Thursday, January 26, 2012

Is Governor Christie Winning NJ's Public School War?

OK ... maybe "winning" is too strong a word. 2011 was to be the year of education reform, according to Governor Chris Christie. The results were underwhelming, to say the least.

But Christie has two more years of his first term to go, and an interesting development occurred on the last day of the 2011 NJ legislative session; passage by a heavily Democratic legislature of the Urban Hope Act. This narrowly tailored bill would authorize private companies to build and run public schools. The companies would finance and build the schools themselves, but would draw upon tax dollars to fund operations. They would have to operate under strict state- and municipal-imposed guidelines. Furthermore, these schools would be restricted to only three "failing" districts; Newark, Camden, and Trenton. In other words, the bill is minimal "privatization", but not a significant move toward a genuine free market.

The interesting thing about this bill is not the bill itself, but the fact that it drew the reluctant support of the New Jersey Education Association - the teachers union. The question is why?

The union has long been a steadfast opponent of anything with a scent of privatization. As such, the decision to support this bill came as a shock to government-run public schools’ staunchest defenders. Bob Braun of the NJ Star-Ledger, writing on the eve of what looked like certain passage, blasted the union endorsement:

In a move that displays either its weakness or cynicism — or both — the state’s largest teachers’ union has joined forces with archenemy Gov. Chris Christie and the powerful Camden County Democratic machine of George Norcross to endorse the "Urban Hope Act," which would allow private companies to build and manage public schools using taxpayer money.

The union’s flip-flop shatters the unity of a coalition that has consistently opposed the Christie administration’s efforts to bring privatization to public education. It left spokesmen for some of those groups literally speechless.

So again, the question is, why? The answer could be that the union views itself as losing a battle it can’t afford to lose; Christie’s ultimate goal is universal parental school choice. Braun continues:

Privately, union allies say it had no choice but to support the bill. They say the union hopes its collaboration with the Camden County machine might forestall legislative action on Christie proposals the NJEA fears more than it does private management of public schools — private school vouchers and tenure reform.

"The passage of the Urban Hope Act certainly will remove the logic behind the argument for vouchers,’’ Schnitzer said. She denied reaching a quid pro quo for the union’s support of the Norcross bill.

I hope Christie reads the tealeaves as pointing to a green light for more aggressive initiatives. The argument that the UHA “will remove the logic behind the argument for vouchers” is wishful thinking. Why should only parents with kids in “failing” school districts have choice? Once the principle that parents have the right to direct the course of their own children’s’ education is accepted, as is increasingly the case, the “logic” leads more and more towards freedom and individual rights in education – until and unless proponents get cold feet. This is not to say that I support Christie’s plan of implementation, which is, ultimately, fatally flawed. As I wrote in my 5/19/10 post “The Voucher Trojan Horse”:

Governor Christie intends no small, half-way measures. His approach is bold, aggressive, and courageous. He means to engage the entrenched establishment, including the coercive political power of the state teachers’ union, in full frontal ideological combat. He has done us a huge service by bringing education to the front burner in a big way. The government-run public school monopoly has been put on notice - your days are numbered in New Jersey. For this, he deserves enormous credit.

Unfortunately, his energetic enthusiasm is hitched to the wrong solution. While some measure of educational improvement is bound to occur early on, if his plan is fully implemented, the very advantages of private education that makes parental choice so appealing will eventually be washed away. They will get smothered by establishment conditions attached to their voucher checks, as the bureaucratic handcuffs are slipped on and their entrepreneurial freedom such as it is slips away.

A better way to implement universal choice is through a plan I spelled out in my Spring 2011 Objective Standard article, Toward a Free Market in Education: School Vouchers or Tax Credits? It is a plan that gives full private control over all education tax dollars to all that pay those taxes, and is thus a real, viable step toward an education free market.

That aside, the political message that can be drawn from the passage of the Urban Hope Act is that the education establishment is on the defensive as the momentum continues to shift toward the parental school choice movement. Governor Christie has played a big part in humbling the Democrats’ strongest constituency in a heavily “blue” state – no small achievement. This is no time for true education reformers to rest on their laurels.

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