What Christie failed to mention in State of State speech about his education record

TRENTON, NJ - JANUARY 14: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers the State of the State Address on January 14, 2014 in the Assembly Chambers at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. In his speech Christie briefly addressed the ongoing George Washington Bridge lane closure scandal saying his administration
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State of the State Address on Tuesday. (By Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

A big part of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State speech Tuesday was devoted to his record on school reform and his plans for moving forward — and it is worth noting the big difference between what Christie (R) says about his record on public education and what he actually did with public education during his first term in office.

In his State of the State address, Christie proposed lengthening the school year beyond 180 days and extending the school day in New Jersey’s public schools  – a reform that has become popular around the country — though he didn’t mention how he plans to pay for it.

He also said that the state is “making a large investment in public education, spending “over $25 billion a year, all told,” and he noted that “our per pupil expenditure is the highest in the nation at over $17,000 per year” — as if he has long been a proponent of big education funding, which he hasn’t.

He failed to note that he cut $1.1 billion from public schools during his first year as governor (while at the same time giving wealthy New Jersey residents a tax break of about the same amount), as Rob Duffey, policy and communications coordinator of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance notes here. The state Supreme Court ordered that some of the money be restored, but the non-profit Education Law Center estimates that Christie  underfunded the state’s public education formula by about $4.5 billion in his first term.

This September 2013 report by the staff of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says that New Jersey is actually the “third highest-ranked state in the country in per-pupil expenditure,” but there are a lot of ways that this is calculated. It also notes that “when the [federal] stimulus dried up and the economy was still stagnating, instructional expenditure received severe cuts … and Camden experienced the largest cuts.” In his speech, Christie had talked about how much help Camden schools needed without mentioning his administration’s part in making the schools so needy. He also praised the work of Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, without a word about how flat state funding for that school system forced nearly $20 million in cuts to staff, programs and services.

Christie also made no mention of the fact that he gave his speech a day after he vetoed a bill to establish a task force to study how to provide full-day kindergarten to over 22,000 children stuck in half- day programs, according to the Education Law Center. He has so far refused to fund any expansion of high-quality preschool, leaving 45,000 eligible three- and four-year-olds without access to such programs.

And he didn’t discuss why he has halted or slowed state construction projects to fix or replace dilapidated school buildings in the state’s urban areas (many of which aren’t fit to be used in the summer, which would be required if he extends the school year).

 

Here’s the part of Christie’s State of the State speech that relates to school reform:

 

If the evidence is clear that increasing taxes hurts our growth, it is equally clear that improving education is a key to helping our growth.

We’ve made some great progress in these past four years: a record amount of school aid, long-overdue reform of our system of teacher tenure, an increase in the number of charter schools and an Urban Hope Act that is bringing renaissance schools to some of our most challenged cities.

Some results are promising too. Last year, New Jersey’s high school graduation rate increased by a full percentage point, to 87.5%. Student achievement is strong in many of our public schools, and New Jersey’s students are among the country’s greatest achievers. Just a few years ago, a graduate of my own high school, Livingston High School, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry.

We are making a large investment in public education: New Jersey spends over $25 billion a year, all told. Our per pupil expenditure is the highest in the nation at over $17,000 per year.

In some cases – too many – our children are not receiving the education they deserve. While many public schools are strong, too many are still failing. While the vast majority of teachers are performing well, some are underperforming – and they should be removed from the classroom.

The need to be better is particularly acute in New Jersey’s cities. Our urban schools demand our attention, and believe me, they have mine.

Where bold action was necessary, we have taken bold action. And we have made a commitment to the kids in our cities that they have a right to the same quality education as kids in our suburbs.

In our largest school system, in Newark, we have brought in a new organization and new resources, not only in the form of state aid but in collaboration with parents, teachers, and community leaders on the ground. One result – we negotiated a historic contract with the teacher’s union and delivered real merit pay alongside increased teacher involvement.

Most importantly we want to encourage innovation while listening to the specific needs of our urban communities. It’s the reason why we have empowered our superintendents in Newark and Camden to make choices that work best for their kids, their parents and their schools.

In Newark, that superintendent is Cami Anderson.

Cami has moved to pay the best teachers, to stop actions that are failing kids, to empower 50 new principals, create cooperation between public schools and charter schools and reorganize the school systems’ structure to focus on putting students, schools and parents first.

Early childhood enrollment has increased by more than 1,000 students. Graduation rates have increased by 10%.

Newark is leading the conversation in making sure every kid – those who are behind, those who are ahead, those who have special education needs – are lifted up.

Every kid means every kid.

Her efforts haven’t always been met without skepticism, but she is a true partner with Newark. Cami is here with us today – Cami, thank you for your commitment to our kids.

How bad has it been in Camden? Last year, only three students graduated “college ready.” Paymon Rouhanifard is bringing that same energy to Camden’s public schools. He has turned around a perennially low-performing charter school to showing some of the largest academic gains in the state. He has launched a new “safe corridors” program with Mayor Dana Redd, which has created safe walking routes to and from school for our children.

And, of the 345 students who have dropped out in the last year, we went door-to-door and re-enrolled 50 of them.

Paymon, thank you for your efforts and your dedication.

Both Cami and Paymon have this Administration’s confidence and support to continue the aggressive reforms needed that work best for the communities of Newark and Camden and put kids first.

Cami and Paymon are emblems of my commitment to ensuring the opportunity for an excellent education to every child in New Jersey, regardless of the zip code.

Despite the improvements we are seeing in Newark and Camden, I believe we need to take bigger and broader steps to adjust our approach to K-12 education to address the new competitive world we live in. Our school calendar is antiquated both educationally and culturally. Life in 2014 demands something more for our students. It is time to lengthen both the school day and school year in New Jersey.

If student achievement is lagging at the exact moment when we need improvement more than ever in order to compete in the world economy, we should take these steps – every possible step – to boost student achievement.

And one key step is to lengthen the school day and the school year. So, working with Commissioner Cerf, I will present to you shortly a proposal to increase the length of both the school day and the school year in New Jersey. This is a key step to improve student outcomes and boost our competitiveness. We should do it now.

Many of our new initiatives recognize a core feature of modern American life: that the quality of education and the quality of life in our communities are inextricably intertwined.

That is why this year, we need to be more aggressive, and bolder, in fixing our failing schools – and delivering a choice to those for whom today the only option is a bad option: a failing school.

This is a moral obligation. We must give every New Jersey child the chance to graduate from high school, to be ready for college and to prepare for a career. If we fail to meet this obligation, we compromise the life of that child, and we hurt the quality of life in our communities and in New Jersey. So failure is not an option.

 

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · January 14