By Frank Belluscio
New Jersey is a state populated by an “argumentative people,” with children enrolled in a “wretched” school system, governed by elections set up to “rig the game.”
Forget the high property taxes. That image by itself would drive people out of this state. Why would anyone want to live here? Why would any business invest here?
What’s surprising is this negative image is resulting not from God-awful reality TV shows or talk radio that specializes in blasting government. It’s being promoted by the government itself…at least inadvertently. Thankfully, it’s not accurate.
Let’s look at some recent examples of poor choices of words from state politicians and the people who work for them.
(1) ‘Rig the Game’ In announcing his “toolkit” on Monday, Governor Christie made the following comment about the proposal to move school elections to November. “We need more voters to participate in the school board and fire district process in order to have it reflect in a much greater way than it does today, the interest of all the people in New Jersey and not just the special interest who organize and set up those elections in order to rig the game. To rig the game so that they get the result that they want.”
I’m not a spokesman for the administration, but I think the message (which NJSBA would not agree with) that the governor intended to convey is this: ”Too few people vote in the April election; it gives special interests, like teacher unions, the ability to impact the outcome. We can eliminate that influence by moving the school election to November.”
Unfortunately, bringing the expression “rig the game” into the discussion conjures up images of fixed elections, electioneering and the cliché, “vote early and often.”
So, just in case anyone asks you, here are some facts about the Annual School Elections–whether they take place in April or at any other time of year:
- School elections are conducted by the state’s 21 county boards of election, not local school districts. Any concern about “rigging the game” should immediately be brought to the attention of the county clerk.
- A long line of court decisions, dating from 1953, prohibits the expenditure of public funds to encourage citizens to vote “yes” or “no” on any public question, including the proposed school budget, or to vote in favor or against any candidate for office. If such violations occur, a complaint could be filed with Superior Court.
- The state Accountability Regulations prohibit the name or photo of any school board member from appearing in school district-issued material during the 90 days preceding school election. (I’m not aware of similar restrictions for municipalities or counties.)
- School board candidates must file the same financial disclosures and campaign contribution reports with the state’s Election Law Enforcement Commission as do all other candidates for political office.
- Prohibitions against electioneering and other actions to intimidate voters apply to school elections as they do to all elections.
But let’s face it. The governor wasn’t really talking about election fraud or electioneering. He was talking about the NJEA and, maybe, us too.
(2) A ‘Wretched System’ He’s the new guy, who recently came over to the “dark side” (i.e., government public relations) after years as a reporter. So, maybe we should cut him a break. Unfortunately, the commissioner of education’s spokesman definitely chose the wrong adjective when communicating with a Star-Ledger columnist not known for giving government officials breaks of any sort.
Let me recount the column: When asked to address New Jersey’s performance on the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, the spokesman called the results “irrelevant.” According to the Star-Ledger, he stated, “We should not take solace in the fact that we score well in a wretched system that fails to adequately teach such a high percentage of children.”
Somehow, I don’t think superintendents in places like Livingston or Westfield believe their students are being taught in a wretched system. In fact, New Jersey’s continued excellent performance on the NAEP–one of the few “apples-to-apples” comparisons of public school students’ performance nationwide–illustrates the overall success of our state’s public schools.
So, here is the message that I think the Department of Education spokesman meant to deliver or, at least, should have conveyed: “We should not be satisfied with the NAEP results because there are many students whose educational needs are not being met under the current system. Until we change the system so that these students also have the opportunity to succeed, we cannot celebrate.”
Of course, part of the administration’s proposed solution–vouchers–is something NJSBA cannot support, based on long-standing policy against the use of public funds for non-public schools. But dismissing a valid measure of student achievement and “dissing” the success of high performing schools will not help achieve the goal–educational opportunity for all–that we all share.
(3) ‘Malfeasance.’ Don’t think for a minute that the administration is the only branch of government guilty of choosing its words indiscriminately. It has a long way to go before meeting the “standard” set by certain committees of the state Legislature. My “favorite” example came from a member of the Assembly Budget Committee, when he charged local school boards with “malfeasance”–not a particular board, but school boards in general. That’s a powerful–and, frankly, awful–accusation to make against 588 public bodies, with 4,800 unpaid members. (Sometimes, there seem to be two classes of elected officials: those who are paid and have the bully pulpit, and those who are unpaid and become undeserved targets.)
Of course, the legislator who made the “malfeasance” remark fell into the practice, common among politicians, of taking an isolated incident (if I recall right, it was the time a school district was found to have paid its bus drivers for the time it took them to charge their cell phones) and applying it to everyone.
We might expect unfounded, irresponsible statements from radio talk show hosts. Elected officials should operate at a higher level. Unfortunately, they’re choosing not to, and public discourse is the worse for it.