Education Issues Will Help Shape Christie's Second Term And Political Future

John Mooney | N.J. Spotlight
01/06/14

School funding for non-Abbott districts is a perennially critical issue, too, as a vast majority of those districts are still catching up from the loss of state aid four years ago.

“So much will be determined by how much money there is,” said Michael Vrancik, lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

He and others said the next state budget – education aid makes up one-third of it – could face stiff pressures, especially with commitments to make required state pension contributions. Add in Christie’s continued push for an income-tax cut, and that doesn’t leave much cushion in the budget for schools, Vrancik said.

“Funding is going to be really stressed, given the realities of the pension payback,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban school group. “There is a serious pressure cap on that.”

Unresolved Issues, Initiatives

Strickland said she hopes school districts will at least get some help in addressing rising special-education costs. “We are ever hopeful and optimistic, but we are also realistic,” she said.

Leading Democratic legislators have also said one of their priorities will be to enact a new, revamped charter-school law to replace one that is now nearly two decades old.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chairwoman who shepherded the new tenure law, has said she will have legislation ready in the coming months, but given the vitriol around charter schools the last four years, the debate is unlikely to be quick and easy.

New student testing next year and the advent of the Common Core State Standards already under way will surely put even more pressure on the state’s schools. The outcome off those two initiatives is unpredictable at this point, but other states’ rocky transitions offer a cautionary tale for New Jersey.

And then there’s the nowhere-near-resolved debate over reforms in the state’s takeover districts, most notably in Newark and Camden.

Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson has just unveiled a new organization plan for the state’s largest school system that has brought loud cries of protest, especially over her plans to close or relocate a half-dozen schools.

Camden has its own new state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, who is about to present his own strategic plan. It includes the continued expansion of so-called “Renaissance Schools,” a hybrid version of charter schools enacted by Christie two years ago.

How all these issues play out in the context of a presidential election – or initially, for Christie, in Republican primaries – are a key component in predicting what the governor might do, as well as how long he might stay in office.

“Everything is colored by what he might do,” Vrancik said.

Among Republicans, especially those voting in primaries, tough-minded school reform is good politics, Vrancik and others said. Christie’s frequent combat with the NJEA is even better politics, and while his relations with the union have improved of late, Dworkin said he doesn’t expect much of a détente if the governor commits to a presidential run.

“Taking on the public unions, including the teachers unions, will certainly play well with Republicans in a competitive primary,” he said. “Why would he run from it? He gets more votes in doing that, than in currying favor with them.” 

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