States

Schools a Battlefield in N.J.'s Race for Governor

By Robert C. Johnston — October 31, 2001 5 min read
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New Jersey’s gubernatorial candidates were asked during a recent televised forum why they sought the state’s highest office. They couldn’t have agreed more: It’s the schools.

But Jim McGreevey, a Democrat, and Bret Schundler, his Republican opponent, part ways on many specifics about how to improve education for the state’s 1.3 million public school children.

The largest gap is over Mr. Schundler’s wish list for school choice, which includes more money for charter schools and a plan to use tax credits to help finance tuition vouchers for low-income families to use at private schools.

Mr. McGreevey, who lost his first bid for governor in 1997 to Christine Todd Whitman, says the plan would cost schools $600 million. He contends that Mr. Schundler is turning his back on public education.

The men aren’t always divided on school issues, however. They talk aggressively of less school bureaucracy and greater accountability for schools and their staffs. They also have pledged to support the controversial court-ordered spending in 30 impoverished New Jersey districts.

Polls show the race getting tighter, with Mr. Schundler, a two-term former mayor of Jersey City, closing to within 10 points of three-term Woodbridge Mayor McGreevey, who had led by 20 points. The candidates are vying to succeed acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, who took office when Ms. Whitman left to join the Bush administration. Mr. DiFrancesco dropped out of the race for the GOP nomination last spring.

Some Educators Wary

While the tough accountability talk on schools may get voters’ attention before they go to the polls Nov. 6, it is making some Garden State education observers wary.

“I think that increasing accountability with either governor could be a step back,” said William A. Firestone, a professor of education at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who argues that New Jersey needs to give its recent education policy overhauls a chance to work.

“The policy implication in education the last 30 years has been that people start in one direction, then new leadership changes that,” he said. “Teachers start to ask, ‘What’s the innovation of the month?’”

The candidates have had the chance to make their points on education in recent public appearances.

During an Oct. 18 forum at Rowan University in Glassboro, a parent fanned the fire of the school choice debate by asking why her children, who attend private schools, are denied equal education funding.

Answering first, Mr. McGreevey said, “Well, this is why: I believe our responsibility is to ensure public education works.”

He added that public school students outnumber private school students by about 1.3 million to 200,000, respectively. “Mr. Schundler’s approach is to literally drain public education of $600 million. [He] would walk away from the over 1 million children in public schools,” Mr. McGreevey declared.

Mr. Schundler countered that his plan would help parents such as the questioner: “I don’t think you are a second-class citizen.”

Choice a Centerpiece

Mr. Schundler has made school choice a centerpiece of his campaign and has touted his experience as the operator of an independent public charter school, which he opened three years ago. Ironically, it was Mr. McGreevey, who as a state senator, co-sponsored the legislation that led to charter schools.

Mr. Schundler now wants to give taxpayers 75 cents off of their state income taxes for every dollar they donate to organizations that offer scholarships to students who attend private schools, including religious ones.

The maximum credit for individuals would be $10,000. For corporations, it would be 10 percent of their tax bills. Two-thirds of the scholarships would be earmarked for needy families.

Mr. Schundler argues the plan would give students in low-performing schools new options, and save the state money because public school students—up to 80,000 by his estimates—would move to nonpublic schools. Critics have said his numbers are way too high.

“We can decrease classroom overcrowding overnight by giving parents vouchers so they can send their children to the 40,000 empty seats available right now in private schools” in urban districts, Mr. Schundler added.

The GOP candidate also wants a 50 cent tax credit on personal-income taxes for every dollar families spend on their own children’s school tuition, tutoring, books, and home-schooling expenses, up to $500 per child.

His plan is a hybrid of tax-credit plans that have been enacted in other states, although those programs tend to target either parents or corporations. “The [Schundler] plan is novel in that it’s taking both standards and incorporating them into one proposal,” said Michael P. Griffith, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States in Denver.

Other school issues are getting attention as well.

Mr. McGreevey, for example, wants to come up with a way to identify underperforming teachers, give them a year to improve, and then streamline the process for firing the ones who do not turn around.

He also endorses contracts that set annual expectations for teachers, parents, and children.

“We have to ensure that teachers who can’t teach are removed from the classroom,” Mr. McGreevey said at the Rowan University forum. “We [must] set higher standards for teachers and principals.”

In addition to raising the qualifying scores on teacher-licensing exams, he wants to set aside state money to pay for reading coaches to work with students and teachers in more schools.

Mr. Schundler wants to increase the funding that charter schools receive for every student they educate and has promised to halve the school property-tax bills of senior citizens.

Union Takes Sides

Mr. Schundler’s school choice plans prompted the powerful New Jersey Education Association to endorse Mr. McGreevey. It is the union’s first endorsement in a governor’s race since 1989.

In a recent poll by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 50 percent of respondents said they agreed that vouchers were a good idea, while 43 percent disagreed. Maurice Carroll, the director of the institute, said Mr. McGreevey was more in step with New Jersey voters on some issues. “But oddly, at least to me, New Jersey turns out to be on [Mr. Schundler’s] side where vouchers are concerned,” he added.

Perhaps more important is the potential impact on local politics from the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults on the World Trade Center in nearby New York City and on the Pentagon in Virginia.

In the same poll, 68 percent ranked terrorism and foreign policy as the biggest problem facing the nation. Just 10 percent said education. “But education is mentioned up there with taxes and economic stuff,” Mr. Carroll said.

Observers are eyeing other issues facing the incoming governor, such as the state’s $8.6 billion school construction program and shortages of school administrators.

Frank Belluscio, the director of public information for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said: “Maybe some of these issues are a little too esoteric for most people, and haven’t been the focus of the campaign, but they are things school boards are concerned about.”

Assistant Editor Bess Keller contributed to this report.

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