Let’s make it official: Chris Christie is toast. As our defamed and diminished governor lurches back towards Jersey, his only quandary is whether or not he’ll be able to muster up some scraps of political capital to push through items on his civil service and education reform agendas. While the odds are low that state legislators will sign on to substantive remedies for our insolvent pension and health benefits system, Crispy Christie still has a shot at some education reform initiatives. However, he’ll need to hone in on two attainable goals: scaling back his anti-Common Core rhetoric and tackling charter school law.
When Christie first beat then-governor Jon Corzine in 2009, his education platform was long and clear: rapidly expand school choice, pass a school voucher bill funded by corporate tax credits, push through tenure reform, and cut back on state oversight. The day after the election, the governor-elect’s first official public outing was to Robert Treat Charter School in Newark, where he was cheered by top Democrats County Executive Joe Divincenzo, Steve Adubato Sr, and then-Mayor Cory Booker. (Earlier that day Christie met with his transition team, headed by David Samson, whom Christie appointed chair of the Port Authority two years later. Samson, of course, is one of the lead figures in Bridgegate.)
Over the next several years, almost every education initiative that Christie touched turned to gold. The Legislature reined in school costs by passing a 2% tax increase cap on municipalities and school districts, adopted (along with forty-four states and the District of Columbia) the Common Core State Standards, cobbled together a compromise with NJEA on a tenure and teacher evaluation reform bill, and passed the Urban Hope Act, which created innovative district/charter hybrid schools in Camden. The Christie Administration’s Department of Education approved over thirty new charter schools and closed twelve under-performing ones. Stronger than the storm!
Now? Hurricane Christie’s a mere mist but there’s still hope for a very small bucket of education reform initiatives and that means letting the voucher bill go gentle into that good night. It couldn’t pass in 2010 when Christie was all fleece and bunting, and it won’t pass now, even when it’s snuck into a state budget proposal.
Instead, in the final two years of his term, Christie has to eat some humble pie, narrow his focus, and stay true to his education bona fides. During a visit to Iowa in February, Christie told a group of Republicans that he had “grave doubts” about the Common Core State Standards. That was an error in judgement and a lapse in honesty, if we’re to believe his history of commitment to educational equity. To maintain his credibility he must tune out the siren call of the GOP leadership that entices him to back down on his commitment to state-mandated course objectives and assessments. If he can maintain his dedication to the Common Core, just hailed by America’s major civil and human rights groups, he’ll be rewarded with a splash of dignity after the national snub.
Second, the State Legislature is crying out for some leadership and direction on its oft-stalled mission to rewrite N.J.’s outdated charter school law. More than 20,000 children sit on charter school waiting lists. Seven out of the top ten choices among Newark parents are charter schools. The last lottery for Paterson Charter School of Science and Technology drew 1,437 children for 99 openings. During the last round of charter school authorizations, the D.O.E. approved just one school. Things are so bad that a moronic charter school moratorium bill unanimously passed the State Assembly. (It still has to pass through the Senate and Christie’s veto pen.)
Yet the State Legislature appears paralyzed on this pressing issue.
Everyone knows the elements that must comprise a new charter school law: multiple authorizers (currently only the Education Commissioner can authorize new charter applications), facilities aid, and a re-jiggered funding formula. Currently Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) have offered proposals; either is far superior to N.J.’s 1995 law. If Christie or some of his surrogates can prioritize passage, work the room and find consensus, he’ll leave office with a meaningful educational legacy that would be celebrated by families who yearn for school choice.
It’s been a long, sad slide from toast of the town to bottom of the polls. And, sure, anything could happen. But right now Christie has an opportunity to solidify his educational gains in N.J. by fostering academic equity and notching one more legislative victory. Surely that’s worth more than a few meaningless votes in New Hampshire.
Laura Waters is vice president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.