TRENTON – If taxes were No. 1 on people’s minds this year, probably the next biggest issue for the fiscal year 2013 budget season was education.
Styling himself as an education reformer, Gov. Chris Christie has consistently proposed four major elements in education reform: changing teacher tenure, expanding school choice, compensating teachers differently, largely through the inclusion of merit pay, and giving principals a greater say on which teachers they want in their schools.
Christie has said that he still has his hands tied somewhat in terms of having to devote a large amount of state aid to at-risk, generally low-performing urban school districts.
To resolve this, he has called for changing the make-up of the state Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the state owed $500 million to those so-called Abbott districts.
However, that goal of placing more conservative justices on the court appears to be elusive for Christie given that the Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee (with the exception of Hudson County ally Brian Stack) have yet to green-light any of Christie’s picks. Recent nominees Bruce Harris and Phil Kwon failed to get the committee’s blessing.
Still, for FY13 more money was devoted to suburban school districts, and funds for afterschool programs, like New Jersey After 3, survived the chopping block.
Indeed, both sides pointed out during the budget-crafting process that this is the largest amount of state aid devoted to public education.
According to the Christie Administration , it increased state aid to schools for the second year of his term by almost $200 million.
Altogether, the state budget devotes more than $8.8 billion toward public education.
Perhaps the biggest sign of progress toward one of Christie’s goals was getting politicians, advocates of education reform and the state’s largest teachers union (The New Jersey Education Association) on the same page in reforming that seemingly bullet-proof policy known as tenure.
Sen. Teresa Ruiz, (D-29), Newark, received near-universal praise from state Republicans and Democrats for shepherding through an overhaul of tenure, which among other things, calls for increasing the time period before teachers could be eligible for tenure from three years to four years.
However, the celebration was somewhat undercut by the fact that one of Christie’s priorities –doing away with the seniority provision that forces schools to keep longtime but underperforming teachers over young, promising ones – was gutted in the final version of the bill.
Christie defended the final bill, saying there were enough good things in it for him to support, echoing his oft-repeated phrase that he is willing and able to compromise.
In March, Christie signed a bill creating a $1 million Governor’s Urban Scholarship program, providing well-performing urban students the opportunity to attend college.
In terms of school choice, the administration has approved several charter school applications, bringing the total number, as of early August, to 86.
The state’s Interdistrict School Choice program has seen growth as well, enabling students to go to another relatively close public school if the one in their hometown is not meeting their expectations. The Education Department has submitted a proposal calling for further expansion.