Is Chris Christie An Education Governor?

In his State of the State speech today, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie continued to position himself as the nation's leading education reform governor, hot on the heels of his publicity tour around Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to the Newark public schools. 

In the speech, Christie focused on underperforming teachers, calling for an end to tenure and saying, "I propose that we reward the best teachers, based on merit, at the individual teacher level. I demand that layoffs, when they occur, be based on a merit system and not merely on seniority. … And perhaps the most important step is to give schools more power to remove underperforming teachers.”

These are all potentially sensible policy moves, if they are pursued in conjunction with improved professional development for teachers, and if such "merit" systems rely on multiple measures of teacher effectiveness, not just on student standardized test scores. 

But a true education reform governor, in my view, should be interested in education issues beyond those that allow one to beat up on teachers' unions and public sector workers. While Christie deserves credit for protecting some crucial school programs, such as early child child education, it remains the case that he cut $819 million from his state's education budget, and that those cuts will most affect the neediest students, whose local communities won't be able to fill in the gaps. 

What's more, Christie has demonstrated a disturbing disregard for his state's progressive history of battling education inequality–namely the landmark 1985 civil rights case Abbott v. Burke, in which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Trenton must offer supplemental funding to high-poverty districts and launch programs specifically targeting poor children, such as universal pre-K, early childhood literacy block time, and in-school counseling services.

The Abbott system led the Schott Foundation to rank the Newark public schools the national leader in helping African American boys make it to high school graduation. But at a Sept. 25 press conference with Zuckerberg and Cory Booker, Christie referred obliquely to the Education Law Center, which brought Abbott to court, as those who have "sued the state's education system into failure. Candidly, I don't give a damn what those people think."

Christie is motivated by budget-cutting and union-bashing far more, it seems, than he is motivated by fighting the battle against education inequality on all fronts. Teacher reform is one way–but by no means the only way–to improve the educational outcomes of poor children.

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