Exclusive Q&A with Christie: How I’ll get big school tax relief done
Gov. Chris Christie proposed a new school-funding approach Tuesday in a speech at Hillsborough High School, calling for per-pupil aid to be distributed evenly to all school districts, eliminating the extra funding currently provided to some districts. (See here for coverage of his proposal.)
Following the speech, Christie spoke about his school aid plan in a one-on-one interview with New Jersey 101.5. Below is a transcript.
Q: Why this, at this time?
CHRISTIE: “Eighteen months left. It’s the most vexing problem that faces the state, is the reduction of property taxes. And the only way to reduce property taxes is to equalize aid. There’s no other way to do it. We can contain property taxes through the cap, which we have, but to really reduce them significantly, this is what you need to do. And by the way, it’s the right thing to do. So it’s a fight worth having. And I think this should be on the ballot in 2017, so that every gubernatorial candidate has to say: Are you for it, or are you against it? And the public can make their own judgment.”
Q: So you’re not looking for a ballot question this year?
CHRISTIE: “No, too short. Too short a time. There’s only another month, I think, to be able to put stuff on for November. And I think – I think we should have a full, robust discussion about it around the state, and then let’s get it on the ballot.”
Q: Putting it on next year’s ballot would make it a huge campaign issue. It may be, anyway, an issue in the campaign. But is that part of what you’re hoping to do, make it a campaign topic?
CHRISTIE: “Well, it’s going to be no matter what. I’ve run for governor twice, and property taxes is always the first issue you get asked about. So any candidate running for governor who thinks they’re not going to be asked about this is kidding themselves. I think since the Legislature has shown such a free and easy desire to amend the constitution, then we should amend it to take this out of the court’s hands.”
Christie returns to New Jersey 101.5's Ask The Governor Wednesday night. We’ll take your call sat 800-283-1015 and your tweets at @NJ1015 using the hashtag #AskGov. You can also join our online chat, starting at 7 p.m.
Q: The constitutional amendment, I guess, is how you do it legally by getting it out of the court’s hands. Politically, would it have a chance in a Democratic-controlled Legislature?
CHRISTIE: “It should, because if you look at districts like Loretta Weinberg’s district, every school district in her legislative district does significantly better. Paul Sarlo’s district the same way. Bob Gordon’s district the same way. Linda Greenstein’s district very similar. It’s the myth of thinking that the Democratic Party in New Jersey only has an urban base. As you know, it’s expanded into a suburban base for the Democratic Party, yet they’re not serving those constituents at all. And they need to answer why.”
Q: There would be huge losses in aid for some urban districts.
CHRISTIE: “There would be. And we’d have to have a transition period for that. We couldn’t do it overnight. But you could certainly phase it in, and the constitutional amendment could allow for a multi-year phase-in. But they have to adjust. They’ve been overfunded for decades, Michael, and we need to – we’ll give them time to get their act together, but we know from the schools that are operating well in their district that they don’t need all that money. I mean, you look at just Newark. North Star Academy is educating those children at $9,000 less a pupil. Do the math. You could clearly live with that kind of reduction in Newark and be able to continue to educate the children.”
Q: A place like Asbury Park would lose three-quarters of their state aid.
CHRISTIE: “Well, the problem with Asbury Park is that they’re spending twice what their charter schools are, and they have some of the worst results in the state, second worst to Camden. And they’re doing nothing to try to change it. So, you know, the fact is you have to phase it in over time – and, by the way, Asbury Park spends 64 percent more than the state average on their municipal government. So, you know, it’s not that they don’t have the tax money. It’s that when we give it to them to fund education, they just use it on something else. I am sure that most of the people in Asbury Park would say: Well listen, just make municipal government smaller and spend it over on the schools.”
Q: If this were to go in effect, what would urban education look like? Would it be all charter schools or mostly charter schools?
CHRISTIE: “No, because traditional public schools could teach the same way charter schools do, with the same rules. It would mean fights with their unions over work rules and all the rest. But that’s a fight that needs to be had.”
Q: One reason why charters do better, some say, is that they have more involved parents. Just the mere act of a parent pursuing a charter school for their kid is more than some kids with parents who send them off to public school and isn’t very involved.
CHRISTIE: “Well listen, Michael, you can’t solve every problem. And by the way, the fact is that why would any amount of money solve that problem? Why would any amount of money solve the problem of an uninvolved parent? What you need to do, and what charter schools have done, and a lot of them have solved for under-involved parents by having longer school days and longer school years, when parents are under-involved because they’re working so hard, because they’re working three or four or five jobs in a two-parent family. A lot of parents aren’t that present because they simply can’t be, because they’re working so hard to keep food on the table. Charter schools have adjusted for that by having longer school days and longer school years. Let’s see traditional public schools do that. They can help to deal with that problem, Michael. They choose not to.”
Q: Steve Sweeney and a couple other lawmakers have this idea about a school funding commission. You would get appointees, they would get two. Could that commission do something like what you’re talking about, or are its hands tied?
CHRISTIE: “Well, the commission can only do something that it recommends to the Legislature legislatively. I guess they could recommend a constitutional amendment, too, if they wanted to. And I don’t know whether – I haven’t looked at Steve’s legislation closely enough to see if a constitutional amendment would be part of their ability to recommend that they would have to vote either up or down on, in a BRAC-commission style thing that he’s thinking about. I don’t oppose Steve’s idea, I just think it’s too small. I just think we need to think bigger on this, and we need to solve the problem. Moving $800 million, which is what Steve proposes, in a $9 billion aid budget, that’s less than 10 percent of the money. You’re not going to solve the property tax problem, nor the inequity in funding problem, as you heard me lay out today. It’s a lot more than $800 million to solve the inequity in funding problem for the 75 percent of towns that would do well in the Fairness Formula.”
Q: How much aid moves in this plan?
CHRISTIE: “It’s a lot. I mean, I don’t have the exact number. We can get it for you. I haven’t committed that one to memory. But it’s a good amount of aid that moves.”
Q: Why not have done this sooner?
CHRISTIE: “Listen, you know, sometimes your priorities as governor are dictated by others, and sometimes you can dictate them. Right? So as different things have happened over the course of my term, we tried other approaches to property taxes, like the cap, that we thought were politically doable at the time. And now this is the time I think where, especially when you have a second-term governor, you’ve got to speak truths to people. And it’s time for me to get people out from the shadows and get them out in the light to say, ‘How do you feel about this?’ Everybody – you know this, you’ve been around the Statehouse long enough. Everybody whispers about this. They all whisper about how messed up the school funding formula is, how it doesn’t really work and how the Abbotts are overfunded, the SDA schools are overfunded. Well I’m now going to start saying it out loud and all around the state and try to get a movement going here of people who want to amend the constitution to make sure that we don’t have this problem again.”
Q: So this summer, visits to different towns, town hall meetings, that kind of thing?
CHRISTIE: “Yeah like, you know, visits around. Meeting with parents, meeting with educators, meeting with local elected officials. Giving that speech, or some variation of it. And letting those know – go to that individual town, like go to Fair Lawn, say: ‘By the way, do you know you get 818 percent more in aid? And do you know it would reduce your property taxes by X dollars a year? And why wouldn’t your legislators be in favor of that? Why wouldn’t they be in favor of that, and how do they justify sending all this money to these other places for failure? And why aren’t they demanding better of them?’ I’m happy to engage in a reform conversation, as you know I always have been, in urban districts. There hasn’t been an appetite for that in the Legislature. Maybe there should be.”
Earlier from New Jersey 101.5: