Va., NJ Govs Appoint School Reformers to Top Posts

Published February 5, 2010

School reform advocates were thrilled in January when two new GOP governors in New Jersey and Virginia tapped school-choice advocates for the top education jobs in their respective states.

After a pair of hotly contested campaigns that generated headlines nationwide, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie appointed former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler as education commissioner, and in Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell appointed Black Alliance for Educational Options President Gerard Robinson as secretary of education. The state legislatures will likely confirm their nominations, and soon.

“These are good, great leaders who have a lot of gravitas,” said Robert Enlow, president and CEO of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, a national school reform advocacy group based in Indianapolis. “They’re serious reformers who understand how to take on education reform in a whole state.”

Campaigned on Reform

The governors made charter school expansion, school choice, and vouchers key components of their campaigns, then picked similarly minded education chiefs after voters approved their promised policies for change with solid margins of victory in races where they were underdogs.

Schundler, the former Republican mayor of Democrat-leaning Jersey City, will likely move quickly to promote a tax-credit program for businesses sponsoring private education scholarships for low-income students, expand charter schools, and attempt to implement parent and student evaluations of teachers and schools, said Derrell Bradford, interim executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), an education reform group in the Garden State.

“It is a fabulous opportunity in a state that has almost been a test case for everything you should not do to equalize opportunity for kids,” Bradford said. “I’m excited we finally have an honest, frank, upfront discussion about the kind and caliber of opportunities we offer kids in Newark and elsewhere.”

Bipartisan Support for Reform

New Jersey spends more to educate one pupil per year—$15,691—than any other state except New York, which spends $15,981 per student. For the money, taxpayers see only 20 to 30 percent of students scoring “proficient” on statewide exams, according to New Jersey Department of Education statistics.

Though New Jersey has long lacked education reforms because of union opposition, Bradford said, Schundler’s experience working across the aisle in Jersey City, coupled with existing bipartisan support for reforms such as the business tax credit and teacher accountability, will boost his effectiveness.

“This is not a position where Democrats want to find themselves, where the president and a Republican governor in New Jersey are on the same page [on school reform measures],” Bradford said. “There’s a lot of opportunity. That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard-fought, but it certainly means that things look good.”

‘Lancing the Boil’

As president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options since 2007, Robinson is a nationally known advocate of school choice. Since graduating from Harvard University with a master’s degree in the mid-1990s, he’s helped fine-tune Milwaukee’s charter school program and has traveled the country advising state and national charter school initiatives.

“I think it’s an outstanding appointment,” said Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy in Virginia. “His personal narrative and experience in school choice will have a tremendously positive impact.”

But Robinson apparently faces more obstacles than Schundler. The word “vouchers” has an evil history in Virginia, dating from the Civil Rights era, Braunlich said, when vouchers allowed white students to attend private schools instead of sitting beside black students in newly integrated public schools.

“[Robinson is] someone who understands that issue, someone who says, ‘Look I graduated high school with a 1.8 GPA, went to a community college, and ended up with a master’s [degree] from Harvard,'” Braunlich said. “[That] goes a long way toward lancing the boil for a lot of folks.”

School Politics Ahead

Robinson will have to address the need to create a statewide system for charter school application and approval methods in addition to rising in-state college tuition costs. He’ll also attempt to create a teacher pay system that rewards excellence and provide a clear direction for the state and the governor’s agenda, Braunlich said.

He faces a legislative battle over extending charter schools in Virginia’s divided legislature, according to Braunlich.

“The ground battles will take place [with state elections] in 2011, and reformers will have to develop better grassroots capacity than we have now,” Braunlich said. “Virginia has never been a hotbed of activism. But I think, with Robinson, that possibility changes.”

Their experiences, Enlow says, offers them an edge.

“Both of them will be pushing the traditional establishment farther than they’ve been pushed, and both of them have job experience on both sides of the aisle,” Enlow said. “There’s all sorts of things they could try, but all states have different contexts, and these two gentlemen know their states and how to approach them.”

Joy Pavelski ([email protected]) writes from Washington, DC.