Organizing to save the schools

Grassroots group aims to fight back against what it sees as an assault on public education. 2 of 2

Gov. Chris Christie wants to fix public education by destroying it.

Since taking office in January 2010, the governor has used his vast rhetorical skills to paint the state’s teachers and its education establishment as being impediments to school improvement. And he has proposed an agenda designed to remake public schools to fit a conservative mindset that has little use for the public sector.

In his first budget last year, the governor slashed school funding and then delighted in the defeat of a majority of school budgets across the state. And it is likely that he will do the same again this year, when he unveils his 2011-2012 state budget on Tuesday.

The governor also is among the nation’s staunchest backers of charter schools and the use of vouchers, even if it means using public money to pay for religious private schools.

And he has made it clear – first through his language and now with a proposal that, if made law, would essentially end tenure as we know it.

The governor has won the early rounds in the public relations battle, but a new fighter has entered the ring, hoping to build momentum and make it clear that it is not just the teachers union that is opposed to the Christie education agenda.

Save Our Schools is a grassroots group of parents who say they are standing up to the governor and the state Legislature, and in the process hoping to save public education in the state.

Deborah Cornavaca, an East Brunswick resident, says the “bipartisan tide of ideas” – which include not just the governor’s reform proposals but many being pushed by Democrats at the national and state level – “are off the mark by a long shot.”

“There is clearly a movement towards privatizing our public school system — both in terms of using private dollars as funding (such as with vouchers program now proposed) and using private and charter alternatives to the traditional public schools,” she said in an e-mail.

Save Our Schools (saveourschoolsnj.org) formed in 2010 in response to the governor’s budget, which cut $1.1 billion from the state education budget. The group worked in Princeton to pass the regional school budget and has expanded across central New Jersey and throughout the state.

According to its Web site, the organization is opposed to “legislative and regulatory actions that threaten the health of NJ’s public schools.” Including “Further drastic cuts to the State’s education budget”; “Reductions in State resources that support high-quality education in low-income districts”; “Unfettered expansion of charter schools regardless of quality or host community wishes”; and “Publicly funded vouchers to pay for private or religious education.”

“The de-funding of the public schools will clearly hurt all schools in the state — if not immediately, then down the road,” Coranvaca said. “And then there is the worse trend of thinking about business models for education and schools.  The danger, as I see it, is we do not know how much the system can handle before it fails.  We will know that in hindsight and then it is too late for the students who were stuck in it.”

Julia Sass Rubin, of Princeton, said that the privatization push is especially dangerous, given that it is being combined with severe funding cuts. Schools, she told me over the phone, are losing funding and, if the vouchers are approved, would lose some of their better students.


The private schools are under no obligation to take special needs students or those needing second-language instruction, she said. Those are costly programs that still will be needed in the public schools.

“The children who would leave are the ones who cost the least amount to educate,” she said.

The larger issue, according to Jane DeMaio, of South Brunswick, is that the voucher program and many of the governor’s other proposals are part of a larger philosophical enmity toward the public sphere, a “political conservative ideology.”

“The truth is that public education has been the successful foundation of our democracy (educating children to become voting/educated citizens) and one reason we are such a prosperous creative nation,” DeMaio, a former school nurse in South Brunswick, said. “His timing is perfect because of the state's fiscal woes and general unease about income and real people hurting without jobs. He has created a scapegoat and it's selling.”

Sass Rubin is concerned that the voucher program will lead to further stratification of the system, worsening the housing segregation that plagues the state.

“Our public schools are what enable people in a very diverse society to mix and break down some of the prejudices they have,” she says. “The last thing we want to do is split us up into little Balkanized institutions… It goes against everything that makes this country great.”

Save Our Schools is attempting to redirect the debate, to remind people of the value of public education.

“The debate has to be about whether we are going to support and improve our public schools or allow them to fall apart by policies that claim to provide options, but undermine the system,” Cornavaca says.

The debate, she adds, “used to be how to reduce the burden on property taxes but still fund schools.  Now it is how to spend less on public education — which will neither improve education nor save property tax bills.”

Keith Rasmussen February 18, 2011 at 01:02 AM
How can anyone take seriously a fevered rant which begins with this stunning sentence: "Gov. Chris Christie wants to fix public education by destroying it.”? We later learn that by *destroy*, the writer means that NJ's governor is serious about * demanding efficiency * holding school systems accountable * providing choice It appears Governor Christie is winning the debate - not by rhetorical skill, but on the merit of his argument. As this is an opinion piece, the writer is under no obligation to actually discuss these things; he's content to merely cast about for quotes from defenders of the status quo. Mr. Kalet, as they say on that interweb thingy: Post proof or retract.
Probably More Concerned Than You March 10, 2011 at 03:57 PM
While I would not be against Governor Christie's proposed reform theoretically, I have to once again use one of my favorite sayings: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Governor Christie is blaming the failure of education on the individual school districts and the NJEA, and veteran teachers, and overpaid superintendents and administrators, and the pension and benefits teachers expect. Now suppose each one of those issues is addressed based on his theory of cleaning house at school districts, and assaulting the union for giving teachers a reason to take a difficult and thankless job that does not compensate in proportion to the cost of their own education...etc. (It is not my point at this time to defend any of that.) You contend that his goal is to 'demand efficiency, hold schools accountable and provide choice." What about districts like SB that already demand efficiency internally through teacher evaluation--which has been done in SB for years via one of the best systems in the state. Tenured teachers have lost jobs in SB for not being of the quality expected--as have administrators. SB is accountable and continually proves that with exemplary audits and monitoring results by the State itself. Up until recently, a parent could even have a choice among which of the SB public schools to have their children attend.
Probably More Concerned Than You March 10, 2011 at 04:05 PM
I know that there has been great savings observed through elimination of waste over the past several years--I believe Dr. McCartney quoted a savings during his employment by the district of $12 million. If you watch the Board Meetings and Annual Education Summits you will see accountability displayed that you don't see being offered by other districts. If you walk in and ask for records at the Board Office, they are quickly and accurately provided and you are not given a mountain of papers to search through. There is transparency and integrity displayed there. It is easy for the Gov. to use blanket criticism of the NJ educational system and not point out the success stories where good practices are evident. See, if he were to do that, then he would be able to provide a model for the rest of the state to consider and move to the next issue. But tying the biggest portion of our taxes to a sector where he can easily find failure and negligence (in some districts) and categorizing the whole system as such, he can get "infectious word of mouth negativity and hostility" to support his personal agenda and decide to give him another term in office to complete a job which he could have laid out a clear plan for in one year. I believe I read somewhere that state monitors called SB a 'Lighthouse District.'
Probably More Concerned Than You March 10, 2011 at 04:14 PM
Someone commented on one of these threads that SB 'used to' have Blue Ribbon Schools. They are still there. The district no longer has the personnel with excess time on their hands to fill out the application and pursue the lengthy process for the title. And titles are window dressing. All it served to do in the past was over-crowd our schools and inflate home prices and draw builders of McMansions and bring the tax level to where it is now. I am fine with keeping SB a well-kept secret only recognized by those like me who moved here because of the schools. My kids didn't need to get into Princeton, Harvard or Yale because their career aspiration was simpler than that. They got the education they needed here to fulfill their goals and get into colleges they wanted with sufficient packages offered by those schools. But there was a lot more they got out of being in SB Schools--and that is the secret that is worth keeping and will keep me supporting this town and its schools.
Concerned SB resident March 27, 2011 at 02:14 AM
The "cut" made by the governor wasn't a cut. It was money that the state couldn't provide to the schools because union-friendly Jon Corzine was fighting for his political life and disbursed out $1B of money all in one year to garner votes, rarther than to disburse it out in a controlled manner for years. The state just doesn't have $1B every year to disburse to schools. Looking to balance the budget and for the schools to get their fair share? Knock on Mr. Corzine's door and ask him to donate his US Senate pension for life and his NJ Governor pension for life to the schools. He has billions that he made in the evil private industry, too. If he cares as much as he pretends to care (or cared), why doesn't he set up a benefactor foundation for the NJ schools?


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