Candidates Spar Over Education in New Jersey Gubernatorial Debate

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With just a few weeks to go before election day all eyes are on New Jersey, where the only Gubernatorial contest with the re-election of a Democratic incumbent at stake is unfolding. The White House hopes to ease the fears of members of Congress anxious about their own 2010 races by sending the party’s biggest names to the Garden State to campaign on behalf of Governor John Corzine. Vice President Biden will visit New Jersey on Monday, with former President Clinton stopping in on Tuesday and President Obama arriving on Wednesday.

There are over two weeks to go in this marathon slugfest, the major party candidates sharpened their attacks during Friday’s Gubernatorial debate at William Paterson University. Republican hopeful and former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie cast Governor Corzine as out of touch with a state reeling from skyrocketing foreclosures and near double-digit unemployment figures. Corzine countered by linking Christie to so-called “trickle-down economics” that only favor the rich.

Meanwhile, the presence of Independent candidate Chris Daggett appeared to be changing the dynamics of the contest. Daggett took both men to task for end-running state campaign finance laws by benefiting from negative ads paid for by out-of-state special interests. Daggett continued to tout his plan to cut property taxes by expanding the sales tax for services used by the state's wealthier households. And in a sign that it's now a three-way race, Christie took time to attack Daggett's plan as a burdensome tax increase.

Education took center stage on Friday as all three candidates had a lot to say about the status of public education in New Jersey. For decades, the rising cost of public education has driven up local property levies, with New Jersey property taxes now among the highest in the nation. Educational results have varied widely and ending the continued rise of property taxes continues to poll as the top issue for voters.

The candidates addressed what they see as a disparity in the quality of education between some urban and suburban public schools. Independent Chris Daggett said that despite an increase in state spending for urban schools, their performance continues to lag. "But we have literally spent billions in the last 30 years and we still have a number of urban areas that have the high school dropout rate of over 50% and the remaining 50% only half of the rest pass their graduation test," Daggett said.

Daggett is calling for more charter schools and says in some cases the state should be prepared to offer vouchers. Republican Chris Christie agreed.

Governor Corzine said the state's public schools rank at the top of the nation. He endorsed charter schools but strongly rejected vouchers, saying they would undermine public school finances.

Corzine touted recent national surveys that highly ranked the quality of the state's public schools. He conceded that more needed to be done to close the gap between some urban districts and the schools in wealthier suburbs. He also said the state’s top priority had to be universal pre-school. "The single most important education reform, and I feel passionately about this, is too make sure every child has pre-school education. If you do that, and get them started early with vocabulary and a capacity to learn, kids will do well throughout the system," Corizine said.

Christie likened his views on closing the achievement gap between urban and suburban schools with those of President Obama. "You go to places like Central High in Newark where last year 55% of the seniors could not pass the graduation exam after three tries, despite that it only requires them to read at an eighth grade level. This is an obscenity in our state. And we are consigning an entire generation of urban children to second-class citizenship," Christie said.

Christie says creating more charter schools and offering school vouchers is the quickest way to change the status quo. Daggett also backed those options. Governor Corzine says he has championed charter schools but believes vouchers could undermine public school finances.

The debate will air on Sunday at noon on Channel 9. On Thursday evening WNYC will carry the third and final Gubernatorial debate, which is being produced by WBGO. Bob Hennelly will be on The Takeaway this Monday discussing the race, and on the Brian Lehrer Show discussing the candidates' position on education.