School & District Management

Education Issues Animate N.J., Va. Governors’ Races

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 29, 2013 5 min read
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Although the slate of state elections this year is relatively small, gubernatorial and legislative races in New Jersey and Virginia could affect the direction of school choice and parent-driven education changes in those states, as well as significant shifts in K-12 spending levels.

Separately, a referendum on an income-tax increase for Colorado public schools is also garnering attention.

That proposal, Amendment 66, is one of only two statewide ballot measures around the nation this year that directly affect K-12, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (The other is also in Colorado, where a proposed tax on marijuana would help pay for school construction.)

In New Jersey, Republican Gov. Chris Christie, if re-elected, would get a chance to continue pushing for a new school choice program. In Virginia, meanwhile, repeal of a constitutional ban on public funding for religious schools is a priority for state Attorney General Kenneth T. Cucinelli II, a Republican who is fighting with Democrat Terry McAuliffe to replace the term-limited GOP incumbent, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.

Mr. McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and the New Jersey Democratic candidate, state Sen. Barbara Buono, have both argued that their Republican opponents are determined to choke off revenue to public schools.

Both chambers of the New Jersey legislature, as well as the Virginia Senate, are up for election this year.

Virginia Governor Race

Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli has backed charters and school choice in his bid for governor on the GOP ticket.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe says his Republican rival for the Virginia governor’s seat would choke off public school funding.

Photos by Steve Helber/AP

In his vision for education, Mr. Cuccinelli seeks a parent-trigger law that would allow a majority of parents to petition to close a school or restart it as a charter, and he would also allow Virginia parents to seek tax-credit-supported scholarships (where donors get tax credits for contributions to scholarship funds) for private schools.

In an Oct. 24 debate, Mr. Cuccinelli said parental choice was key to K-12 success: “What matters most is getting that child the best possible education we can.”

Choices and Cuts

Mr. Cuccinelli is seeking two education-related amendments to the Virginia Constitution: one that would eliminate the existing ban on public aid to religious schools (known as a Blaine Amendment); and another that would allow the state board of education to approve new charter schools. Limiting approval of charters to districts, as Virginia now does, Mr. Cuccinelli argues on his website, is “like Pepsi having to get permission from the board of directors at Coca-Cola to sell a new product.”

“The campaign is the next stage of what McDonnell set in motion,” Robert Pianta, the dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, said of Mr. Cuccinelli’s plan.

It’s unclear how that plan would mesh with the state-run district approved by Gov. McDonnell this year to take over Virginia’s lowest-performing schools.

But the state’s A-F school accountability model instituted by Gov. McDonnell should be expanded, Mr. Cuccinelli says—to teacher education programs in higher education.

Meanwhile, much of Mr. McAuliffe’s discussion of K-12 has tied the health of public schools to tax rates: The Democrat says his opponent would damage the former by slashing the latter.

Mr. Cuccinelli wants to cut the state income-tax rate from 5.75 percent to 5 percent, and the business-tax rate from 6 percent to 4 percent. That plan, Mr. McAuliffe says, would cut off at least $525 million in state revenue from public schools and force districts to fire more than 8,000 teachers.

The McAuliffe campaign claims to show that districts in voter-rich Fairfax and Prince William counties in northern Virginia would lose $50.2 million and $38.4 million in state K-12 aid, respectively—the two biggest local K-12 cuts in the state.

New Jersey Governor Race

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican seeking a second term, clashed with teachers’ unions in his first term and pushed for school choice in the form of tax-credit scholarships.

Democratic opponent Barbara Buono has slammed Gov. Christie for cuts to school aid.

Photos by Mel Evans/AP

And repealing the Blaine Amendment, Mr. McAuliffe says, would exacerbate the problem. (From fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2013, Virginia cut per-pupil spending from $4,651 to $4,286, although state aid to public schools from general revenues did rise from about $5.2 billion to $5.3 billion in fiscal 2014.)

“I don’t want to see a penny taken out of our public schools,” he said during the Oct. 24 debate.

Both candidates say they want to alter the way the state tests students’ grasp of Virginia’s Standards of Learning, its academic-content standards. Mr. Cuccinelli says the standards should focus on competency rather than seat time, while Mr. McAuliffe wants more test items that allow essays or short answers and fewer multiple-choice items.

One open question for Mr. McAuliffe, should he win, Mr. Pianta of the University of Virginia said, is whether he will ditch the A-F school accountability system and the state-run district, or use them to leverage his own preferred policies.

New Jersey Showdown

In New Jersey, the election of Gov. Christie to a second term would in part mean an extension of his very public fight with teachers’ unions in the state.

The incumbent has maintained a consistent and sizable lead in public-opinion polls—one early October survey of such polls gave him a 26-percentage-point advantage over Sen. Buono, his Democratic challenger.

A significant piece of unfinished business for Gov. Christie is a new school choice program. He has advocated tax-credit scholarships in the past, and this year inserted a$2 million pilot program for the scholarships into his budget that was ultimately eliminated by lawmakers in the Democratic-controlled legislature. The governor has used Sen. Buono’s opposition to private-school choice against her in his campaign materials.

“If the legislature stays in its current composition, I would say that Governor Christie would have a tough time putting through that agenda,” said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, the director of government relations for the nearly 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association, which has endorsed Ms. Buono.

Recently, Mr. Christie has advertised his efforts to boost K-12 funding. In a Sept. 4 speech, he said he was proud that for fiscal 2014, the state had provided “an all-time record level of state funding” to public schools, a point he’s also stressed in TV ads.

But Sen. Buono says the idea that Gov. Christie is a K-12 funding champion is backwards. She has promised to ensure that New Jersey’s K-12 spending rises to the levels prescribed in a 2008 state law, the School Funding Reform Act, that she authored.

“Chris Christie has skirted the law and cut almost $1 billion from school funding,” she said in a campaign ad.

Sen. Buono has also pledged to expand full-day kindergarten and universal preschool across the state.

A version of this article appeared in the October 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as N.J., Va. Governor Races Headline Off-Year Ballot

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