New Jersey Could Capitalize on DeVos Confirmation

By Brenda Flanagan

“The nomination is confirmed,” declared Vice President Mike Pence.

Pence cast the tie-breaker, clinching the nomination of Besty DeVos as education secretary for the Trump administration. A staunch supporter of charters and vouchers, DeVos proved a lightning rod for public school advocates, but some New Jersey education experts don’t see much impact here — yet.

Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor, said, “A lot will come down to what the Trump administration is willing to dangle in front of states as an incentive. And if there isn’t a lot of money to offer the states, there’s not much she can do to shape policy at the state level.”

DeVos could conceivably shift $20 billion in federal education funding into a school vouchers program, but New Jersey can capitalize on her preference for local control, according to the State Board of Education President Mark Biedron.

He said, “That’s saying, ‘Listen, we want you states to have more say in what you do.’ And if you think about place-based education — which is basically saying your place determines how you educate your children — it’s based on your culture, what happens in your town or your state. That idea really resonates with me because I think that’s really what schools are.”

Biedron says the state’s already got strong regulations and standards in place, but admits education politics will be fraught. Witness the State Board of Education’s recent 5-2 vote against a Christie-backed plan to give top tier charter schools more leeway in teacher certification. It was the first time in Biedron’s six-year tenure that the board defied Gov. Christie.

“I was very proud of the board,” Biedron explained. “We have had good conversations about the charter school regulations that were before us. But, you know, again, I couldn’t find anybody who thought this narrow piece of looking at it just for charter schools was a good idea.”

“This is not about compromising the educational quality for children and it is certainly not about lowering a standard,” said Paula White, New Jersey state director of the Democrats for Education Reform.

Charters wanted more flexibility. A five-year pilot project, where the top 31 of Jersey’s 88 charter schools would hire teachers with a certain expertise, say plumbing or algebra, but without the full certification required by the state.

“It’s possible that someone who’s a medical doctor couldn’t go into a high school to teach science, based on just their credentials,” said White. “So they’re saying, let us look at different ways of determining that teachers are ready for the classroom.”

But critics claimed allowing two different levels of certification could trap teachers in the lower-pay charter system and hurt students.

Rubin said, “If in fact you’re trying to increase the quality of the teaching, it’s not clear why you would ever do something like this. Especially for one segment of publicly funded schools.”

Right now, fixing New Jersey’s school aid formula is most lawmakers’ biggest task. If DeVos shifts $20 billion to school vouchers, that task could get even more complicated.