Friday, March 3, 2017

Christie’s Final Year as NJ Governor Should Focus on School Choice

Due to term limits, Governor Chris Christie is in his last year as New Jersey Governor, and he just delivered his last state budget. Recently, Christie has been pushing a major overhaul of the NJ’s K-12 state school funding system, under which the state sends aid to every school district to supplement local education property taxes.

It is common knowledge that the funding scheme needs reform. But the reforms Christie sought are very controversial. Currently, the formula works like a progressive wealth redistribution scheme, with the most aid going to the poorest districts. Funded by the state income  tax, this means wealth is transferred from “wealthy” districts to “poor” districts. While every district gets something, the upshot is that “wealthy”—a euphemism for middle class suburban—districts whose taxpayers pay through the nose because of the progressive income tax, also must pay higher property taxes toward their schools. The discrepancy can be wide, with “urban districts that can get more than $20,000 per-pupil in annual aid to suburban districts that can get less than $1,000 per-pupil.” Christie wants to end this practice, and give state aid to districts based on the flat per-pupil amount of $6600.

The NJ Star-Ledger hates the reform plan—no surprise there. Its last editorial just prior to Christie’s budget address to the legislature, the Star-Ledger called on the governor not to make it the big fight of his last year. In Budget drama: Will Christie back off plan to wreck urban schools?, The Star-Ledger writes:

Our governor knows [it will never pass]. He has his flaws, but he is not stupid.

Cities across the state would face . . . catastrophe. And that includes the urban charter schools that are the governor's most important success story. He would be trashing his own legacy.

I don’t agree with the Star-Ledger’s assessment of the plan. But I do agree Christie should back off; back off, that is, from the funding reform, not the issue of education. The Star-Ledger predicted he will back off, calling on the governor to focus his last budget “constructively. In fact, Christie did abandon his school aid funding revision, much to the chagrin of his plan’s supporters. Wrote a disappointed and angry Paul Mulshine:

Just like the month that begins today, Chris Christie is going out like a lamb.

The governor sounded like a lion last year when he did a series of town halls around the state focusing on his "Fairness Formula" that would equalize state education aid so suburban schools get an amount equal to the cities.

But by the time Christie gave his annual budget address Tuesday afternoon, the fight had gone out of him. Under the budget, the Democratic cities will keep getting the lion's share of state school aid in Fiscal 2018, which begins July 1.

I agree with Mulshine’s view on the school funding issue. But important as it is to make it fairer, in my view the most constructive thing Christie could do for education is devote his last year to liberating education from the traditional public school establishment.

This should not be hard for the governor. Shortly after taking office in 2010, Christie—by way of a keynote speech to the American Federation for Children in Washington DC—made a commitment to universal school choice. He promised to make the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, the tax credit-based school choice bill then working its way through the legislature with a healthy dose of Democratic and “liberal” support, the first step toward the day when school "choice is available to every parent and every child... across the state of NJ."

The reason “urban charter schools . . . are the governor's most important success story” boils down to two related moral principles: Charters substantially liberate entrepreneurial educators to innovate, and liberate parents to voluntarily opt their children out of the traditional public schools in favor of better educational opportunities. Urban parents need school choice the most, so that was a good place to start. Thousands of urban parents in Newark and elsewhere have chosen to move their children out of the establishment schools that they judge not to be doing the job for their kids. And the substantial success of the urban charter school movement demonstrates the broader power of liberating educators and parents to act on their own judgement. There is no reason why parents of children assigned to “good” suburban schools should not have the same chance for the same reason.  

Because no school could possibly be good for every child, every parent should have choice as a recognition of their fundamental individual rights. Those choices should be expanded beyond charters to private schools, homeschooling, and other alternatives entrepreneurs may come up with. Charters are a fine way toward choice. Charters are funded by having the tax dollars follow the child from the traditional public school to the charter. Other ways to fund school choice within the existing structure of tax-funded education can be tax credits and Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), both of which give parents control over some or all of their education tax dollars.

The traditional education establishment—the bureaucracy, teachers unions, and their political allies—tries to claim ownership of the public trough: “We shouldn’t drain funds from the public schools,” they cry. But public tax dollars belong to the people—that is, to each taxpayer as individuals. There is no justification whatsoever for the establishment to claim monopolistic control of the public education tax trough. They don’t own the trough. I have long advocated for a complete separation of education and state. But as long as public funding of education exists, the education trough belongs to the people whose taxes fill it, not to any special interest group or pressure group.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act never passed, and the school choice issue Christie championed ended up having been pushed to the governor’s back burner. Christie should resurrect the issue in a big way. Giving parents the direct freedom over their education tax dollars is much more important, both morally and practically, than how local and state governments divvy up the taxpayers’ money. A politician can only do so much. For this reason, Christie should push school choice, not school funding reform, to the front of his final year in office. In doing so, he will be fulfilling his promise to be the school choice governor. He may not win any immediate legislative victories, but he will set parental school choice up to be a major issue in this year’s  gubernatorial campaign. What better way to go out than to build on his own legacy of charter school success, or at least set the stage for the next governor to do so.

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