Published Online: November 11, 2013
Published in Print: November 13, 2013, as Picks Made for Governor in N.J., Va.

N.J., Va. Governors May Face Legislative Hurdles

Virginia Democratic Gov.-Elect Terry McAuliffe hugs his wife, Dorothy, after his narrow victory. He has pledged to defend public school funding, and must deal with a GOP-controlled legislature.
—Alex Brandon/AP

The two gubernatorial contests this year produced the re-election of a staunch foe of teachers' unions in New Jersey and the election of a solid friend of public school funding in Virginia. Both winners, though, must deal with legislatures controlled by the opposite party as they consider new K-12 policy pushes.

The election of Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor of Virginia sets up an education policy environment in which the new chief executive will have to work with a Republican-controlled legislature that has overseen prominent changes to the state's public schools over the past year with the support of outgoing GOP Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

In New Jersey, incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Christie handily defeated his challenger, Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono, to win a second term. But Democrats will retain control of the New Jersey legislature as 2014 begins, setting up a possible rerun of fights Gov. Christie has picked with teachers' unions and other major education groups over such issues as school choice.

Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie celebrates his successful re-election bid. He clashed with teachers’ unions in his first term, and Democrats are still in charge of that state’s legislature.
—Mel Evans/AP

Mr. McAuliffe overcame the Republican nominee, state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, by a relatively narrow margin, roughly 48 percent to 45 percent.

During the campaign, Mr. McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, stressed that he would defend K-12 funding. During an Oct. 24 debate with Mr. Cuccinelli, Mr. McAuliffe declared that he didn't want "to see a penny taken out of our public schools." He attacked the GOP candidate on the grounds that his proposed tax-cut plan would have deleterious effects on state revenue for education.

But despite electing a Democrat to the governorship, Virginia voters also decided to keep Republicans in control of the legislature. That situation will test Mr. McAuliffe's pledge, made in his Nov. 5 victory speech, to work with Republicans on policy issues.

State-Run District

In particular, Mr. McAuliffe must decide how to handle two new policies passed this year: A-F school accountability, a policy backed by many Republican governors but one that has run into problems in Indiana and Oklahoma this year; and the Opportunity Educational Institution, the new state-run district for struggling schools created this year with the strong support of Gov. McDonnell. The state school boards' association is challenging the new district in court.

"I wouldn't expect the members of the General Assembly, let alone Governor-elect McAuliffe ... to do a whole lot to fund that," said Meg Gruber, the president of the Virginia Education Association, the 55,000-member state teachers' union.

Lawmakers funded the state-run district at a level far below Gov. McDonnell's budget request. Mr. McDonnell had requested $600,000 for the district, but received only $150,000.

On another issue, Ms. Gruber said she was confident the incoming governor would act decisively to change Virginia's Standards of Learning exams—specifically, that he would work to reduce the number of tests and total testing time. Both Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Cuccinelli expressed support during the campaign for changing how those exams affect schools and students.

Aside from the A-F accountability policy and the state-run district, there isn't much for Mr. McAuliffe to roll back in Virginia, said Kara Kerwin, the president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, which supports school choice and charters as well as test-based accountability for schools and teachers. She said Mr. McAuliffe's campaign rhetoric means he will likely not be interested in other major changes, such as overhauling the state's charter school law.

In New Jersey, Gov. Christie got approximately 60 percent of the votes in coasting to a second term, bolstering what are broadly seen to be his presidential ambitions. Although he increased education spending this year after previously cutting the state's K-12 budget, Mr. Christie continues to have a combative relationship with educator unions, as illustrated by a highly publicized encounter with a public school teacher during a Nov. 2 campaign stop. In the confrontation, the teacher, Melissa Tomlinson, challenged Gov. Christie as to why he viewed the state's public schools as "failure factories," and according to some reports the governor shot back, "I'm tired of you people."

Tensions With Unions

The New Jersey Education Association, which has nearly 200,000 members, said after Gov. Christie's victory that he "needs to work cooperatively" with a "pro-public-education legislature" as well as the union's members.

Related Blog

Although Gov. Christie worked with legislators to alter teacher-tenure rules, his push for measures to expand school choice has been rejected by lawmakers.

If he runs for president, Gov. Christie might frame his fight with teachers' unions as an opposition to "special interests" that are holding back the nation's public schools, said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of political science at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (Mr. McGuinn added that among voters who lived in a household with a union member, Gov. Christie gained 46 percent of the vote, which he said emphasized the governor's broad popularity.)

In the governor's second term, Mr. McGuinn said he fully expects him to move to eliminate the practice of laying off teachers by reverse seniority, a move that teachers' unions would vigorously oppose.

"If anything, it might get more contentious here," Mr. McGuinn said.

Vol. 33, Issue 12, Pages 18-19

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