What is Christie's End-Game?

New Jersey papers are blaring Gov. Chris Christie’s declaration yesterday that he will attempt an end-run around the Legislature and go to through the court system to accomplish two goals:

  1. Overturn the Abbott v. Burke decisions that dramatically ramped up state aid to 31 poor districts, some of which are no longer poor.
  2. Give the state the ability to bypass local bargaining agreements with teacher unions to  overturn LIFO or “last in, first out,” the practice that requires districts during lay-offs to lay off teachers with the least seniority, regardless of effectiveness, and bypass contracts that limit teacher work days that impede district ability to lengthen school days.

For coverage see NJ Spotlight, the Star Ledger, The Record, and Asbury Park Press.

New Jersey has spent $100 billion on those 31 districts since 1985. In fact 58% of state aid goes to only 5% of the state’s 591 school districts. While there are some bright spots (Union City, for example), student outcomes remain dramatically low compared to richer districts. And some of those Abbott districts -- Jersey City and Hoboken are prime examples -- have rapidly gentrified and would no longer qualify as impoverished but continue to receive massive doses of state aid and free preschool for all children. Jersey City is scheduled to receive $420,565,569 in state aid; meanwhile, townhouses sell for $1.3 million.

While Christie’s proposed “fairness formula” -- a flat $6,559 in state per student, regardless of economic circumstances -- is absurd and unfair, everyone (except the Education Law Center, which litigated Abbott) knows that N.J.’s school funding formula is broken, both fiscally unsustainable and educationally inequitable. For proof, just listen to gubernatorial hopeful Jersey City mayor Steve Fulop, who denounced Christie’s court filing as “ an attack on urban communities in the poorest of districts” Meanwhile, Fulop has managed to avoid reassessments of Jersey City property in order to maintain farcically-low property taxes. It’s this sort of political duplicity that gets in the way of actually creating a fair funding formula.

While Christie hopes that a newly-formulated court (i.e., more Republicans than Democrats) will bump up his chances of overturning Abbott, the odds are low that the Court will accede.

Christie’s other projects are yet more bluster. The Court isn’t likely to agree to bypass local bargaining agreements that stipulate work days, some as short as five hours of “student contact time.”

And N.J.’s LIFO law was amended just four years ago. Sure, everyone but NJEA (and another gubernatorial hopeful and union shill Phil Murphy) would love to factor in instructional effectiveness during necessary lay-offs. NJ School Boards Association, for example, has long advocated for 5-year renewable contracts. Senator Teresa Ruiz, who heads the Education Committee (and is on the short list for Senate President should Steve Sweeney prevail in the contest for governor next year) drafted the teacher tenure reform bill and was/is an ardent advocate for eliminating LIFO.

But it will take more than a conservative Court to repeal statute.

So what’s Christie’s endgame? First of all, he’s got nothing to lose, our “stronger than the storm” leader emasculated in the Trump dump. And we’ll give him this: his “fairness formula” has instigated necessary conversation about the obsolete Abbott list, our absurd practice of continuing “Adjustment Aid,” and the failure to correctly factor in “fair share” calculations. (I’m getting wonky. For more on this see Jeff Bennett at New Jersey Education Aid.)

Similarly, we owe our kids a discussion of the benefits of extending school calendars, with appropriately pro-rated salary increases for teachers and instructional aides. And the practice of LIFO remains a major source of educational inequity. Quality-blind lay-offs relegate our neediest students to the least value-added teachers.

Meanwhile, N.J. lobbyists who support the status quo are huffing away, with NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer calling Christie’s efforts a “political ploy.” That’s true. It is. But, now that N.J. has proved beyond all doubt that money alone doesn’t erase district-to-district educational inequities, it’s worthwhile to look at other factors, like school calendars and disparities in teacher quality.