When Phil Murphy was elected governor four years ago, it was seen as a sea change in the state’s leadership and oversight of New Jersey public schools.
His predecessor, Governor Chris Christie, had openly opposed the sector to push for reforms on multiple fronts, with some of its efforts being more successful than others. Murphy was the balm after those eight years, a close ally of the teachers’ unions whom Christie had fought hard against, vowing to withdraw state tests and state takeovers, and ultimately to provide over $ 1 billion. dollars in state aid to schools.
Then came COVID-19, throwing schools into turmoil and making state leadership all the more critical. The pandemic has proven to be a tricky dance for this governor, to say the least, garnering both praise and criticism.
And with the vote underway and ending next Tuesday, either Democrat Murphy will be re-elected for a second term or GOP challenger Ciattarelli will be sworn in as the new governor – one more in the Christie mold when it comes to public education. .
There is no shortage of stakes and challenges to divide the two contenders. Here are three big ones that separate them the most.
COVID-19 direction: The election can start and end with a referendum on how Murphy handled the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no clearer example of how he led and at times commissioned the response in New Jersey schools.
From the first days of COVID-19 in March 2020, Murphy joined other governors who were closing their schools – sending more than 1.3 million students home with varying degrees of readiness.
Then, over the summer, the Murphy administration advised schools whether or not to reopen in the fall, leaving a range of options open for districts to either go entirely in person, remotely, or adopt a variety of hybrid models in between.
By most accounts, it hasn’t gone well here and nationally, with the widespread recognition that distance or even hybrid learning is leaving too many students behind. Murphy touted how New Jersey supposedly bridged the digital divide, but it was more in what was reported by districts, not necessarily in what went on in kitchens and classrooms.
Now comes the reopening of schools for the year 2021-2022, the one Murphy ordered to be held in person and fully masked. He demanded that teachers be vaccinated or tested regularly, and did not rule out doing the same for students once vaccines are approved.
Ciattarelli, a former member of the Hillsborough Republican Assembly, has been most critical of these more recent movements, although he said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News that he has reportedly urged districts to fully reopen the last year.
When asked what he would have specifically done differently, Ciattarelli said: “I would have partnered with school districts to have them reopened in 2020… In my mind, I would have given them everything they had. need to open these schools, and that the governor did not do, and there was a significant learning loss.
Yet Ciattarelli has also openly criticized what Murphy has since mandated, saying he overstepped his limits, particularly by imposing masks on students.
“I believe that at the end of the day the best course is to leave that decision to the parents,” Ciattarelli said.
“When there is such a strong, strong, strong disagreement in the communities as there is, I think the one and only approach is wrong,” he continued. “It tears us apart. “
School funding: Beyond COVID-19, perhaps no other education issue divided the two applicants more than funding schools.
Ciattarelli has focused his campaign on New Jersey’s notoriously high property taxes, much of which funds the local school budget. And the state plays a big role in determining these budgets; state aid covers on average about half of all school expenses, not to mention a quarter of the state budget.
How much money goes to each district is determined by a formula in the School Funding Reform Act, enacted by order of the State Supreme Court in its famous Abbott v. Burke. The objective of the decision was to provide adequate funding to designated urban districts deemed to be underfunded, including Newark, Paterson, Jersey City, New Brunswick and Camden.
The formula is a complex algorithm that weighs a number of factors for each district, including the student demographics and the district’s tax base and ability to pay. But for much of the Christie administration, this formula was largely ignored; districts have been subject to general reductions or additions, leaving a growing gap.
After a few initial jerks, Murphy adopted the SFRA formula during his tenure. With State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), New Jersey has embarked on a seven-year process to fully fund the formula, which is now in its fourth year.
This has led to over $ 1 billion in additional aid, including over $ 200 million in preschool aid and early commitment to universal preschool by 2030. During this period, most districts have seen their funding increase, some of which is considerable, particularly in the Abbott Districts. . But following the formula, the state has reduced districts with a combination of declining enrollment and increasing ability to pay, particularly in Jersey City but also in suburban districts like Toms River and The Brick.
Ciattarelli wants to rewrite the formula, particularly around the “local fair share” which defines what districts can and should pay and removing provisions to provide additional funding to students from low-income backgrounds.
He said he would set a “reasonable range” of what schools can spend and limit any state aid beyond that. And he said he would seek to have the state pay its full share of the costs of special education.
He often comments that Abbott neighborhoods like Jersey City and Hoboken, with all their gentrification and changing demographics, have lower property taxes than they should. He said his changes to the formula would resolve these disparities.
“Democrats will always say we have to fully fund the formula, but I come back and ask why we are fully funding a flawed formula,” Ciattarelli said. “The formula continues to provide state aid to owners of million-dollar homes in places like Jersey City and Hoboken who pay less (in taxes) than owners of $ 400,000 homes in Toms River or Hillsborough. “
When asked if the state has a responsibility to provide these additional resources to low-income students in the meantime, Ciattarelli said the question was more how many. And he objected to details, including how much his changes would save the state – or even if they would result in savings.
Either way, such a deviation from the formula would surely require the approval of the highest court in the state. Ciattarelli argued that it is only a matter of persuasion.
“I’m sure the Education Law Center will sue me no matter what I do with the formula,” he said. “Which is good, because I think there are some things the state Supreme Court doesn’t know.”
In the classroom: One of the most contested topics in the race for governor has not only been how schools are funded, but also what they teach in the classroom.
Overall, Ciattarelli has been the aggressor in attacking the administration on several hot topics that are now part of the educational conversation under Murphy.
Most notable was the approval by the State Board of Education in 2019 of new standards for teaching sexual orientation and also the expansion of its standards for sex education.
Some background is important. The state council – along with the direction of Murphy’s Department of Education – has approved new state standards in a multitude of areas as part of a routine renewal of state standards. These included sex education, as well as new provisions on climate change and expanded provisions on the arts.
These standards are not a curriculum, but provide great latitude for districts to incorporate them into their own curricula. Ciattarelli refers to a new language that teaches different sexual orientations in the first years of elementary school and safe sex practices in middle school.
“I never said we shouldn’t have sex education in schools,” Ciattarelli said. “I think we should discuss the timing… I don’t think we should be teaching gender identification and sexual orientation in kindergarten. Phil Murphy does. I don’t think we should be teaching explicit sex acts in grade 6. Phil Murphy does.
When told these standards emanate from educators and experts, Ciattarelli said he relies instead on the opinions of parents: “The last time I checked, people have a voice. “
Murphy largely dismissed the criticism. “I am proud beyond words that New Jersey is a beacon in terms of the LGBTQIA + community,” Murphy said in July, “including our transparency in education and telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about this. community.
“The last thing we need is division,” Murphy said. “The last thing we need is to use words that everyone knows are third rail words that also have meaning. This is New Jersey. It’s the United States in 2021. Enough already.