kids safely through traffic today, the first day of school for most of New Jersey’s 1.4 million public and charter school students. Children headed to Roberto Clemente Elementary in Newark toted Spiderman and My Little Pony book bags. Parents wished for success and safety.

“Hopefully they put a cop here like last year because it does get congested. Other than that, just hope the kids do good in school,” said Chester Alanese.

But a feisty Gov. Chris Christie kicked his expectations up a notch.

“We need to start demanding more. And I’m going to keep talking about it. And I know it makes some people uncomfortable, but I don’t care,” he said.

Christie called a news conference at a Caldwell middle school and signed six education reform bills — including bills that limit suspensions and expulsions for kids in preschool though grade 2 and establish state aid for non-public school security. Dominating conversation: school funding and the governor’s ongoing and vitriolic political war with the teachers’ union. He compared them to the mafia.

“The hurt feelings and constant carping and moaning and complaining by the NJEA. You know, they’ve had a tough year and they’re still complaining and I’m still public enemy number one. Great. I told you. Badge of honor,” Christie said.

The teachers’ union continues to clash with Christie over pensions and benefits. The NJEA’s latest complaint: PARCC test results will now account for 30 percent of teachers’ performance evaluation instead of the current 10 percent.

“It forces teachers to teach to the test, rather than to the whole child. This emphasis on over testing has got to end. And the federal government made a great move to set the model for that. And once again New Jersey lags behind in keeping up on the issues,” said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer.

“I think as a parent, it’s very disconcerting the governor is using our children in a war he’s having with the NJEA. I think the last thing parents want is their children to take tests so the teachers can be punished,” said Julia Sass Rubin, associate professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University.

Rubin says PARCC testing remains controversial even after New Jersey’s Board of Education established passing PARCC as a high school graduation requirement for the class of 2021. Seventy thousand kids opted out of taking the test last spring. Next time?

“I think there will be fewer opt-outs most likely in the spring, but I don’t think long term there will be fewer. I think the state is going to move in a different direction,” Sass Rubin said.

But not any time soon. Education Commissioner David Hespe will be leaving at the end of September and Christie’s chosen Assistant Commissioner Kimberly Harrington as his successor, pending Senate approval. She’ll meet with the governor soon to discuss items like the cap on school superintendent salaries — which expires in November — and proposed rules for implementing the new federal education law that replaces No Child Left Behind. But Christie’s crusade to reform school funding formulas will dominate.

“It’s the last year of his second term. He’s obviously going to try to build a legacy, or cement a legacy that doesn’t have the word Bridgegate in it and I think schools is one area he thinks he’s had some successes that he’s going to keep pressing,” said NJ Spotlight Founding Editor and Education Writer John Mooney.

Christie’s so-called fairness doctrine offers a flat $6,600 for each student in New Jersey, including special needs districts that take the lion’s share of state funding.

“Money is not the answer here. And if it is, how about those districts kicking in more of their own money. They’re half of what you’re kicking in right now,” Christie said.

“The governor’s funding proposal would be devastating for public education in New Jersey, especially for schools in low income areas with a lot of students who are English language learners who are low income. Our poor students in New Jersey need additional resources. They don’t need fewer resources to do well in school,” said Sharon Krengel, policy and outreach director at Education Law Center.

Expect education funding to become a major campaign issue in the next governor’s race. Senate President Steve Sweeney’s expected to run and offers full formula funding.

“What the governor’s proposing is horrible for education. We’re doing what the teachers always said they wanted: fund it and run it. That’s what we always heard,” Sweeney said.

There’s one thing everyone agrees on: the issues driving education are propelled by politics and money, and there never seems to be enough of the latter.