All of the furor over the NJ Department of Education’s faux pas, the one that “lost” $400 million in federal education aid, overlooked an important fact. States that are eagerly lining up for the “Race to the Top” funds are simultaneously throwing away more of their discretion in how to educate their youngest citizens. You may be asking yourself how that could be true; after all, isn’t the “Race to the Top” about improving educational opportunity?
Nominally, the answer to that question is yes. But like most federal diktats, the “Race to the Top” became a maze of byzantine rules and regulations far more than a program funneling money to states with innovative ideas for promoting education. The reason New Jersey was denied acceptance into the program is bizarre, even in bureaucratic terms. The scoring criteria included a minimum per-pupil spending increase. Had state officials used budget data from 2008 and 2009, the increase would have been represented; because they used current budget data, the state’s reduction in per-pupil spending was presented.
Only in the bizarro world of Washington D.C. would the state that ranks third in per-pupil spending wind up penalized for getting its fiscal house in order. Yes, New Jersey cut per-pupil spending this year, but what of it? Integral programs to education are intact, despite the hew and cry raised by the NJEA during the long debate leading to the final budget (unless, that is, you consider ice dancing and lacrosse integral to education).
Bret Schundler wasn’t fired for a clerical error. He was fired for lying to the governor about the clerical error. In that respect, Governor Christie had no choice but to fire Schundler; no leader can have morally challenged people on their executive team. But somebody should award Schundler a “Best Mistake of the Year” award. By losing out on those funds, New Jersey is exempt from federal oversight of any “Race to the Top” program mandates. Is it that important? Yes, if you think that the federal Department of Education has yet to live up to the stated reason for its creation. (The unstated reason, of course, was President Carter’s tit-for-tat with the NEA during the 1976 campaign).
In 31 years of federal mandates, administrated by the ED, American children continue to fall further behind their contemporaries in other nations. “No Child Left Behind” has effectively left an entire generation of children behind, unprepared for entry to either college or the workforce. Recent studies consistently demonstrate that higher percentages of students require remediation upon entry to college today than 30 years ago. The Department of Education is meeting its stated mission of ensuring that all students receive the same level of education. Even if the level is well below what an actual education should be.
Due to a clerical error and Governor Christie’s returning power to local school boards, New Jersey is poised to surge to the top in primary education. Which seems a far better option than a Race to the Top.
It’s been barely four months since Chris Christie took the oath of office as Governor of the Great State of New Jersey. (Please hold the New Jersey jokes for later). For those of who do not reside in the Garden State, Christie was elected for three reasons: (1) to repair the state budget and get taxes under control (especially New Jersey’s insane property taxes); (2) revive the business climate and (3) because he ISN’T Jon Corzine. Well, on the last point, he’s succeeded – nobody will ever confuse Christie with his predecessor. The question is, how is he doing on the first two points?
That probably depends on who you talk to, but one thing is for sure: Christie isn’t only attacking the state budget with zeal, he’s also attacking municipal and school district budgets. In this regard he deserves some credit: he is the first governor since Brendan Byrne in the 1970’s to link all three in an unholy alliance. Of course, Byrne’s solution was to institute the state income tax – which, while it sounded great on paper has had the effect of only bloating the state budget. (We’ll chalk that one up to an “OOPSIES” moment.)
The crux of the issue, for the uninitiated, is this: most of New Jersey’s services are provided by local municipalities and school districts. These entities only have three sources of revenue: state disbursements, local property taxes and local fees. Where Christie has run afoul of both the municipalities and school districts is that he has either frozen or cut the state disbursements for numerous local programs. This has led to a particularly bitter fight with the NJEA, New Jersey preeminent teachers union. With most districts now receiving less in state subsidies, they are faced with the prospect of either raising property taxes to cover the reduction or reducing staff and programs. Of course, there’s also the often under-reported issue of how many districts have used the state’s largesse in the past; for instance, the Jersey City Schools District has put that money into a “rainy-day” fund. The reality is that JCSD could keep services exactly where they currently are without any state assistance whatsoever.
Of course, to hear the teachers union, this is tantamount to the classic line from “Ghostbusters:” Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria! Realizing that they aren’t likely to get the Governor to rescind his executive order, they’ve gone into full attack mode. And by full, I mean attacking on all fronts. It’s become almost amusing to pick up a copy of the Newark Star-Ledger or Bergen Record and see some of the things being said. Eventually, I’ll figure out if the Governor is simply “a fat pig” who obviously didn’t graduate from a public school “because he can’t add 2+2,” and if the state’s Education Commissioner, Brett Schundler, is really an “apostate from Hell.” (These are actually mild statements; in case you hadn’t heard, the NJEA also put a hit on the Governor and tried to contract the Almighty to do the deed). The rhetoric from the state house has turned equally vicious, in true Goodfella’s fashion. (Hey, I’m allowed. I live in the town where The Sopranos was filmed. SO…shuddayamouf). Christie has likened teachers to drug pushers, among other things. What makes this especially entertaining is that this highlights a diametric opposition of two incredibly powerful forces in state politics – the NJEA is the state’s largest union in what is a traditionally pro-union state and the Governor is, well..the Governor.
The real test comes today, when citizens across the state vote on their local school district budgets. Ordinarily, these elections are pretty tame affairs marked by low turnout and high margins of passage. but since Christie threw down a gauntlet earlier this month – challenging the state’s voters to not pass any budget that doesn’t include a wage freeze for teachers. How low and how high? In a typical year, voter turnout would be around 20% and over 90% of school budgets are passed. The all time low is 54% of school budgets being approved – a number that may well be surpassed this year, given that a Rasmussen poll finds 65% of New Jerseyans siding with the Governor.
So, will this be the year when New Jersey’s citizens finally stop saying “Enough with property taxes” and actually start doing something about it? Chris Christie is hoping so. He’s set this election up as the first real test of his political clout and chosen the State’s biggest union – and most powerful lobbying group – as his intended target. If he succeeds in getting voters to reject the proposed budgets in the 86% of districts seeking an increase, he will have won a significant victory and the odds go up that he will be able to ram through his proposed “Slim-Fast” budgets over the next three years. So, for now Christie gets an “incomplete” on this issue.
I’ll post an update here tomorrow and tackle the other main issue, reviving the NJ business climate. In the meantime, I’ve included two more links after the break for your reading enjoyment.
UPDATE: It looks as if the voters in this state have rejected 54% of the proposed school budgets, an all-time high. This round goes to the Governor. Grade, so far: B-