School & District Management

N.J. Governor-Elect’s Education Agenda Eyed

By Catherine Gewertz — November 12, 2009 5 min read
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The election of Republican Chris Christie as New Jersey’s next governor has drawn cheers from the state’s charter school and voucher advocates, even as it sparks worry that his promise to reduce taxes and spending in the face of a massive budget shortfall could result in cuts to precollegiate education.

Mr. Christie, who beat Democratic Gov. Jon S. Corzine in the Nov. 3 contest, wasted no time sending signals of support for urban education and for charter schools. (“Election Offers Varied Impact for Education,” Nov. 4, 2009.)

The day after his election, he visited a charter school in his hometown of Newark. Five days later, he appeared at a high school in suburban Hamilton, where he pledged to maintain support for K-12 education despite a looming $8 billion deficit in the state’s $29 billion budget.

A former federal prosecutor known for ferreting out public corruption, Mr. Christie is the first Republican to win the state’s top job since Christine Todd Whitman, who was first elected in 1993 and was re-elected to a second term. Reflecting deep public resentment about the state’s tax rates, Mr. Christie has said he would reduce income and sales taxes, and reinstate property-tax rebates. He says he will rein in spending, but has provided little detail.

Charters and Vouchers

Mr. Christie wants to see more charter schools open in New Jersey, which currently has 68 of the quasi-independent public schools. He also supports something New Jersey lawmakers have repeatedly rejected: publicly financed vouchers that would allow urban schoolchildren to attend nonpublic schools. He has also advocated tightening the current 4 percent cap on the growth of school district budgets by reducing or eliminating exceptions to that cap.

Charter school advocates hope Mr. Christie can build legislative support for funding charter schools on a par with regular public schools. Currently, they receive 90 percent of the amount regular schools get, with no money for facilities.

“We are very hopeful about what this means for the charter school movement in New Jersey,” said Carlos Lejnieks, the chairman of the board of the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association. “The next step is to have the money follow the words.”

The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, the executive director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey and a school board member in the 5.600-student Orange district, said Mr. Christie’s support of vouchers and charters is encouraging for urban parents, since the primary beneficiaries of more school choice would be low-income families.

Dana E. Egreczky, the senior vice president for workforce development at the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which has pushed for stronger accountability in the state’s schools, said that her organization has taken no position on vouchers, but that it is concerned that creating such a program could dilute accountability by allowing more students to be exempt from the state testing program.

Joseph Cryan, the Democrat who chairs the state Assembly’s education committee, is predicting a legislative dead end for many of Mr. Christie’s education ideas, because of “philosophical differences” with the Democratic-controlled legislature or budgetary realities.

The legislature is “highly unlikely” to embrace vouchers, Mr. Cryan said. Lawmakers might be more open to boosting funding for charter schools, but this year’s budget woes make that a virtual impossibility, he said.

He predicted that legislators would have “zero openness” to the idea of eliminating exceptions to the cap on district budget growth, “because we live in the real world, where gas prices fluctuate, and health-insurance costs fluctuate, and we have to manage realistically.”

Some Skeptics

Democrat Shirley K. Turner, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said she was “delighted” to see Mr. Christie place a high priority on urban education, but said relying on charter schools and vouchers to improve education, without addressing unemployment, poor housing, and other problems, wouldn’t work.

Ms. Turner said the governor-elect would not be able to cut taxes, restore property-tax rebates, close the $8 billion budget hole, pay more for vouchers and charter schools, and fully fund the state’s school finance formula.

“There is no way in the world he can do all of that. The money is not there to pay the bills,” she said. “Before it’s all over, he’s going to wish he had asked for a recount.”

Spokesmen for Mr. Christie did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story.

One of Mr. Christie’s most ardent opponents in the campaign was the 200,000-member New Jersey Education Association. The governor-elect has said that in negotiating with public employees’ unions, he will represent the taxpayer.

The NJEA does not oppose charter schools, but finds Mr. Christie’s stance on vouchers “very troubling,” said President Barbara Keshishian. She also said her union would oppose any attempts to tighten the cap on school district budget growth, and was “disappointed” in Mr. Christie’s opposition to the planned expansion of the state’s preschool program.

The union is eager to know whether the governor-elect will follow through on his stated commitment to protect K-12 education funding, she said.

The New Jersey School Boards Association is watching closely, too. The group agrees that property taxes carry too much of the K-12 funding burden—60 percent—but shifting more of that burden to state revenue sources is unlikely under a governor who plans to cut taxes, said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the group. And a reduction in state education funding could drive up property taxes and force local education cuts, he said.

However warm or wary their reactions to Mr. Christie’s election, most advocates are waiting to see how his actions compare with his campaign rhetoric.

“There is electioneering, and there is governing,” Ms. Egreczky said. “Who knows what will happen? Once the administration gets its feet firmly planted, we’ll see where it all goes.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 18, 2009 edition of Education Week as N.J. Governor-Elect’s Education Agenda Eyed

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