Streams

Christie Lays Out Budget, Pension, and Education Reform in State of the State

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

On Tuesday afternoon, beginning his second year in office, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie gave his first State of the State address.

Expectations are high for Christie, whose name has already been kicked around as a potential 2012 presidential candidate. New Jersey was in dire straits when the new governor took office last year, with a fleeing population due in part to what some analysts have concluded is the highest tax burden in the nation and a projected $11 billion budget deficit in 2011. Christie began his speech by touting the steps he's taken to control spending, close the budget gap, and reform the state's pension and unemployment insurance system, avoiding tax increases all the while. 

"We are turning our state around," he said. "Make no mistake: New Jersey is coming back."

But Christie was adamant that the comeback is not complete. Over and over, Christie hammered the point that there is work to be done, and that reform cannot wait any longer. That means making tough, unpopular choices, he said. "The right answer is to face big problems now, or face bigger ones tomorrow," Christie told his audience. "I believe in a culture of truth, and it hasn't always been easy, because some of those truths in front of us weren't pleasant...What is at stake is no less than the future of New Jersey."

First on Christie's docket was the budget. New Jersey may have closed that $11 billion gap for the current fiscal year, but the state's gross debt continues to rise at a rapid clip. "The long-term deficit problem is far from solved," Christie said. "It took decades to build it up, so it cannot be solved in a year."

Next month, Christie will present his budget for the next fiscal year. He made this promise in his State of the State address: "It will be balanced, and it will not raise taxes."

Like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Christie wants to keep taxes where they are—and hopefully roll them back in the not-too-distant future—and use spending cuts to tackle his state's budget woes. When those woes are as bad as New Jersey's, Christie said, it means we need cut deep, but not arbitrarily.

"I am not proposing to cut spending just for cutting’s sake," he said. "I am fighting this fight because we have to be truthful about what we can’t afford—whether it is health and pension benefits which are out of line with the rest of the country, or a tunnel which we can’t pay for. I am asking for shared sacrifice so that when we leave here, New Jersey will be more fiscally sound than when we got here. I am asking for shared sacrifice in cutting what we don’t need so that we can invest in what we absolutely do need."

Christie may want to freeze and eventually lower taxes, but he was insistent that even those popular conservative measures wouldn't be considered unless the state found a way to pay for them. "Let's be clear," he said. "We will not put in place tax cuts that we can’t pay for. Any economic incentive package that I will sign will be enacted in the context, and only in the context, of a balanced budget."

Second on Christie's agenda will be reforming the pension system for state employees. Among his proposals are increasing the state retirement age from 62 to 65 and "modest" pension contributions from employees, which he didn't elaborate on. Instead, Christie emphasized the pension system's bottom line. "Benefits are too rich, contributions too small, and the system is on a path to bankruptcy," he said.

Recognizing that his proposals won't be met favorably by state employees, Christie reiterated the need to make sacrifices and difficult choices for the sake of the system. "To every beneficiary of the system," Christie said, "I am fighting for your pension's existence."

Lastly, but most importantly, Christie said, was education reform. He pointed to the failure of public institutions and the success of the charter school program as harbingers of what's to come. "We must give parents and children a choice to attend better schools," Christie said. He went on to call the performance of New Jersey's public education system "obscene." Expanding the charter school program will be a top priority for the governor, who also called on legislators to pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act immediately.

Christie's plans for education reform include cutting costs, giving merit-based rewards to teachers, basing any necessary layoffs on merit, improving teacher evaluation, and giving schools more power to remove underperforming teachers. "Teaching can no longer be the only profession where you have no rewards for excellence and no consequences for failure," Christie said. "The time to eliminate teacher tenure is now."

Throughout the speech, Christie framed his proposed reforms and spending cuts with the forceful, bullish style he's become known for. "We know that the path of change is better than the path of stagnation that we were on," he said. "I was determined when I took the oath of this office to give the people an honest assessment of our problems. To tell them the truth, even if it was difficult and my proposed solutions were unpopular. And to this day, I ask that I be measured by that standard—I will always do what I said I was going to do. I may not offer the easiest course, but I will be direct in saying which course I believe to be the best."

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Comments [9]

Mary from Northern NJ

Tenure cannot be completely done away with...it must be made renewable. Otherwise, Boards can get rid of senior teachers because of the bottom $ line. It also opens up the ability of administrators to reward friends (retaining them) and punish (fire) those who they don't personally like. Every 5 years a teacher should come up for tenure review. His/her file should be reviewed by the Board together with administrators (not the administrators alone as there could be favoritism etc involved). This is where the PARTNERSHIP comes in. Parents have to write letters regarding teacher's performance, both pro and con. Teachers would have the ability, at the review time only, to view the letters in their file. Negative letters don't necessarily mean a teacher is bad. It's possible that Mommy thinks Johnny is gifted and is bored by the work and the teacher doesn't recognize it. The teacher would be able to comment on the letter that little Johnny has learning disabilities that Mommy refuses to see and so Mommy blames teacher because Johnny can't do the work. If more letters of complaint are in the file than praise, the teacher would be put on probation with close monitoring for a year at which time their tenure would be reviewed again. In this way, teachers could not be removed simply because it would be cheaper....good teachers would be recognized by granting 5 more years of tenure and poor teachers (whether teaching abilitywise or personalitywise)could be removed without the tumultuous tenure hearings. But parents must be willing to put their praise or complaints in writing. The teachers could also request the Board to review other letters written by a complaining parent over the years regarding other teachers to make sure there isn't a pattern

Jan. 13 2011 12:59 PM
Richard from Union County

Dear "Fed Up In Bergen County",

The State of New Jersey has promised retirement benefits equal to $54 billion more than it has. For more than a decade, State Government has been using retirement contributions to fund the top line (that is, counting it as available revenue). Anyone in a private corporation who did that would be living in a a federal penitentiary.

In the last election, NJ voters approved a referendum amending Article VIII, Section II, paragraph 8 of the NJ Constitution. That paragraph, effective December 2, 2010, requires the state to use all moneys collected from public employees for funds established to provide benefits (e.g. healthcare and retirement) to provide those benefits. Politicians do not have the will power to keep their fingers out of that money otherwise.

Public employees still enjoy a "defined benefit" retirement program. Defined contribution retirement programs became the norm in the private sector thirty years ago.

No one is making scapegoats of public employees. Everyone is suffering in this economy.

But without drastic changes, the New Jersey public employee retirement system will be broke in about six years. Anyone in the system now who is planning on being alive then is contributing funds with no hope of ever seeing any benefit. The longer we wait, the harder this will be to fix.

Jan. 12 2011 09:20 PM
Fed Up In Bergen County

When Christie said, "I am not proposing to cut spending just for cutting’s sake," he said. "I am fighting this fight because we have to be truthful about what we can’t afford—whether it is health and pension benefits which are out of line with the rest of the country,”
The people who agree with his policies are apparently NOT “State Employees”!
The real fact is that Bergen County is one of the most costly counties to live in NJ. Our property taxes are causing people and businesses to flee this state. NJ should not be compared to other states across the country because every state has different reasons for financial instability. This statement again targets “State Employees”. Where are the “Private or Corporate Sector” sacrifices? Why does he continually target State Employees? I will tell you, he does not want to work for ALL of the people of New Jersey. He is NOT looking at the whole state and every worker. Instead he is essentially looking at a tumor on an x-ray and cutting it out blindly, without seeing the rogue cancer cells that created the tumor. Targeting state employees is an unfair practice in handling financial hard times. ALL state residents, as well as those who are enabled to sit on their lazy backsides and ride the benefit train should unilaterally share it.

Jan. 12 2011 07:55 PM
Richard from Union County

I am a 20-year NJ taxpayer and resident and a former public school teacher (and former teachers' union member). This year, I enrolled my own child in an independent school, at my own, considerable expense, after enduring a disastrous year in a "high-achieving," well regarded public school system in an affluent suburb west of Manhattan.

There are few professions where outstanding performance is rewarded as poorly as public school teaching. And, truth be told, teachers know well who among them are competent, and who are not. Determining who should stay and who should go is not as difficult as portrayed.

I would not want a hospital, a law firm, an accounting firm, a dental practice, or an airline making layoff decisions based only on seniority (though some, in fact, may). Why should teaching be different?

Elizabeth from Westchester bemoans "a history of underappreciating teachers." I agree that a teacher's job is difficult, and that teachers as a group deserve more respect than they get.

I submit, however, that as long as superior performance is not rewarded and incompetence is tolerated, teachers will continue to suffer a less than stellar reputation.

You want respect? Earn it!

Jan. 12 2011 05:53 PM

Get business out of education!

Capitalism is great, but it has some downsides too. Capitalism has many known limitations and generally where we see government it is addressing those limitations in areas such as education and transportation.

Yet increasingly we are forcing public work to function more and more like private work. High stakes testing, merit pay for teachers, roads not rails all mimic the way private companies work.

You would not want to appoint Karl Marx as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and it makes just about as much sense to treat teachers like cut-throat sales persons. Do we want our teachers begging (or worse) their principles to give them the best students?

Oddly enough, if we look only at "merit" (whatever that is) in laying-off teachers we would probably end up laying-off mostly new teachers. It takes a few years for most teachers to get it (whatever "it" is) and perform well.

Jan. 12 2011 05:14 PM
Marcus from Brooklyn

Disclaimer: I'm a NYCDOE teacher.

I won't touch tenure. School administrators should set good standards for evaluating AND TRAINING new teachers and award tenure accordingly.

With regard to pending teacher layoffs based on merit and not seniority, in theory that's a great idea. However the problems in execution are several. There are students that come to school ready and hungry to learn and I could almost throw them a book and let them do it themselves. In other words there are kids that are real easy to teach. There is another, larger group that very much need structure and good “scaffolded” instruction and leadership toward acquiring and using knowledge and information. Finally there is a group that is far too large that come to school without the tools, skills, support, and desire to participate and it not just that they have been discouraged in the past. When kids in this last group are put in large group situations they don't even try, they just disrupt. Kids without [really good] home support need that support to be supplemented in their in-school instruction and that costs money (smaller groups, extended day).

If you base teacher merit on student performance, which students a teacher draws and class size become important factors. I think student performance and test scores are a real tricky method for evaluating teachers. I don't know a fair way to do that. Another problem is systemic pressures and personal preferences that administrators may use that are other than “merit.” I have seen a new administrators try to layoff teachers to bring on “their own people.” It was widely perceived that during that same attempted purge personal dislikes and not merit were factors for attempting to “excess” teachers. I have seen a lot of poor, weak administrators and I worry about broadly expanding the power of administration.

Finally the main problem with the “Merit” argument is that NYCDOE administrators are under great pressure to keep costs down and when given the choice between keeping an expensive experienced teacher and a less expensive younger teacher the choice will be made on cost and disguised as merit.

Jan. 12 2011 12:44 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Did Mr. Christie take credit for costing the citizens $685M in Fed funds? [ $400M lost RTTF, $14M for charter schools, $271M for ARC tunnel grants that need to be repaid.]

Add to this the $3.5B of ARC tunnel fund that NJ workers and firms WILL NOT be getting and the Governor's leadership has cost us $4.2B.

Our chance to re-elect him or kick him to the curb is in 2013. This should free him up to make his POTUS or Veep run in 2016.

Jan. 12 2011 11:48 AM
Elizabeth from Westchester

About the teacher tenure topic: I just finished a graduate program in Education. I did interships in 3 public schools in NYC. What I saw was a lot of hard working teachers in classrooms where it was almost impossible to get information across for a variety of reasons. There is not enough support from administration.
I somewhat agree with a plan for paying teachers based on merit. My concern is the tone this topic is taking with politicians. It seems overly critical. It's possible teachers are being scapegoated. I heard in one of my graduate courses that there is a history of underappreciating teachers and that one of the reasons is gender. The tone of the politicians could be interpreted as taking advantage of a culture of misogyny to further their platform. This is destructive for a variety of reasons. The reasons related to education are:
1. It will drive away professionals who could otherwise be good teachers.
2. It sends a message to students that they are not accountable for their education and they can disrespect their teachers.

Jan. 12 2011 10:55 AM
Karen Booth from Bergen County

Who determines merit? My 4th grade teacher was the best teacher I ever had (and I've had many extraordinary teachers). The students loved her, the parents loved her, but she was vilified by the administration and some of her fellow teachers because of her hard work and dedication to her students. So who determines merit? This wasn't in NJ by the way. It was at P.S. 180 in central Harlem many, many years ago.

Jan. 12 2011 10:49 AM

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