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Pulling Weeds in the Garden State

By Patrick McGuinn — June 16, 2010 6 min read
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Note: Pat McGuinn, a professor at Drew University, is guest-posting this week while Rick Hess is on a consulting project in the Republic of Georgia.

This has been an entertaining—but ultimately depressing—month for those interested in serious education reform in New Jersey. The state’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, has engaged in a rancorous war of words with the state’s largest teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA). Christie has made no secret of his dislike for the union and has publicly blamed them for most of what is wrong with the state’s schools and with state finances more generally. He has called them the “bullies of State Street (Trenton)” and criticized their “19th century” views on policy and spending. The NJEA has fired back by spending millions running ads against Christie and organizing protests at the state capitol. Richard Bozza, the head of the NJ Association of School Administrators, has observed that “Governor Christie is the irresistible force, and the union is the immovable object.” Similarly, NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said, “We are his great white whale, and he is our Ahab.”

The outcome of this fight has significance beyond New Jersey’s borders. Conservative leaders nationwide are watching to see if Christie’s tactics against the unions are successful and can be adopted elsewhere. And advocates of school finance reform are watching New Jersey closely because no state has devoted more effort or money to the closing of racial and socio-economic achievement gaps, in large part due to the state court’s ambitious school finance equalization ruling (Abbott v. Burke). The ruling required the state to provide supplemental funding to the poorest 31 school districts in the state (which became known as “Abbott districts”) so that these districts spent at least as much as the wealthiest districts in the state. Considerable progress has been made in the Abbott districts, but critics believe it has been too slow, too uneven, and too expensive. A growing budget crisis and taxpayer revolt, combined with a desire to spread money around to poor (and non-poor) students outside of Abbott districts, led former Gov. Jon Corzine to get judicial approval for a new funding formula.

There are three very interesting things to watch in New Jersey as this fight plays out over the coming months.

First: To what extent—and under what conditions—will the state Supreme Court give the governor a pass on fully funding the new school finance formula it approved only two years ago? Last week, the Education Law Center in New Jersey filed suit against Christie over the funding cuts, and the governor announced at a meeting of supporters that the reason he recently took the unusual step of not re-appointing a sitting state Supreme Court justice (a Democrat) was to shift the court on the school finance issue. While the court may decide that the exceptional nature of this economic crisis permits the state to reduce its “normal” amount of funding, the terms under which the state can shirk this obligation is crucial. How much of a fiscal “crisis” is enough for the state to beg off?

Second: Who will win the battle to shape public opinion about teachers’ unions? Christie’s sustained frontal attack on the NJEA is unprecedented; it appears that he hopes to channel public anger over the state’s high taxes, budget mess, and failing schools against the unions and reduce the NJEA’s power in state politics more generally. There is evidence that New Jerseyans are listening: When the unions refused to accept the pay freeze he called for, the governor urged voters to reject their local school district budgets, something which a majority of districts did for the first time since 1976.

Third: To what degree can Christie take advantage of the reform momentum that has built up among many Democrats—and been turbocharged by Obama’s Race to the Top competition—to push his school reform agenda (including merit pay, tenure reform, vouchers, and charter school expansion) through the Democratic legislature in this bluest of states?

Both the NJEA and the Christie administration appear to be digging in, and their political strategies and policy agendas appear to leave little room for nuanced discussion or negotiated compromise. When his own commissioner of education (Bret Schundler) cut a deal with the NJEA to get its support for the state’s Race to the Top application, Christie publicly reprimanded him, calling the deal, “a contrived consensus among the various affected special interest groups,” and submitted the compromise-free version of the state plan instead.

A few weeks ago, when new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data was released that ranked New Jersey first in the nation in student achievement, a Christie spokesman dismissed the positive results as “irrelevant” and declared the New Jersey public school system to be “wretched.” The NJEA responded by focusing solely on the good news and ignoring the Christie administration’s criticism of the system’s failings. On average, New Jersey public schools can indeed be considered excellent, but this should not be surprising given that the state has among the highest per-capita income (and per-pupil spending) rates in the country and that test scores are highly correlated with income. But this high average hides many truly abysmal public schools (particularly in urban areas) and the persistence of large racial and socio-economic achievement gaps. The current overheated political rhetoric precludes an honest, balanced conversation about the system’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the reforms AND resources it would take to improve it for poorly served children.

Christie is right that collective bargaining contracts often stymie efforts to improve chronically underperforming schools and that the NJEA in the past has too often sought to defeat reform proposals rather than constructively engage in improving them. However, Christie’s attack on the teachers’ unions is a high stakes gamble: It is endearing him to his conservative base and may even tap into some of the frustration of Democratic school reformers, particularly in urban areas. But if pushed too far, it could backfire by alienating moderate Democrats who might otherwise support some of his proposals in the legislature.

The Race to the Top initiative has facilitated the creation of new bipartisan coalitions in many states, and in places like Ohio and Colorado, this has enabled the passage of major reform of teacher evaluation and tenure systems. Florida may present a cautionary tale, however, for a more partisan and confrontational approach—there, a Republican controlled legislature decided to seek the abolition of tenure rather than work with Democrats on an emerging consensus to reform it. In the end, Democratic opposition and a public outcry led the Republican governor, Charlie Christ, to veto the bill.

The future of school finance litigation...the battle to define teachers unions...the prospects for new bipartisan school reform coalitions... All of these key national issues are on display in the Garden State, so stay tuned to see how they play out.

—Pat McGuinn

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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