Gov. Chris Christie wants to fix public education by destroying it.
Since taking office in January 2010, the governor has used his vast rhetorical skills to paint the state’s teachers and its education establishment as being impediments to school improvement. And he has proposed an agenda designed to remake public schools to fit a conservative mindset that has little use for the public sector.
In his first budget last year, the governor slashed school funding and then delighted in the defeat of a majority of school budgets across the state. And it is likely that he will do the same again this year, when he unveils his 2011-2012 state budget on Tuesday.
The governor also is among the nation’s staunchest backers of charter schools and the use of vouchers, even if it means using public money to pay for religious private schools.
And he has made it clear – first through his language and now with a proposal that, if made law, would essentially end tenure as we know it.
The governor has won the early rounds in the public relations battle, but a new fighter has entered the ring, hoping to build momentum and make it clear that it is not just the teachers union that is opposed to the Christie education agenda.
Save Our Schools is a grassroots group of parents who say they are standing up to the governor and the state Legislature, and in the process hoping to save public education in the state.
Deborah Cornavaca, an East Brunswick resident, says the “bipartisan tide of ideas” – which include not just the governor’s reform proposals but many being pushed by Democrats at the national and state level – “are off the mark by a long shot.”
“There is clearly a movement towards privatizing our public school system — both in terms of using private dollars as funding (such as with vouchers program now proposed) and using private and charter alternatives to the traditional public schools,” she said in an e-mail.
Save Our Schools (saveourschoolsnj.org) formed in 2010 in response to the governor’s budget, which cut $1.1 billion from the state education budget. The group worked in Princeton to pass the regional school budget and has expanded across central New Jersey and throughout the state.
According to its Web site, the organization is opposed to “legislative and regulatory actions that threaten the health of NJ’s public schools.” Including “Further drastic cuts to the State’s education budget”; “Reductions in State resources that support high-quality education in low-income districts”; “Unfettered expansion of charter schools regardless of quality or host community wishes”; and “Publicly funded vouchers to pay for private or religious education.”
“The de-funding of the public schools will clearly hurt all schools in the state — if not immediately, then down the road,” Coranvaca said. “And then there is the worse trend of thinking about business models for education and schools. The danger, as I see it, is we do not know how much the system can handle before it fails. We will know that in hindsight and then it is too late for the students who were stuck in it.”
Julia Sass Rubin, of Princeton, said that the privatization push is especially dangerous, given that it is being combined with severe funding cuts. Schools, she told me over the phone, are losing funding and, if the vouchers are approved, would lose some of their better students.
The private schools are under no obligation to take special needs students or those needing second-language instruction, she said. Those are costly programs that still will be needed in the public schools.
“The children who would leave are the ones who cost the least amount to educate,” she said.
The larger issue, according to Jane DeMaio, of South Brunswick, is that the voucher program and many of the governor’s other proposals are part of a larger philosophical enmity toward the public sphere, a “political conservative ideology.”
“The truth is that public education has been the successful foundation of our democracy (educating children to become voting/educated citizens) and one reason we are such a prosperous creative nation,” DeMaio, a former school nurse in South Brunswick, said. “His timing is perfect because of the state's fiscal woes and general unease about income and real people hurting without jobs. He has created a scapegoat and it's selling.”
Sass Rubin is concerned that the voucher program will lead to further stratification of the system, worsening the housing segregation that plagues the state.
“Our public schools are what enable people in a very diverse society to mix and break down some of the prejudices they have,” she says. “The last thing we want to do is split us up into little Balkanized institutions… It goes against everything that makes this country great.”
Save Our Schools is attempting to redirect the debate, to remind people of the value of public education.
“The debate has to be about whether we are going to support and improve our public schools or allow them to fall apart by policies that claim to provide options, but undermine the system,” Cornavaca says.
The debate, she adds, “used to be how to reduce the burden on property taxes but still fund schools. Now it is how to spend less on public education — which will neither improve education nor save property tax bills.”