Education Prominent in N.J. Governor's Race
Education is front and center in a heated New Jersey gubernatorial race pitting incumbent Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a GOP star, against Democratic state Sen. James E. McGreevey.
With Nov. 4 nearing, Mrs. Whitman is courting votes by pointing to her success at setting new academic standards and raising school revenue. Mr. McGreevey, who is also the mayor of Woodbridge Township, is countering that the one-term incumbent has failed on both accounts.
Mrs. Whitman and Mr. McGreevey are the front-runners in a field of 10 gubernatorial candidates in the Garden State. Only one other competitor--Libertarian candidate Murray Sabrin--has raised enough campaign contributions to receive matching funds from the state.
The New Jersey contest, a dead heat in some polls, is getting close attention because Mrs. Whitman is seen as a rising star who could someday earn a spot on a national Republican ticket. A poor showing could dim her prospects. Virginia is the only other state with a gubernatorial race this fall. ("Va. Gubernatorial Hopefuls Debate Education," Oct. 22, 1997.)
Mrs. Whitman, Mr. McGreevey, and Mr. Sabrin were all on hand at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., on Oct. 18 for a candidates' forum. Mr. Sabrin, a finance professor at Ramapo College in Mahwah, N.J., who advocates privatizing education, is running a distant third in the race.
Whether Mrs. Whitman's school policies will help or hurt her at the polls remains a question. The cornerstone of her education record is her work to end the state's lengthy school funding debate. Her innovative approach sought to link funding levels to statewide academic standards. ("For 4th Time, Court Rejects N.J. Formula," May 21, 1997.)
But last May, a year after the package was adopted, the state supreme court found her finance plan unconstitutional. The court ordered New Jersey officials to ensure that the state's 28 poorest districts spend as much per student as the 120 richest, adding $250 million to the current $5 billion K-12 budget.
But Mrs. Whitman is making the most of the ruling by saying that the $563 million increase in school spending over last year--which includes the court-ordered $250 million--is the second-largest single-year hike in state history. "We've reached parity between the wealthiest and poorest students," she added at the Oct. 18 forum.
Not everyone is impressed with her claim. "It's wrong for the governor to say she delivered that aid," David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, said in an interview. Mr. Sciarra represented the plaintiffs in the suit against Mrs. Whitman's funding plan. "The court delivered that aid."
During the debate, Mr. McGreevey noted that the state share of education funding has dropped from 42 percent to 37 percent under Mrs. Whitman. "Who bears the burden of that?" he said. "Middle-class taxpayers do."
Mr. McGreevey, whose profile has been boosted by campaign visits from President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, is promising to revise and strengthen the Garden State's academic standards.
His school platform also calls for implementing student-behavior standards, lengthening classroom time on core academics, and ending "social promotions" of students to their next grade levels.
Perhaps most notably, he wants to expand all-day kindergarten and early-childhood education. Mr. McGreevey has been faulted, however, for not specifying how he would pay for those proposals.
"Suburbanites worry that with Mr. McGreevey, their state aid will go down as more money is poured into urban schools," said David Rebovich, a political science professor at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.
The state's two teachers' unions have taken different stances on the race. Mr. McGreevey has the endorsement of the New Jersey State Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
The New Jersey Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is not endorsing either candidate. The union took the same stand in 1993. But Mrs. Whitman scored points with the group this fall by compromising on a plan that would have linked teacher recertification to continuing education. ("N.J., Texas Eye Teacher-Continuing-Ed. Plans," Oct. 1, 1997.)
New Jersey's current curriculum standards, adopted last year, have been fodder for much campaign debate. Even as it threw out her school finance plan last spring, the state's high court ruled that Mrs. Whitman's academic standards met constitutional muster. They cover math, science, social studies, language arts, world languages, arts, and health and physical education.
Mrs. Whitman says that the standards and future assessments linked to them are the key to providing students with a world-class education. "We'll be the only state in the nation testing in grades 4, 8, and 11 in seven different areas," she told a crowd of about 600 people at the debate. The assessments will be phased in starting this year through school year 2004-2005.
During the debate, Mr. McGreevey didn't sound impressed. "These standards have been found to be the worst in the nation," he said.
He cited two reviews this year of the state's standards, including a report by the AFT, to back his point. The AFT report called New Jersey's English standards "particularly weak" in writing and literature. Only the science standards got high marks.
Mrs. Whitman countered that in the 1997 Quality Counts report by Education Week, New Jersey's system of standards and assessment ranked in the top five nationally.
For many New Jersey voters, meanwhile, education is synonymous with property taxes, a hot topic in the close race. Valerie Gladfelter, a stockbroker in Moorestown, N.J., was one of 25 members of the citizens' panel responsible for drafting education-related questions for the Rowan University debate, which was sponsored by The Philadelphia Inquirer and the New Jersey Network, a television network.
Ms. Gladfelter's bipartisan group wanted to end property taxes as the staple of K-12 funding in New Jersey. "It seemed there was a clear consensus that education should be funded with a statewide tax," she said.
While New Jersey's property taxes are among the highest in the country, neither candidate is eager to propose a new way to pay for schools.
Mrs. Whitman said in the debate that local property-tax rates reflect local choices. "The more the state takes over, the more it wants to control," she warned.
Mr. McGreevey said there is "a property-tax crisis" in New Jersey. His boldest plan is for a state referendum on shifting public school funding away from property taxes.
"They're walking on eggshells trying to avoid the money issue," said Herbert Green, the director of the Public Education Institute, a community-interest group in New Brunswick, N.J. "They're discussing around the issue."