Marie Bilik: Education Advocate

Marie Bilik is the executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association in Trenton.

Chris Christie’s relationship with state educators has run hot and cold. Christie, whose own children attend Catholic school, strongly supports tax credits for parents who send their children to private and parochial schools, charter schools, and merit pay — as opposed to automatic pay increases and tenure — for all districts.

His campaign also made much of his support for state-funded vouchers, which can be used to move students from failing school districts to private schools in lieu of tuition, or public schools willing to accept them.

In the coming weeks Governor-elect Christie will hear plenty of advice about ways to rein in taxes and run government. Our state’s future depends on two interrelated goals: Improving the state’s economy, while maintaining quality public education.

Here are some ideas:

Break the mold. Christie has called for expansion of charter schools. But his administration also needs to break the mold in the so-called “regular public schools” by advancing merit pay, the elimination of lifetime tenure (essentially, a job protection), and further strengthening academic standards. These efforts will improve the quality of instruction and student achievement.

Strengthen school boards in contract negotiations. New Jersey school boards negotiate with affiliates of one of the best financed and most powerful public employee unions in the nation.

Current bargaining laws work to the unions’ advantage. Here are three ways to balance the process: Support strong anti-strike penalties; when negotiations become deadlocked, focus fact-finders’ recommendations more on communities’ ability to pay and less on other districts’ settlements; and restore school boards’ ability to implement their last best offer when negotiations are fully exhausted.

Promote shared services. A 2007 Rutgers study, commissioned by the New Jersey School Boards Association, documented numerous examples of shared services, ranging from joint banking to shared business office functions. That same study identified legal obstacles to sharing services. School districts share services when they identify two outcomes: cost-savings and improved delivery. The new administration should give priority to the concept.

Reduce reliance on property taxes. The state government supports less than 40 percent of public school costs. Local property taxes cover close to 60 percent. That ratio has not changed much over three decades.

Nationwide, the state tax vs. local property tax split tax is roughly 50-50. New Jersey’s low level of state support is a major cause of its high property tax bills. A revenue-neutral tax shift could lower property taxes without increasing spending.

Reduce unfunded mandates. A plethora of requirements come from Washington and Trenton without the dollars to back them up. Common complaints are paperwork and administrative regulations that take up valuable time.

For school districts, state and federally required special education remains one of the major cost drivers. Certainly, special education is one of the success stories of our schools. And full state funding for required special education programming would retain these programs, while reducing property taxes in virtually every New Jersey community.

New Jersey’s public schools rank among the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the most reputable apples-to-apples comparison of student achievement among the states. Despite the red tape from the state and federal governments, New Jersey spends a smaller share of its education budget on administration than do 40 other states, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Our state also spends below the nationwide average on school and central office administration.

Neither school boards nor the incoming governor would want our schools to backslide. Ultimately, the quality of public education is a key element in making New Jersey a desirable place to live and operate a business.

Robert Stack: Disability Advocate

Robert Stack is the president and CEO of Community Options Inc., a Farber Road-based group that looks to find jobs for handicapped individuals. He also is a member of Christie’s Transition Subcommittee of Human Services and Children and Families.

Q: How can Mr. Christie get done what he said he will do?

A: You have to remember two things: First, that he is a man of principle. He is not going to make a decision because it will help advance him politically. He knew that this is not going to be a popularity contest. He is going to make decisions that are founded on the most profound utilitarian logic possible. He will remain disciplined and unflappable in getting New Jersey back on track.

Second, Christie is also somewhat Socratic in his approach. He knows that he doesn’t know everything. Rather than function as though he is the only one with ideas, he will reach out to others and ask them for opinions and ideas. He will synthesize these perspectives and ideas and then arrive at a logical approach and make the right move.

Q: Christie is looking to cut spending: Where and how should he do it best?

A: My background will simply point to the way that services to persons with disabilities in New Jersey are provided. It is extremely expensive, and in my opinion cutting funding for community care is not in the best interest when it comes to adults with disabilities. We have more people with cerebral palsy and autism and mental retardation in institutions than 48 other states.

The only state that has more people with disabilities in its institutions is Texas. There are almost three times as many people living there than in New Jersey, and still they only have 2,000 more people living in these costly segregated facilities.

This is the result of lack of good leadership at the state level and the complacency that arose on the part of parents who were told to be patient.

They were also told that the institutions were the best thing for their son or daughter and because of the lack of exposure to community alternatives, they never knew anything else.

We need to let families see other things that do in fact work. We need to help them raise the bar on their expectations and then the bar will be raised for their loved one in need of support. The government has to consolidate institutions, reduce the wait list and increase family support.

Another way Christie is going to save big bucks is with good leadership. He has to empower his managers and hold them accountable rather than micro-manage them and play puppet master. There is so much government waste on so many different fronts. Why is there a Princeton Borough and Princeton Township? Why is there an East, North, South and New Brunswick?

There are reasons that accounting firms merged. It saved administrative costs. Consolidation, less intrusive services for persons with disabilities, and leadership are great ways to cut costs.

Q: Where should he not cut?

A: I know the one place he won’t cut a dime. That is integrity. He has a lot of it; he demands it from others and he won’t cut corners in that department.

Q: What advice would you give the governor-elect?

A: He is a Jersey boy. He knows he is and we know he is. When he speaks I honestly believe that his accent is a mix of both north and south Jersey.

A Jersey boy doesn’t take any you know what from anybody. A Jersey boy is focused. Abraham Lincoln said “Only a fool trusts everyone … or no one.”

Christie needs to pick his battles and trust the right people, but by all means stick to his guns and never forget where he works and where he was born and whom he works for — New Jersey. The governor should not be afraid to listen to both sides of the aisle as well as the middle, and maybe a couple of hecklers in the balcony too.

Christine Whitman: A View from the Inside

Christine Todd Whitman is president of Whitman Strategy Advisors, former director of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, and was governor of New Jersey from 1994 to 2001. Chris Christie helped her significantly in her failed run for U.S. Senate in 1990, and the two have been political friends for nearly 20 years. She offers some advice that only experience can allow.

First, find people you trust. Remember that you cannot do everything on your own, so select advisors and cabinet members whose counsel you can heed. You should determine your policy principles, and then dispatch them to do their best work. Trust their advice.

Second, you have a resource that no governor before you has had — a Lieutenant Governor. This is a tremendous resource, especially given who yours is. Together, you and Lieutenant Governor-elect Kim Guadagno can shape this role into something that will be highly beneficial to the state. She is a bright and thoughtful woman who will be an excellent addition to New Jersey’s leadership.

Prioritize now. It is easy to get distracted by the day-to-day issues that arise. Decide now what areas you want to impact most significantly and keep them as your focus.

Finally, make sure to take a moment to enjoy the role. It’s the greatest job and it will be over in a flash.

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