As the dust settles on the tenure of Bret Schundler, Chris Christie should be looking for a replacement with a proven track record in education, rather than a political resume. New Jersey needs leadership that respects the integrity of the public education system rather than a strong ideological bias towards dismantling the public schools.
After a little more than six months on the job no one could accuse Governor Christie of being too soft on teachers unions even if he appointed a commissioner who respected public education and wanted to cooperate on necessary reform efforts. A great starting point would be having a balanced approach to strengthening weaker districts rather than undermining the entire system through indiscriminately approving private charters which divert public money and lack accountability.
While everyone appreciates the state of the state’s economy, we need an education commissioner who would actively advocate for a real investment in the success of students and the public institutions that serve them. With strong leadership, next year’s budget could support proven reforms based on the expertise of our state’s educators. As the recent funding debacle has illustrated, working with teachers and support staff who are in the classroom every day and understand the real needs of students could mean a larger pie for everyone to share in acquiring federal or foundation funds.
Governor Christie and his incoming commissioner need to admit that using any objective analysis, New Jersey’s school districts rank well nationally. Unfortunately far too many poor urban districts lack necessary resources to deal with ill-fed students lacking language skills, social and family support. When the Governor was a young child, Christie’s parents joined the suburban flight in search of a better life for the children. The urban centers are now far from Christie’s constituent base, except for remaining conservative voices—like the newly disposed Schundler—whose focus on charter-based solutions further weaken these districts.
The state’s new commissioner needs to work with the Commission on Higher Education to address the brain-drain in higher education. While overall, New Jersey produces college-ready graduates, the state’s fine public colleges and universities are the biggest losers of these graduates to out-of-state schools. Correspondingly, these students continue to migrate and build their talents and skills elsewhere while New Jersey loses the competitive edge of a skilled workforce and employers have less incentive to keep or move their businesses here.
Advocating for real support for education, including committing to address the systematic problems of urban education, requires independent political thinking that goes beyond the next Gubernatorial election because the payoffs are long-term and turnaround takes time. It is easy to move public money to short-term profit-driven private charters and by doing so punish public education. Long-term solutions require resources and a commitment that does not score political points and may not satisfy frustrated parents who demand immediate change.
A commissioner with the integrity to stand up for truly improving education will have to rise above partisan politics and ideological blinders. It is a sad reality that a recommendation from a teachers union would be a kiss-of-death for a candidate so there is no sense in naming names here. However, if Governor Christie is serious about addressing the problems in education in New Jersey, he will nominate a commissioner with an inclusive vision of education and one who has the independence and strength to build working relationships between the Governor’s office and the education community without fear of being publically chastised—or worse—for doing so.
William Lipkin is the President of the American Federation of Teachers New Jersey (www.aftnj.org)—representing more than 30,000 education workers from pre-kindergarten through higher education.