Running a New Race in New Jersey

I am not ashamed to admit that Eduflack is a Jersey guy, and I don’t just mean that I like Springsteen.  I spent many of my formative public school years in New Jersey public schools.  I was an altar boy at Holy Name Catholic Church in East Orange.  I still dream of those Saturday night visits to Star Tavern pizza in Orange.  I was a paperboy for the Newark Star-Ledger, my first paying job. I look fondly on the days when I was fortunate enough to work for U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.  And today, my family makes the trek up to central Jersey (Hamilton, to be exact) for most major holidays and family functions.  So while the body may reside in DC, Eduflack’s heart will always be in the Garden State.

As such, I’ve been paying particular attention to recent Race to the Top activities in the state.  Back in the fall, the New Jersey Department of Education issued an RFP to find consulting firms who could help it prepare the state’s Race application (as it was not a beneficiary of Gates’ summer grant gifts).  Then in November, mere weeks after proposals were due and after Chris Christie defeated incumbent governor Jon Corzine, the state returned all submissions unopened, suspending their engagement.  Most saw this as a sign that the SEA was holding off, dumping RttT in the lap of an unprepared Christie administration.

But a funny thing has happened since then.  New Jersey Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and her team have been scrambling to complete their application, with every intention of submitting for Phase One consideration.  And just yesterday, two weeks before the Phase One deadline, Davy announced her comprehensive plans (and reforms) for making NJ a contender in the Race.  The full story can be found in yesterday’s Star-Ledger here.

New Jersey has a compelling story to tell when it comes to education reforms.  From the reforms caused by the Abbott decision to some of the bold actions taken by Newark Mayor Corey Booker, there is much to talk about.  Yet Jersey lags when it comes to charter schools.  And the strength of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s teachers union, is legendary.  All this makes a Race application difficult to write, and even more difficult to enforce should the state win.

Davy focused her remarks yesterday on the adoption of state-of-the-art data systems and school turnaround plans.  Calling the plan “aggressive but achievable,” she noted that NJEA was at the table helping to develop the plan (even though NJEA leadership is now voicing objections, particularly to the Race-mandated teacher merit pay provisions).  Obviously, this plan is the capstone to Davy’s tenure, representing what she and Gov. Corzine have been working on for years in the area of public education.  And for the record, it is a good plan, particularly when you consider the history and politics of public education in the state.

Why all of this expository?  Davy’s team will be submitting Jersey’s Race application on the same day that Christie is sworn in as the state’s next governor.  It is safe to say that his transition team is not significantly involved in the application development, particularly since Davy did not focus on Christie’s education reform centerpiece — charter schools.  So we have a very real possibility of New Jersey charting a course that the incoming powers that be will either be unable or unwilling to actually steer toward.  It was a dilemma that Eduflack noted back in November, and now it has become all too real.

So what should Christie do?  RttT guidelines say that the application must be endorsed by, among other people, the state’s governor.  As of the Phase One deadline, then Gov. Christie’s signature will not be on the application.  It may be semantics to some, but at the time of consideration, the New Jersey Race application will not have the endorsement of the state’s sitting governor.  So what’s a Jersey governor to do?

If Eduflack were standing in Christie’s shoes on January 19, there is only one inevitable action to take.  I would withdraw the state’s Race application.  Pull it back from the U.S. Department of Education before it is reviewed and scrutinized.  Note that it does not hold the endorsement of the state’s governor … yet.  Buy myself some time so my advisors, both in state and out, can help assemble a plan that would utilize that nearly $400 million in possible education support to forward my own plans for education improvement.

(The major wrinkle to all of this, of course, is NJEA.  They are now on record as not being thrilled with Davy’s plan.  They also led a passionate, expensive, and some say vitriolic non-stop attack against Christie throughout the campaign, trying to paint his as Public Enemy Number One for the state.  Rewriting the Race app means likely losing NJEA support entirely (it’s not like they would have a significant seat at the table the second time around).  And the state needs the endorsement of the teachers union to put forward an acceptable application.  It’s a real damned do/don’t for Christie.  Accept the application as is, and live with the plan and NJEA’s role as a driver in it, or pull it back and offer a plan you can truly get behind.)

But if he does withdraw the expected Phase One application, Christie will then have four months to figure out his next move.  His Department of Education can begin work sketching out a new vision, building on Davy’s plans for data systems and moderate teacher merit pay while using charters as a major driver for school improvement.  He can look to replicate recent reforms in Newark in cities like Trenton.  He can show more love to Jersey’s STEM education commitment.  He can even look to strengthen the standing of programs like Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools across the Garden State.  He has the time and power to craft a Race application that represents his vision and demonstrates the Christie path to improved student learning and test scores.

Or he can be even bolder, and simply decide that New Jersey will not compete in Race to the Top.  He can determine that the obligations under standards, assessments, and data systems are too great to manage in this economy with a meager $400 million.  He could decree that his education improvement agenda is focused exclusively on the expansion and support of charter schools, and since charters are but a minor part of Race’s intentions, he’s going to go all-in on charters in his own way, and he’ll find the state and private-sector support to make it happen without the federal oversight.

Yes, New Jersey has bigger issues to address than Race to the Top.  Christie has to focus immediately on a struggling economy, high taxes, high unemployment, a state pension system out of control, and a populace that has lost confidence in most of its social institutions.  Making a bold move on Race, in his first day in office, can signal that Christie is not business as usual.  He listened to the state, and knows they are hungry for change.  He realizes that today’s struggling parents want a better future for their kids.  And that future begins with stronger schools.  This may be the one real opportunity he has to truly make his mark on public education, acting now and the refocusing on the state’s economic needs.

From one Jersey boy to another, think about it Mr. Christie.  We often complain about what we inherit from the predecessors in our jobs.  Rarely are we given the opportunity to change things right out of the gate.  RttT is a major commitment for New Jersey.  Do you take this opportunity to fo
llow, or to lead through your own bold strategy?

247 thoughts on “Running a New Race in New Jersey

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