Just one day after he vetoed a bill that would create a task force to study the implications of mandating full-day kindergarten across the state, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who is facing intense criticism for the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal and a federal investigation into his use of Hurricane Sandy relief funds, used his State of the State address to convey a message he’s been promoting for years: that New Jersey’s public school system is failing and in need of drastic, sweeping reforms—in this case, an extended school day and an extended school year.
Though debates over the length of the school day and year are not new, proponents of education reform, like Christie, push the idea as part a political, social, and financial agenda—one that has little to do with student achievement and more to do with weakening teachers’ unions and facilitating charter proliferation in the Garden State.
In his speech, Christie claimed that the “antiquated” calendar that was in place when he was a child needs to be revamped if our “lagging” academic growth is to be rectified and our students are to “compete in the world economy.” Setting aside the fact that Christie’s son attended the elite Delbarton school, which is in session for 6 hours per day for 163 days per year (as opposed to the 180 days per year that are mandated for New Jersey’s public school students), it’s important to note that the Governor failed to specifically acknowledge that 2013 NAEP results again revealed New Jersey’s public schools to be among the top in the nation. And while there are glaring gaps in achievement among students in the state—test scores are predictably lower in racially- and socioeconomically-segregated areas—on the whole, New Jersey’s children are among the highest-achieving in America. Christie also failed to mention that because of the emphasis he’s placed on high-stakes testing, districts have been forced to narrow their programs of studies, cut personnel, and focus too much on test preparation–all of which negatively impact instructional time.
So why does Governor Christie continually advocate for top-down, one-size-fits-all changes as drastic as revising both the daily and yearly school calendar—especially without presenting any research to show that longer days and a longer year lead to increased achievement–and without presenting any specifics about how and when such a plan would be implemented? Even a brief glance at the Governor’s history is enough to give anyone unfamiliar with the situation some insight.
Immediately after he took office, and despite the promises he made to teachers before he was elected in 2009, Christie went on the offensive against public educators in the state of New Jersey. He has repeatedly disparaged teachers and their unions; has suggested that teachers don’t care about student achievement—only about having the “summer off”; and has pushed policies, like vouchers and merit pay (which isn’t working as the Governor would like us to believe–read Jersey Jazzman’s analysis here), that are ultimately destructive to our state’s system of public education.
In October of 2013, Christie infamously referred to New Jersey’s urban school districts as “failure factories.” If we acknowledge that with this label Christie identified areas of concentrated poverty and starved public schools, we can conclude that by extension, he labeled children who suffer the effects of poverty and segregation as failures. A few weeks later, just days before the November election, Christie screamed at a public school teacher who dared to question him about those remarks.
Such behavior isn’t uncommon for Chris Christie, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the hostile climate the Governor has created—the very one that his supporters celebrate—extends well into the depths of his administration.
Christie praised Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson in his State of the State address, but failed to mention the staunch parent opposition that’s accompanying her decision to close neighborhood schools and convert them to charters. He failed to mention that Anderson hired a disgraced New York City principal who was banned from ever working in that city again because he used $9,000 of taxpayer money for personal expenses to head a charter school. And perhaps most tellingly, he failed to mention that in a letter that was retracted and revised just hours after it was distributed for circulation to teachers and parents, Anderson suggested that Newark students engage in criminal activity on days off from school. And Christie, the leader of the State of New Jersey and a staunch supporter of Anderson, did not even acknowledge the issue. (Can we deduce that one goal of a longer school day/year is to keep would-be criminals off the streets of Newark?)
And just last week, officials investigating the George Washington Bridge scandal released text messages between Port Authority official David Wildstein and an unnamed person in which Wildstein joked it was okay that “children of Buono voters” were unable to get to school because of the lane closures he helped orchestrate. (Is it okay to for Buono-supporters’ children to miss hours of instructional time because of an act of political retribution?)
It seems that members of the Christie administration are content with labeling children, whether they be failures, criminals, or expendable offspring of non-Christie-supporters—and such a practice is counterproductive to the hard work of educators who truly care about the children of New Jersey and calls into serious question the Governor’s motives.
And just as it seems that Governor Christie’s funding promises to other state leaders hinge on political support and endorsements (Democratic mayors have suggested that they were denied grants and funds for their failures to endorse Christie in his reelection bid; see here and here), the Governor chooses to fund the schools that promote his reform agenda (note the proliferation of charters in Newark and Camden) and withhold funds to those that don’t (note the crumbling buildings and deplorable conditions in Trenton and the neighborhood schools being shuttered in cities across the state).
If Christie has his way, many children in New Jersey will be handed over to unproven, privately-run, sometimes-profiteering charters which, on the whole, exaggerate segregation; are allowed to hand-pick their students; have high student attrition rates; encourage extraordinary teacher turnover, which hurts students and disrupts unions (hint: think organizations Teach for America, whose Corps Members typically teach for a couple years before leaving the classroom); and are responsible for great educational and regional instability in already-volatile areas. (A little more on charters in general here.)
If Christie is to pursue his goals of extending both the school day and the school year, he should begin by presenting research which shows that there is a benefit in doing so–something that he has failed to do thus far. He should explain how he plans to pay for such changes–especially given that he had to be ordered by the New Jersey Supreme Court to fully fund struggling urban districts after he slashed over $1 billion in education funding. He should renounce high-stakes tests as methods of teacher evaluation, since such measures are grossly unreliable and do not help students. And if he is serious about adding instructional time for all students in New Jersey, he should support a bill which aims to ensure that all New Jersey children have access to full-day kindergarten. Doing so will demonstrate to students, families, and educators that he truly wants what’s best for the children of New Jersey–and that he isn’t simply making decisions to facilitate the privatization of our schools.
Until the Governor is willing to listen to real educators who have dedicated their lives to children (and not Teach for America executives who have virtually no teaching experience themselves), and until he is willing to listen to parents who have a vested interest in their communities and who oppose charters that divide communities and divert public funds from neighborhood schools, he should focus on making sure instructional time is spent wisely (arts, music, and vocational programs should be available to all students, and teachers shouldn’t be forced to focus on test prep with the sole aim of raising scores on meaningless assessments) and all students have access to fully-funded schools.