Education: Corzine’s Positive Message?

During the past week, I watched on NJN coverage of several campaign events trumpeting Governor Jon Corzine’s successes in education

During the past week, I watched on NJN coverage of several campaign events trumpeting Governor Jon Corzine’s successes in education governance. The message of each event was as follows: Although Jon Corzine had to make drastic cuts in the state budget during a time of diminished revenues, he actually increased education funding, because he cares about our children.

Will the Governor’s accomplishments in education become the new positive message of the Corzine reelection campaign? It seems plausible to me. Corzine is in dire need of a positive campaign message. Without one, his negative attacks on Chris Christie will continue to backfire and cause his own negative approval ratings to increase at a more rapid rate than those of his Republican challenger.

On Tuesday, the Corzine campaign released “Through”, the most effective commercial of either major party candidate thus far in the campaign. In the short space of thirty seconds, the commercial stated both positive and negative messages for Corzine. The positive message was the claim that the Governor had led New Jersey through tough economic times, yet still managed to provide a disciplined budget, property tax relief, and the beginning of an economic recovery. The negative message was the assertion that Christie is a rabid Bush partisan whose refusal of stimulus money would result in fewer jobs and reduced property tax relief.

While as a Christie supporter I found the commercial to be misleading, one could not deny its effectiveness. Still, I think that the positive message of the commercial is insufficient – the public is never going to be convinced that Corzine has been successful on the economy, budget, or property taxes. It is possible, however, for the Governor to convince the electorate that he has improved the quality of education for New Jersey’s children.

Of course, Chris Christie will not give Corzine a free ride on the issue, and he will point out the negatives on the Corzine education record. Nevertheless, the Governor has more of a basis to assert success on the education front than in other areas of state activity. He has augmented his message of full education funding by noting 1) his strong support for early childhood preschool programs; and 2) his success in achieving victory in the New Jersey Supreme Court for his school funding formula in which “aid follows the child.”

I am obviously not privy to the campaign strategy deliberations presently taking place in the Corzine/Weinberg campaign, so I do not know whether education will become their positive message. It seems to me, however, that the Governor’s education record does constitute their best possibility in this regard. In fact, this education option may constitute the only hope Jon Corzine has for an effective positive message.

There are three factors that make the education message strategy an attractive option for Corzine. First, it may increase his positive ratings on the issue of which candidate cares more about the needs and problems of the “average New Jerseyan.” Second, his success in increasing education funding within a reduced overall budget may also enhance the Governor’s standing on the issue as to which candidate would do a better job handling the state’s finances. Third, the Governor will have an effective ally in the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) in fueling his message.

The NJEA is, in fact, the New Jersey teachers’ union, although it is remarkable how many voters think of it as an education advocacy organization, due to its name. Without question, the NJEA is one of the most effective lobbying and political action organizations in New Jersey. Unlike most other state affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA), the NJEA has many allies among Republican legislators as well as their traditional Democratic friends.

I gained extensive experience and knowledge regarding the NJEA while serving as a Senior Policy Advisor to former New Jersey Assembly Speaker Chuck Haytaian during the early 1990’s. Perhaps the most important thing to understand regarding the NJEA is that they regard virtually every election as a battle for survival. When evaluating candidates for Governor or the Legislature, there are three positions critical to them: 1) Opposition to school vouchers; 2) Continuance of the current teacher tenure rules; and 3) Guarantee of the promised future pension benefits to teachers.

There was little doubt that the NJEA would endorse Corzine for reelection – he had ensured that current pension and health benefits for teacher retirees would remain virtually intact. He opposes vouchers, which Christie has endorsed.

There is, however, another factor regarding Chris Christie which deeply concerns both NJEA leadership and rank and file.

The populist outcry over property tax, which is the major source of education funding in New Jersey, will necessitate major reforms, regardless of the outcome of this election. Although he has been virtually silent as to his plans for property tax reform, there is no doubt that Chris Christie will seek to enact some measures in this regard if elected in November. Since he was not endorsed by the NJEA, Christie is not beholden to them and is much less constrained than Corzine in enacting dramatic property tax reforms that are not to their liking.

Thus, one may anticipate that the NJEA will provide strong support to Jon Corzine in the form of television commercials portraying him as the “Education Governor.” If this results in the slightest uptick in the Governor’s positive approval numbers, the Governor’s campaign will certainly release similar commercials.

Will this bring Jon Corzine back from the political graveyard? At first glance, it seems unlikely. An examination of the most recent Monmouth/Gannett poll reveals that education ranks far below such bread-and-butter issues as property taxes, jobs, and health care costs.

Nevertheless, as my late friend Rutgers Professor Steve Salmore often told me, the three items that the voters most want state government to provide are good schools, safe streets, and good jobs. If the voters feel that Corzine has provided a good public school system, this could go a long way in boosting his positives and stopping the growth of his negatives.

The education message in itself will not ensure a Corzine reelection victory. He will also need to continue to increase Christie’s negatives and hope that Chris Daggett garners at least ten percent of the vote on Election Day.

Nevertheless, all this is not impossible. In a year of dramatic developments, Corzine has shown remarkable recuperative powers after adverse events, such as Corruption Thursday. In the words of Yogi Berra, for Jon Corzine, “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations. Education: Corzine’s Positive Message?