Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chris Christie Punches Poor School Children in the Face

Many readers will recall that last year Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey said he wanted to punch the teacher's union in the face. You might also remember that as a lifelong teacher and former union leader I offered up my face for the punch. On Tuesday, Christie one upped himself by outlining a school spending plan that amounts to a punch in the face to every poor, urban student in the the state.

He proposes a flat rate of aid in the area of $6,599 for every student in New Jersey whether they live in leafy, affluent Montgomery Township or cash strapped, property tax poor Camden. This "every one gets the same money plan" would provide a windfall to wealthy districts, many of which would see a dramatic increase in state aid to schools (and a reduction in property taxes) and conversely a death sentence to urban districts who would see their budgets reduced by tens of millions of dollars.

New Jersey Spotlight reported that it was hard to tell whether Christie's plan was "bold or delusional", but in talking to reporters after the announcement, Christie revealed what the plan really is - cynical, political and divisive. Referring to the Senate Majority Leader and a chief Democratic antagonist, Christie said, "Every one of Loretta Weinberg's [school] districts will see an increase in aid." In other words, Christie is playing politics with children's lives and pitting wealthy suburban families concerned about their property taxes against poor urban families with no property in order to foment class warfare and garner Republican votes.

It is, of course, clear that impoverished urban areas need more money to provide a decent education to children hobbled by the impact of poverty, poor nutrition, poor health care, high crime rates and unemployment. Recognition of this is what made New Jersey a national leader in providing extra resources to urban schools through the Abbott decisions of three decades ago. Christie says that the urban schools are getting the extra money, but are under-performing. He should know since for the last six years many of those districts have been under his control and he has failed at every turn to make improvements. So, he has determined that they should not get the money. But as Tom Moran of the Star Ledger points out the truth is much more nuanced. Some urban districts are doing well and others do well when compared to urban districts in other states.

Christie's one-size-fits-all plan for taxation does not meet our most basic understandings of fairness and justice. In any just system a student with greater needs would receive greater resources. My former boss, and one of the finest education thinkers I have ever known, Earl Kim, would call it "Rawlsian fairness", after the great American political philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls posited that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society." Just today, the Supreme Court upheld this principle in the University of Texas affirmative action case. 

Christie, apparently taking a page from his new political mentor, Donald Trump, is not interested in fairness, Rawlsian or otherwise. He has decided to foment a war between New Jersey's suburban rich and urban poor - and he is going to do it to the detriment of the hearts and minds of school children. This level of cynicism and political underhandedness is unworthy of anyone who calls himself a leader. Christie should be ashamed of himself. I hope the people of New Jersey, rich and poor, suburban and urban, reject this latest ploy to appeal to our baser instincts.

Perhaps the greatest of all presidents (and a Republican, lest we forget) Abraham Lincoln, famously said, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Apparently, for Chris Christie, a house divided is just good politics.