Friday, June 11, 2010

Bret Schundler Gets Schooled

Anyone following any New Jersey news media in recent weeks has had to have learned of the clash between Governor Christie and Education Commissioner Bret Schundler over the State's application for Race To The Top funds.

By way of background, Bret Schundler is a former mayor of Jersey City and a former Republican gubernatorial candidate. He was a champion of New Jersey's charter school law, and is widely viewed as a conservative Republican. At least conservative for New Jersey.

Earlier this year, New Jersey submitted an application for a share of the first round of Federal funds available under the Race To The Top program started by President Obama. The State got no money from that application, largely because the State had not secured the cooperation of the New Jersey Education Association.

Commissioner Schundler, in preparing the State's application for a share of the second round of Race To The Top funds, sought to find a compromise with the NJEA that would entice the union to sign on to the State's application. Because Commissioner Schundler thinks that getting Federal funds for education would be a good thing. And the commissioner did find a compromise. However, that compromise included an agreement by the State to withdraw its plans to compensate teachers on the basis of merit and its objection to tenure for teachers with seniority.

In his public disavowment of the deal and of the Commissioner, the Governor said that he was standing up for what he believed in and what he had campaigned on. In his view, teachers were making self-preservation more important than the kids, and the NJEA was protecting its own members at the expense of the State.

The entire episode reminded me of David Gregory's recent interview with Tim Pawlenty, Governor of Minnesota and something of a front-runner for the 2012 Republican nomination for President. Minnesota had a $3 billion budget shortfall in its current budget cycle, and the state legislature wanted to plug part of that hole by allowing Minnesotans to enroll in Medicaid a few years earlier than they otherwise would have under current law.

But Tim Pawlenty said "no." The Governor explained to David Gregory that, since Pawlenty does not believe in big government, it would have been dishonest of him to take that Federal money. So he turned down Federal funds and cut $1.9 billion from the state education budget. And while this 2-year budget was balanced, the next 2 year budget for Minnesota faces a $5.8 billion dollar budget gap.

So, how could Bret Schundler have gone so wrong? By ever believing that there was a compromise with the NJEA that Chris Christie would approve. The Governor does not want Race To The Top funds. He does not want anything that will help the NJEA avoid layoffs for its members, and he does not want anything that makes it possible for the State to meet its school funding obligations under Abbott vs. Burke.

No, what the Governor wants is to use educational policy as a weapon. By that I mean that, just has he did as an advisor to Alberto Gonzalez, the Governor uses every arm of his administration, and sets every policy, towards one goal -- remaking this State into a place where government is not responsible for providing a level playing field, where business is free to function without having its gains redistributed to the less wealthy and where public schools are free to fail.

What Bret Schundler, and quite frankly the rest of us, have to grasp is that these Governors, Christie and Pawlenty, and their far right ilk want to bankrupt the states, to starve the beast of government so that it is incapable of interfering in the marketplace. These guys are playing to a national audience, and are courting voters who will never have to clean up the mess these men leave in their wakes.

And on the national stage, Bret Schundler is no conservative. Compared to Chris Christie and Tim Pawlenty, Bret Schundler is Nancy Pelosi.

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