Public Education and the Candidates: Putting the Issues in Perspective

John Mooney | June 2, 2017


Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli during a Republican gubernatorial primary debate


Public education has already played a big role in the race to be New Jersey’s next governor — maybe as much as in any gubernatorial election in recent memory.

After nearly eight years of Gov. Chris Christie and his aggressive education agenda, the state is at a significant crossroads in terms of its public schools, and the candidates from both parties have almost universally made it a priority issue.

School funding has led the pack, with educators and advocates saying the continued underfunding of the state’s school-finance law has left districts and their communities in dire straits. Candidates on both sides of the aisle have each come up with their own solutions, although plans on how to fund them tend to be sketchy.

Meanwhile the Christie administration’s embrace of PARCC testing for students and the expansion of charter schools — especially in the cities — has proved a ready subject for debate. Democrats have been largely against both the testing and the charter expansion; the Republicans, less so.

That said, here are a few of the key issues when it comes to public education, and what — if anything — distinguishes the candidates from one another.

Fixing funding

It’s front and center on every one of the major candidates’ platforms: how to fix the funding of public education.

The challenge is clear. Deep cuts in state aid to districts at the start of Christie’s tenure have left a vast majority of them still catching up as the governor leaves office. Two-thirds of the districts still receive less state aid than they did in 2009.

Meanwhile, the state’s local property taxes are the nation’s highest, leaving little room for the communities to pick up the difference. And there is little interest in lifting a 2 percent cap on local levy increases anyway.

The four major candidates for the Democratic nomination have been near unanimous in their promises of more state support, each saying that they would start by moving to fully fund the state’s school finance law to make up roughly $1 billion more a year in underfunding.

Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive and frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, has said he would fully fund the formula by increasing taxes on the most wealthy and tapping new revenue streams.

“We have to fully fund the formula, period,” Murphy said in the Democratic primary debate last month, co-sponsored by NJTV and NJ Spotlight.

It’s a common refrain from his chief challengers, too, and they have offered similar plans.

State Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Union), a veteran legislator who is maybe the longest shot to win the nomination, has staked his funding scheme on savings that can be found through a state comptroller specifically for education spending, saying as much as $1 billion could be saved.

Jim Johnson, a former federal treasury official making his first run for state office, has agreed with increasing taxes on the wealthiest. A former Head Start volunteer, he has focused on also increasing funding for preschool.

State Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) has said he supports fully funding the state’s formula but also brought in other issues to the debate, including how charter schools are funded.

“We have lots of other issues we need to address,” Wisniewski said in the televised debate.

The Republican remedies

The chief Republican candidates have proposed their own remedies, quite different from the Democrats but closely aligned to each other. In both cases, the focus is less on raising taxes, but instead reining in the money now spent.

Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, the favorite for the Republican nomination, has called for a “circuit breaker” that would limit local property taxes. In the meantime, she has said audits of state and local spending would come up with an additional $1 billion in savings.

“As governor, I would make property taxes my No. 1 issue,” Guadagno said in the Republican debate co-sponsored by NJTV and NJ Spotlight.

State Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-Somerset) has his own plan that would limit state school aid to no more than 75 percent of a district’s budget, a move that would hit hardest at urban communities.

He has held up Jersey City and Hoboken as two city districts that have seen generous aid while the benefits of gentrification have also brought significant wealth to the communities.

 “Anybody talking about property tax relief who is not talking about reforming the school-funding formula is either oblivious, disingenuous, or just doesn’t want to do the heavy lifting,” Ciattarelli said.

“There is only one way to resolve property taxes in this state, and it is in a new and more equitable school-funding formula,” he said.

PARCC testing

The state’s standardized testing of students has long been a contentious issue, but the advent of online PARCC testing has been as argued as much as any in the past 20 years.

The tests have required more time and money from schools, and the stakes are high for students, schools, and teachers when it comes to evaluating progress. For students, passing the 10th grade English and the Algebra I tests will soon be required for graduation. For a large segment of teachers, student progress on the PARCC tests is part of their annual evaluations.

The Democrats are fairly unanimous on the subject, each decrying the testing as onerous on schools and unfair to students and teachers. Each said there would still be assessments under their watch, but with lower stakes.

“Now, teachers spend 15 days a year preparing students for the PARCC test,” said Wisniewski at the NJTV debate. “I would end PARCC testing immediately.”

Murphy was among those going a step further in supporting changing the 30-year-old law that requires the state even have a graduation test. He said he would not eliminate all testing of students, agreeing that it provides a valuable benchmark, but would pull back on high-stakes exams.

Lesniak, the state senator, said he would emulate programs in Finland that put more responsibilities on teachers in determining assessments for each school. “I would put the respect into the classroom and let the teachers teach as the professionals they were trained to be,” he said.

The Republican candidates have spent considerably less time on the issue of testing, although both have raised concerns about the amount of time spent on PARCC.

But neither Guadagno nor Ciattarelli have called for pulling back on the stakes of the testing, and Ciattarelli voted against such a measure that would have done just that in the Assembly.

Charter schools

Charter schools is another contentious issue, especially with Christie’s expansion of the alternative schools over the past eight years.

The state now has more than 80 charters operating, some with multiple schools, and more than 40,000 students served. In cities like Newark and Camden, more than a third of all eligible children attend charters instead of district schools.

The Democrats agree that the rate of expansion needs to be slowed, but disagree on what to call the easing off.

Murphy has called for what he terms a “time-out,” saying there are enough concerns around funding and enrollment of charters to at least revisit the state’s charter school law.

“I have never been a heck-no-charters guy, but I’ve never been in favor of how Gov. Christie is doing this,” he said at the debate. “Let’s take a time-out and get the rules of the road organized.”

Others are quicker to use the term moratorium, putting an outright halt to new approvals and expansions. Lesniak said he is most concerned with the money that is taken out of district schools to fund charters.

Johnson’s preferred term is “pause,” but to the same end. “Charter schools may be for some kids the only option, but charter schools were started to be a laboratory where best practices are passed on,” he said. “We haven’t done that, and it’s why I think there should be a pause.”

The Republicans have been more supportive of charter schools, with Guadagno this spring saying she would aggressively support even further expansion.

“I don’t know how anyone can walk away from charter schools,” she said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “Forget just the numbers, just the fact there is a line out the door to get into these schools … We have to fight to keep these schools open.”

Ciattarelli has supported charter school growth in underperforming districts, but has also cautioned against their expansion in more successful districts. “You don’t make a school system better by taking money out of the school system,” he said.

This story is part of a regular series exploring where the candidates stand on major issues and assessing key considerations in this year’s elections. Follow these links for a look at where the gubernatorial candidates stand on undocumented immigrants and legalizing marijuana; the hottest district races; an overview of the legislative landscape; the candidates’ plans to ease New Jersey’s fiscal crisis; why the Democrats favor single-payer healthcare; and the reasons the Republicans are cool on the ACA replacement bill.

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