The debate over standardized tests has put Gov Christie in a no-win situation

Chris Christie

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie leaves the Capitol in Washington in this Nov. 17, 2014 file photo (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

On Monday the New Jersey State Senate postponed a vote on a new bill that would delay by up to two years the infusion of student growth data into teacher evaluations. Senate bill 2154 is heavily backed by the N.J. Education Association, Badass Teachers-NJ, and an assortment of other groups including Save Our Schools and the Eagle Forum. Legislators explained to NJ Spotlight that “the delayed vote was largely a move to give Christie an opportunity to put forward his promised compromise, likely to be a state regulation or an executive order — or both.”

A mote of generosity from our state legislators as they offer a one-week reprieve to our beleaguered governor? A pragmatic stance on a bill that Christie would veto anyway? Not so much. More likely, the Democratically-controlled Senate is elated at the opportunity to put Christie in a real jam.

Opposition to both the Common Core State Standards and one of its accountability instruments, the PARCC assessments, is spreading across the country. A new Pew research poll pegs the resistance to the Common Core among conservative Republicans at 61 percent. Currently, potential GOP presidential nominees Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Marco Rubio, and Bobby Jindal have all expressed vehement opposition to these “top down” educational initiatives.

Thus, Christie is faced with a dilemma: should he stand firm on his long record of advocating for higher academic standards for students (the Common Core) and empirical measurements of effectiveness for teachers (PARCC)? Or should he join his Republican brethren by opposing “top down” initiatives and tossing his well-documented commitments to standards and accountability in the trash heap?

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About those commitments: back in 2010 New Jersey was competing for $400 million in federal Race to the Top funds. The Christie Administration approved an application that proposed to implement a host of reforms, including the creation of a new teacher evaluation system in which student learning, measured by standardized test scores, “must represent at least 51 percent of teacher and school leader evaluations.”

There was one problem. NJEA refused to sign on, significantly weakening our chances of winning the money. Former Education Commissioner Bret Schundler held some late-night back-room meetings with NJEA leaders and came up with a compromise: the percentage of student growth incorporated into teacher evaluations would be reduced to no more than 50 percent. Part of that 50 percent had to be student test scores (the proportions were left vague) but traditional classroom evaluations, portfolios, and other more subjective measures were also acceptable. (Current N.J. Department of Education regulations mandate that student tests scores inform 30 percent of evaluations for teachers in grades 3-8 who teach language arts and math.)

Christie was enraged by Schundler’s compromise, as well as some other concessions, and pulled the plug on the revised application. N.J. submitted the original version, minus NJEA buy-in, and we lost $400 million. Then he fired Schundler, ostensibly over a clerical error in the application, but Schundler told a Legislative Oversight Committee that Christie was more interested in fomenting the war with NJEA than winning the grant.

Four years later, the national GOP is steeping in tea and swinging way right. This shift includes opposition to both the Common Core and PARCC. For example, this week Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said, “I am committed to getting us out of PARCC, out of Common Core.” This opposition is shared by conservative luminaries such as Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society.

Hence, Christie’s dilemma. He can submit to the will of the Democratically-controlled state Senate and the burgeoning anti-standards movement by watering down N.J.’s regulations through some half-hearted nod to S 2154 (a one-year delay, a lower percentage). He might even be able to position himself as more attuned to the ebbing Tea Party wave. But then he’ll look like a hypocrite: relentless fan of educational access and equity, standards, and accountability in 2010 during Race to the Top; panderer to political expediency in 2014. Not much of a sound bite for a contender.

Or Christie can remain faithful to the current regulations and rebuff the Legislature and its lobbyists, probably a more comfortable stance. But then he’ll be vulnerable to charges that he endorses standards-based accountability metrics and creep further and further away from the current Republican conservative zeitgeist. Not much of a sound bite for a contender.

At least our state legislators will be having a fun weekend.


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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