November 18, 2005

New Jersey’s last six governors, by choice or by force of circumstance, have had intimate connections to public education. Governor-elect Jon Corzine will surely continue the streak. It hardly could be otherwise, given our state’s long quest to equalize educational opportunities for all in accordance with the state constitutional command.

The gubernatorial list is impressive:

- William T. Cahill, a Republican, took office in 1970 and served one term. He was the named defendant in Robinson v. Cahill, the suit that launched the effort, now 35 years old and continuing, to enforce the right of the state’s poorest students to a “thorough and efficient” education. The New Jersey Supreme Court’s first in a long line of education funding decisions was rendered in April 1973, nine months before Governor Cahill left office, and launched what has turned out to be the nation’s most ambitious urban education reform program.

- Brendan Byrne, a Democrat, took office in 1974 and served two terms. He saw Robinson to its completion in 1976 and presided over the interregnum between that case and its successor, Abbott v. Burke. Governor Byrne was so supportive of Robinson’s equalization effort that his counsel, Lewis Kaden, advanced remedial arguments that went substantially beyond those of plaintiffs’ counsel, Harold Ruvoldt. Court orders in 1976, at the end of the Robinson phase of the litigation, led to the adoption of New Jersey’s income tax.

- Thomas Kean, a Republican, took office in 1982 and served two terms. He assumed the governorship eleven months after Abbott v. Burke was filed. Governor Kean styled himself the “education governor,” but resisted Abbott strenuously. On the eve of trial in 1985, his lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the case for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. The motion was granted, and resulted in a five-year delay. The Supreme Court’s first substantive decision in the case finally was rendered in 1990, after Governor Kean had left office.

- James Florio, a Democrat, took office in 1990, five months before that first substantive decision in Abbott. He served only one term, and failed to win reelection largely because of a sizable tax increase that he proposed shortly after taking office, in anticipation of the Abbott decision. If he had been re-elected, our state’s education history might have been strikingly different, given his support of Abbott’s equalization goal.

- Christine Todd Whitman, a Republican, edged out Governor Florio in his bid for reelection and took office in 1994. She was narrowly re-elected in 1997, but did not complete her second term, resigning in 2001 to become Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Governor Whitman’s administration surpassed even Governor Kean’s in its hostility to Abbott, continuously seeking to impede implementation of Abbott’s ambitious education funding and programmatic remedies. Repeatedly, the New Jersey Supreme Court chastised her administration for “misconstruing” or ignoring clear directives, especially regarding early childhood education. After her resignation, State Senate President Donald DiFrancesco served out most of her term.

- James McGreevey, a Democrat, took office in 2002 and resigned in November 2004. He came into office promising to take a far different approach toward Abbott than the Whitman administration. He set out to cooperate with the plaintiffs to implement the Abbott remedies, and he established the Schools Construction Corporation in July 2002, with more than $6 billion in state bonding authority, to manage Abbott-mandated school facilities construction. Unfortunately, things began to deteriorate relatively early in the McGreevey administration and complaints to the Court continued. State Senate President Richard Codey took over as Acting Governor upon McGreevey’s resignation, and has largely been involved in a holding operation regarding Abbott since he took office.

Governor-elect Corzine is no stranger to education. One of his campaign promises was to reconsider the list of districts eligible for Abbott funding, an indication that he has some familiarity with one hot education topic. Immediately after the election, he identified his top three priorities: property taxes, state finances and ethics. Abbott has a major impact on all three, the first two because of the sheer size of the education budget and the third because of the terrible problems that have afflicted the Schools Construction Corporation.

As soon as Governor-elect Corzine takes office, he will have to start dealing with a daunting list of education issues:

- The status of Abbott implementation, including: (i) how and when the long overdue evaluation of Abbott implementation will be conducted; (ii) whether any additional districts should be given “special needs” designation, and, if so, which ones; (iii) whether any districts currently designated “special needs” should be removed from that status, and, if so, which ones and how should they be removed; (iv) whether the current basis of Abbott parity funding—the per-pupil average level of regular education spending in the state’s highest wealth districts—should be continued, or a new measure should be developed and recommended to the Court; and (v) how the School Construction Corporation should be restructured and what additional sum of money should be raised to continue replacement and renovation of school facilities in Abbott districts.

- Effective implementation of the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), the comprehensive state accountability system enacted into law in September to combine a variety of hitherto separate state and federal systems. NJDOE is developing regulations to implement QSAC, and this process will be vital to the new system’s success. As a practical matter, one measure of QSAC’s success will be the effectiveness of reestablishment of local control in the three state-operated school districts, Jersey City, Paterson and Newark.

- Creation of a new state school funding formula to replace the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Funding Act (CEIFA), as recommended by the Legal Committee of the State Board of Education in Bacon v. Department of Education. Interestingly, the Legal Committee’s conception of a new funding system is quite like the new QSAC accountability system — a funding continuum under which districts receive a level of state aid based on their particular needs and circumstances.

- The extent to which school district consolidation or regionalization could reduce costs, improve services, and increase diversity in the schools.

- The role school choice could play in enhancing educational opportunities for New Jersey’s students.

- Development of models for replicating schools that produce unusually high levels of student achievement.
Not by coincidence, the Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy is engaged in projects involving all these issues. We have informed Governor-elect Corzine of our work and our willingness to assist him however we can. Our hope is that, during his term in the State House, he can show us all that a New Jersey governor and education can be “perfect together.”


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