The Education Fight that’s Brewing in New Jersey

For years there has been a tenuous educational consensus in New Jersey. First with then Newark-mayor Cory Booker who partnered with Chris Christie to radically alter the Newark education system. Once that coalition fell apart (in no small part due to local resistance that led to the election of Mayor Ras Baraka), Christie’s attention turned to South Jersey, where he closely partnered with South Jersey Democrats to enact similar reforms. New Jersey had its own twist on education reform: the familiar dose of standardized testing and charter schools, combined with a particular emphasis on increasing “no excuses” schools. That basic cocktail reflected what we saw nationally — enough support from both Democrats and Republicans to hold the center. Except now it no longer is. As education reform is pulled to the right by Betsy Devos, the stable of Democrats willing to stand up for education reform is disappearing. In Colorado, it means education reform is out of the platform. Here in New Jersey, it means we have a fight on our hands.

Let’s start with Colorado. There, the specter of Trump and DeVos made supporting education reform a no-go for Democrats, who went so far as to ask that Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) remove the “Democrat” from their name.

I can’t help but wonder if we’re having the same fight here in New Jersey behind the scenes. First, Camden’s notoriously reformy superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announces he’s leaving the district. Then, the Sweeney-Murphy feud manifested itself over educational appointments, escalating to the point that Sweeney said that Murphy “actually sounded like Trump.”

Except, the whole feud started because Sweeney was among the Democrats who embraced similar education policies to Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy Devos. That’s why the NJEA supported a Republican candidate against Sweeney, and it may why Camden’s undergoing transition — the new governor appears to be holding a line on education that is making the education reform coalition nervous.

Now, the Sweeney-Murphy fight isn’t just about education reform. It’s about differences in fiscal policies such as the millionaire tax, Sweeney’s record on pensions, and school funding disputes. And it may just be the latest attempt to rally South Jersey Democrats v. North Jersey Democrats — the school funding issue at times seems to be a cynical effort to create an enemy with a familiar narrative. This rather nuanced piece of research on funding splits between South and North is being misused South Jersey circles to stoke the flames of regional conflict with the governor. It feels like it never ends.

Except in Colorado. Where it did, in no small part because Democrats just aren’t that willing to partner with a coalition that includes Betsy DeVos and by proxy, Donald Trump. Now we get to see if Jersey Democrats feel the same way.

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