New Jersey Democrats asleep on education reform

 (Image by Shutterstock)

(Image by Shutterstock)

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

New Jersey’s political races for U.S. Senate and Governor have dominated local media, despite the lack of meaningful competition for shoo-ins Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Governor Chris Christie.

The latest Quinnipiac poll shows that 52 percent of voters support Booker; U.S. Congressmen Frank Pallone and Rush Holt each garner less than 10 percent of the electorate, and laggard Sheila Oliver barely musters 3 percent.

In the gubernatorial race, Christie is running about 40 points ahead of N.J. Sen. Barbara Buono.

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Lock or not, N.J.’s public education system is a big talking point for all candidates. In fact, the current electoral discussions get to the heart of a puzzle for this blue state’s Democratic leadership: in the realm of education reform, what does it mean to be a New Jersey Democrat?

If you ask Cory Booker, a “Democratic” agenda includes charter school expansion, data-driven teaching evaluations, top-down accountability, focus on poor urban school districts, and vouchers. But if you ask Barbara Buono for her prescription for improving public education, a “Democratic” agenda, antithetical to Booker’s, includes restrictions on charter school growth, protection for teachers from the vagaries of data, and local control.

This stark contradiction in agenda between two of the state’s most prominent Democrats says less about national trends and more about the paralysis of N.J. party leaders. While the national Democratic Party has integrated education reform tenets into its platform on public school improvement – indeed, except for the vouchers Booker’s agenda mirrors President Obama’s — N.J.’s elected Democrats are stuck in a time warp.

One way to think about this is in the context of the GOP’s national problem, post the 2012 presidential election. Republicans, it’s often noted, are trapped in a shrinking tent that not only appears too small for the 47 percent (remember Mitt Romney’s infamous comments about Americans who rely on some sort of governmental support?) but is too diminished for immigrants and the LGBTQ community.

N.J.’s State Democratic Party has a shrinking tent too, at least in the context of improving public schools. That’s one reason why Booker is lapping asthmatic Pallone, Holt, and Sheila Oliver. There’s no oxygen for progressive ideas about education, only old school politics.

The N.J.’s Party’s inability to integrate new ideas about education into its platform seems to leak into every news report.  Buono suffered a blow last week when Bishop Reginald Jackson, lifelong Democrat and Executive Director of the Black Ministers Council, announced that he would endorse Christie, despite his long personal friendship with Buono. Why? “The answer can be summed up in one word,” said Jackson: “Education.” He added, “[a] quality education is a civil right, and it is sad for me to see my party, which embraced the Civil Rights movement, now in New Jersey blocking low-income and minority children from escaping the slavery of failing schools.”

N.J. Senator Ronald Rice, who lost badly to Booker in Newark’s 2006 mayoral race, told Salon, “Cory’s definitely no Democrat but he definitely plays the liberal game.” Congressman Pallone, striving for some traction, fretted to the New York Times, “I’m very concerned about his [Booker’s] close relationship with the governor because I don’t think he has used that relationship to advance a progressive or Democratic agenda.”

But that’s the point. Through a national lens, Booker’s educational agenda is both progressive and Democratic. But through a N.J.-centric lens, he’s an affront to Party stalwarts.

One exception: Democratic state Senator Dick Codey, who had this to say about the state party’s leadership: “Let’s be candid about our party.  Today our party is in a stranglehold of political power bosses who are not members of the legislature and in most cases, not even party officials or elected officials and that’s the bigger problem. The Democratic Party, it’s shallow and it’s hollow and it has no core. It has no core values. It’s lost its heart. It’s lost its way and this party has to be rebuilt.”

The venerable Codey is right, at least regarding the Party’s inability to articulate a progressive, relevant agenda on public education. There’s no core, there’s no heart, and there’s no compass. And until there is, lifelong Democrats like me will look elsewhere for educational leadership.


Laura Waters is 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.


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