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New York Post

 

Christie's Big Bet on School Reform

January 18, 2010

By Steven Malanga

New Jersey Gov.-Elect Chris Christie’s most audacious move so far has been his choice for state education commissioner -- former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, a man the National Education Association once dubbed Public Enemy No. 1 for his advocacy of school choice.

Christie rolled to victory last November on the basis of voter discontent with the Garden State’s high taxes and its budgetary problems. And it’s clear that getting Jersey’s spending under control means finding ways to get more bang for the state’s education bucks -- which will require reforms like those Schundler has long advocated, but which teachers unions despise.

In New Jersey, an alliance of Republicans and urban Democrats has advocated for more charter schools and for business-financed education vouchers for poor children. The roadblock: the state’s powerful teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, and its allies in the Legislature.

Jersey serves as an example of how money alone, absent reform, does little to help failing schools. A series of court orders has forced the state to funnel billions of dollars into 31 urban districts (the total’s now about $4 billion a year), with little impact on student achievement. Camden has a whopping $340 million budget for a system serving 13,000 students (more than $26,000 per student), yet 26 of the city’s schools failed to make adequate progress last year toward federal education requirements. In Newark, only about 42 percent of eighth graders were deemed proficient on recent state math assessment tests.

Jersey’s urban school districts suffer from decades of patronage, waste and a focus on politics instead of education. To take one example, in 1995, the state seized control of the Newark schools because of corruption and has operated them ever since. Though the state’s takeover brought some measure of stability to the system, it did little to reform classroom instruction or improve student performance -- prompting an angered Mayor Cory Booker to declare last year, “We have to find ways to expand options for parents and reward innovation” in Newark.

One New Jersey reformer, former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Gaby, put it best when he observed several years ago that, “in spite of 35 years of trying really hard and umpteen billions of dollars spent, we are not improving public schools in urban districts . . . For those who ask parents to be patient, I have a question: Would they send their children to any of these [failing] schools?”

Until his untimely death last month, Gaby headed the Newark-based Excellent Education for Everyone, or E3. The group lobbied hard for five years to pass a bill to give students in Jersey’s poorest communities access to grants to pay for private-school education with tax-deductible funds from the state’s business community. But the teachers’ union and the Democratic Party’s old guard blocked the legislation.

Christie backed the voucher bill and other reform efforts in his campaign. Now his selection of Schundler has won plaudits from urban school reformers.

Derrell Bradford, who replaced Gaby as head of E3, called the pick “a phenomenal choice for the tens of thousands of kids who attend chronically failing schools in urban districts.” The Rev. Reginald Jackson, head of the state’s Black Minister’s Council, said in endorsing the Schundler selection: “I am reminded that Rip Van Winkle slept through a revolution. I think the NJEA will be left behind.”

Still, with allies of the teachers’ union in control of the Legislature, the reform battle will be tough. State Sen. Ronald Rice warns that unless Schundler pledges to not push vouchers, the legislature will fight his appointment. With a straight face, Rice then characterized vouchers as a product of “Milton Friedman and the far-right wing of the Republican Party” -- conveniently ignoring who is actually pushing the voucher legislation in Jersey.

So entrenched are these anti-reformers that Jersey risks losing up to $400 million in federal aid under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, which requires states to enact school reforms like adding more charter schools and paying teachers through a merit system in order to qualify for funds.

Opposition in Trenton parallels what’s happening in Albany, where the teachers unions and their legislative allies have stalled legislation that would lift the state’s cap on charter schools and allow New York to tap some $700 million in Race to the Top cash.

Race to the Top is the brainchild of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. As more and more prominent Democrats like Duncan sign on to school reform, it becomes harder for teachers’ unions and their legislative allies to make the case that their opposition is anything but self-interest at the expense of students in failing schools.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/christie_big_bet_on_school_reform_Cmai3Q4Y6lx6yrubJXzSeI

 

 
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