Where the likely 2013 New Jersey gubernatorial candidates stand on education reform

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

Everyone’s waiting for Newark Mayor Cory Booker to announce whether or not he’ll challenge Chris Christie for governor. Some consider him the N.J. Democratic Party’s best hope in the face of Gov. Christie’s surging post-Sandy popularity. But Booker’s not the only Democratic gubernatorial hopeful.

The short list includes state Senator Barbara Buono, who announced her candidacy on Wednesday, and Senators Steve Sweeney and Dick Codey.

 One likely theme of the upcoming primary is education reform, especially if Booker is a contender. He’s closely associated with percolating issues like tenure reform, merit pay, charter schools, and vouchers, not to mention his starring role in the Facebook/Newark partnership.

In particular, Booker’s passionate about tweaking N.J.’s new tenure reform bill to eliminate seniority-based lay-offs and bullish on school choice: “I hold no allegiance to a school delivery model. I really don’t care if you’re a charter school, a magnet school, a traditional district school. The question is: Are you providing quality education?”

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If Booker is the most progressive education reformer of the bunch, then Buono and Codey are the more conservative candidates, closely aligned with New Jersey Education Association (NJEA, N.J.’s primary teachers’ union) and committed to defending and preserving the current state school system.

For example, Buono lashed out at Gov. Christie when he highlighted N.J.’s failing urban schools, telling a reporter, “We have 2,485 schools and the governor talks about 200 failing schools. I don’t think that’s such a bad percentage.”

 Buono voted against the Opportunity Scholarship Act (the voucher bill) when it went before the Senate Education Committee: “I will fight with every fiber of my being to make sure it doesn’t [pass].”

She co-sponsored the popular Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying legislation, which compels all districts to implement multi-leveled procedures to prevent bullying and protect targeted kids. She also co-sponsored legislation that would require a local vote before authorization of any new charter, a piece of legislation ardently championed by the anti-charter group Save Our Schools-NJ.

Like Buono, on education reform issues Dick Codey is more old school. At a meeting of suburban parents protesting the expansion of charter schools, NJ Spotlight reports, Codey “held high a homemade sign then went on to blast the administration’s plans to privatize education, end teacher tenure, and open more charter schools. ‘We have not seen an attack on a public school system like this ever in our lifetime . . . so ugly and determined,’ he said.”  

During his 2008 senate presidency, Codey buried a bill (eventually disinterred) that offered school boards the option of November elections. 

Towards the end of the venomous ed reform-addled Newark School Advisory Board campaign this year, Codey recorded a robocall for the candidates running against the slate backed by Mayor Cory Booker. The Codey-backed slate won two out of three seats. 

Both Buono and Codey are lukewarm on tenure reform, uninterested in charter school expansion, steadfastly against corporate-sponsored vouchers, and determined defenders of LIFO.

But Steve Sweeney is a different sort of Jersey Democrat (who happened to muscle Codey out of the senate presidency in 2009). Notably, he collaborated with Christie to pass N.J.’s health and pension benefits reform legislation, earning him the enmity of NJEA.  (Codey and Buono both voted against the bill, earning NJEA endorsements and generous campaign contributions.)

Sweeney was instrumental in passing Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform legislation, supports urban charter school expansion, and appears open to a limited voucher program. 

When lobbying was most intense for the Buono-sponsored bill mandating local votes on new charters, Sweeney swore that he wouldn’t bring the bill to the floor because it “will absolutely shut down charter schools.” But LIFO and merit pay are a bridge too far: last year he told the Star-Ledger, “seniority I’m not doing. I’m not going to do merit pay.”

If Buono and Codey fall to the right on the spectrum of education reform and Booker is on the left, Sweeney is somewhere in the middle. Theoretically that’s not a bad place to be; voters like moderation, right? On the other hand, it’s not clear that Sweeney’s been forgiven by the unions for leading pension and health benefits reform, despite his street creds as the long-time General Organizer for the International Association of Ironworkers.

This group of four candidates (or five or six – the rumor mill is busy) will highlight the divisions within the N.J. Democratic Party on education reform, especially given Christie’s profile. It’s a national division as well.

Mickey Kaus reported that at the 2008 Democratic National Convention Cory Booker made a well-received speech in which he recounted how he’d been told that pushing school choice would end his political career and counseled the audience that we “have to admit as Democrats we have been wrong on education.” We’ll be watching closely.

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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