Governor’s Race 2017: Candidates Deeply Divided on Education

That said, there are plenty of questions about what happens next after the last tumultuous decade in public education, and there are some clear choices ahead between the two major candidates.

From how (or if) each will pay for the state’s existing school funding formula to their differences on charter schools and PARCC testing, Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno clearly come from different points of view and practice.

For Murphy, the Democratic frontrunner, there may be no more telling sign than the fawning support of the New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union that has taken on its own role in the 2017 election.

On policies, he’s vowed to fully fund the formula and pulled back on charters and student testing, which have been anathema to the union and other public school advocates for the past eight years.

Guadagno, the Republican candidate and current lieutenant governor, has on certain topics tried to distance herself from Christie, but education is not one of them. She’s pro-charter, stands by the standards and testing, at least in the general sense, and is no fan of how New Jersey funds its schools — or for that matter, the NJEA.

How much can we pay?

Much of what happens in public education over the next four years begins and ends with New Jersey’s financial state. The numbers are familiar, all with lots of zeros, speaking to the extent of the state’s debts and liabilities, not the least of which is the funding of public schools.

And it’s a big bill, roughly a third of the state’s budget and two-thirds of each homeowner’s property tax bill. And there is some real question if that is sustainable, let alone can grow.

New Jersey already spends as much as any state on its schools, and it taxes its citizens as much as any in the country. At the same time, in a state of more than 500 school districts, the strains are evident in many.

Larger class sizes, smaller extracurricular programs, and tensions with teachers and administrators over pay. A majority of school districts are receiving less aid from the state than they did eight years ago, but costs continue to rise. So, what will give?

Phil Murphy has been quick to support full funding of the state’s existing funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act. And in addition to the unions, that too has the support of the existing Democratic leadership in the Legislature.

Still, that is roughly $1 billion to $2 billion a year more on a budget that already sends schools close to $10 billion a year. Murphy says he wouldn’t do it all at once, and he is looking to new revenues in terms of a millionaires’ tax and a tax on the legal sale of marijuana. But even if all that happens, there are a host of needs equal to education: the pension liability and transportation, to name two.

Remedies on the cost side have barely been broached in detail in this campaign. Kim Guadagno doesn’t get into the weeds of the state’s funding formula at all, other than to say it is unfair to suburban districts. Instead, she wants to put a cap on local school taxes to no more than 5 percent of income, but details have been very sketchy about how that would be paid for. She has called for an audit of state spending to save up to $1 billion a year, again undefined.

One area that has gotten some renewed attention is the potential savings from regionalization and consolidation of school districts, from tactical strikes in similar communities to broader systemic changes. Wherever it takes place, that’s a huge undertaking and a rethinking of New Jersey’s underpinnings of home rule. And not just for economic reasons, either, but also educational and social ones in a state with some of the most racially segregated schools in the country.

In the first of two debates, NJ Spotlight asked the candidates their positions on that subject. Guadagno took the bolder one, saying she would press anew — and even “demand” — consolidations and other mergers be considered. Murphy decried the segregation of schools, but was less strident on possible solutions, saying only that he might appoint a “czar” to study and recommend options.

New models of education

Charter schools have become a huge force in this state in some of its largest districts — not to mention a few smaller ones. Once full, they will be serving close to two-thirds of students in Camden and nearly half in Newark.

It’s a new model of public education, and both the state and local communities are grappling with what that means. Even under Christie and his broad support for charters and their expansion, 17 charters have been closed for their failings in finance or performance or both.

In the face of the debate, Murphy has called for some pause or moratorium in the state’s growing charter movement, but it is unclear what that means and how long it would last.

He was caught in the crossfires of debate last summer, when he ultimately sided with an anti-charter resolution of the national board of the NAACP, on which he was then serving. But more locally, he has only called for a slowdown in new approvals, without a precise timeline.

And what that would mean in Newark and Camden, where expansions are already in the works, is especially unclear. The question comes at a critical time, with Newark moving out of state control and Camden’s takeover under Christie sure to face some new pressure under the next administration.

Guadagno has been much more of a cheerleader for charters, and following Christie’s lead, she has not only vowed not to put on the brakes, but said she would hit the gas. She has also embraced the notion of choice beyond just charter schools, indicating she would happily seek out federal funding for school vouchers.

Charter schools are just one of several transformative changes to public education that are upon New Jersey’s schools. Another contentious one has been around the state’s new online testing of students. Known by its acronym as “PARCC,” the testing has been a target of debate and even legal challenge about how much it can be relied upon for evaluating students, as well as teachers and schools.

Murphy has been adamant that he would end or at least suspend PARCC. The problem is, that is easier said than done. The state is finishing up a four-year contract with the multistate consortium, and pulling back at this point for the coming spring is unlikely, at best.

But even after that, the bigger question is what would replace PARCC. Other states have built their own hybrid tests that could be modeled, and as federal law all but requires at least some common assessment, that may prove the likeliest option.

Who will be the players?

There’s nothing more important to the next governor’s education policies than his or her likely education policymakers, and there may be some clues by considering who each candidate likes to keep company with.

And front and center for both is the NJEA, the teachers union. For Guadagno, it’s a given that she is not their favorite. The NJEA got behind Murphy before nearly anyone else, and the candidate has openly said he would value the union’s position on every policy and appointment.

But that’s suddenly become a trickier alliance, circa 2017.

We’re talking, of course, about the NJEA’s unprecedented political battle with one of Murphy’s apparent friends in the Democratic-led Legislature, state Senate President Steve Sweeney.

The union and Sweeney have together spent $20 million — the most ever for a legislative race — feuding over Sweeney’s wavering positions on paying off the state’s pension liability. In the face of the union’s onslaught, depending on the prognosticators, Sweeney is no sure thing to be re-elected.

But equally fundamental are questions about the NJEA’s power going forward. Democratic legislators signed a public letter asking the NJEA to back off Sweeney, and there is a real question about whether there will be lasting backlash, even if he wins. At the same time, the union’s leaders have sent their message loud and clear about the high price of crossing them, no matter who wins.

For Murphy, it is a delicate balance. He wants to remain friends with both Sweeney and the NJEA, but that may be impossible. His choice for commissioner will be a telling sign about where he stands. Some of the names include Bergen County superintendent Patrick Fletcher, state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, and former State Board of Education president Mark Biedron.

Wherever it ends up, the next few years for education in the state could arguably be as consequential as the past few under Christie. Regardless of Christie’s most noteworthy policies, it will be the next governor who either implements or deep-sixes them.

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