Chris Christie and School Rules: Making Things Sensible?

Originally published on Open Salon on April 5, 2011:

            The Star Ledger reports today that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is creating a task force that will review state rules for school districts with the goal of eliminating forms of regulation that interfere with the efficient function of schools.  Reporters Ginger Gibson and Jeanette Rundquist detail in their article many of the governor’s remarks and some officials’ responses.

            Naturally, reactions to this will take many forms.  We’ll start with the cynical.  The governor’s agenda with regard to public education has been decisive and aggressive to say the least.  For each of the past two years, he has slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to local school districts.  He has also waged political war with the state teachers’ union, and he has championed charter schools as a panacea for shortcomings in publicly-funded education.  Now, mystified public educators hear that the governor would like to remove some of the obstacles that bring about the disappointments so often bemoaned by the governor and other critics.  It just smells too fishy, some will say; Christie is simply trying to create the illusion of collaboration. 

            Still, the governor’s initiative here could be a gesture of good faith.  School districts have a difficult time moving forward when they carry mountains of bureaucratic burdens on their backs.  As Gibson and Rundquist report, this takes the form of more than mere rules regarding everything from superintendents’ salaries to the paper and ink that school districts may use in distributing school brochures; it also involves reams of documentation and an intensive review system called the Quality Single Accountability System, or QSAC.  If the governor and his administration are sincere and determined about optimizing requirements and reporting, school personnel and resources statewide can be more directly focused on engaging students in the process of learning and achieving.  Reform in this regard could dramatically transform education in the state—for the better.

            Few people suspect how hard public educators work in order to fulfill all of the requirements.  Often with the best of intentions, the state imposes expectations that a safety risk is minimized or a range of educational practices is promoted or a protocol for emergencies is codified and practiced or a priority is addressed on a professional development day or a list of state learning standards is comprehensively addressed in a curriculum or a written copy of a curriculum has been distributed to all teachers; the list goes on and on.  School administrators and personnel then scramble to comply—and to prove that they are complying.  This can be profoundly disruptive to the operation of schools.  The hardship increases when the economic landscape deteriorates and school budgets shrink.  As the work increases, fewer hands can tend to it; and all of this while teaching and learning continue to pose their own unique challenges.  Perhaps the governor’s plan will involve accountability in broader brushstrokes and an emphasis on regulatory principles rather than on bureaucratic details.  Given the daunting circumstances of the moment, this would be dearly welcome.

            This very issue is rarely discussed in the emotional debate over public spending on education.  It is entirely appropriate that the state should have requirements and standards for the school district it funds; and it is equally appropriate that the districts should fulfill those requirements in a manner that demonstrates accountability.  There is a right way to do all of this.  Many stakeholders in public education can hope that yesterday’s words are the start of something real.

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