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Schools fuel the N.J. race for governor

Listen to Gov. Corzine hit the stump on education, and you'll hear him talk about his record: passing a funding law that distributes aid to more poor children, sparing school aid from cuts even in a bad budget year, making high school graduation requirements more rigorous.

Listen to Gov. Corzine hit the stump on education, and you'll hear him talk about his record: passing a funding law that distributes aid to more poor children, sparing school aid from cuts even in a bad budget year, making high school graduation requirements more rigorous.

Tune in to Republican challenger - and front-runner - Christopher J. Christie, and you'll hear the former federal prosecutor vow to bolster New Jersey's higher-education system and retain in-state high achievers. In his "Bringing Back Our Cities" plan, he wants to expand charter schools, give good schools in failing districts more autonomy, and enable school choice.

Independent Chris Daggett, like Christie, pledges to create more school options through charters and business-tax-funded scholarships. The state environmental protection commissioner under Republican Gov. Tom Kean at the end of the 1980s, Daggett said he would increase educator accountability by doing away with tenure and creating greater oversight.

"Education will always be one of the highest priorities for me," Daggett said.

That's what all three candidates claim. In a state with some of the highest taxes in the country - much of them going to the schools - and in the midst of a deep national recession, education is indeed at the fore in the New Jersey governor's race.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters had Christie in front of Corzine, 47 percent to 37 percent, with a margin of error of about 21/2 percentage points. Daggett trailed with 9 percent.

As students returned to their classrooms during the last two weeks, Corzine made the rounds to promote his achievements, including reigniting the state's controversial school-construction program. Thursday at Park Avenue Elementary School in Orange, N.J., he noted 12 new or modernized schools that opened this month alone.

At the Camden Early Childhood Development Center the week before, Corzine said 51,000 children are now receiving state-funded preschool. A state Department of Education spokeswoman said that was up from 46,000 when Corzine took office.

That said, the state shelved a $25 million preschool expansion because of a lack of money. Under the new state funding law, government-funded, high-quality preschool was supposed to be made available for all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds over the next five years.

Establishing a new school funding formula has been Corzine's farthest-reaching education accomplishment, although it's not without controversy. The formula sends more aid into more districts with poor children, rather than concentrating it in the 31 so-called Abbott districts - largely urban, poor districts where state Supreme Court decisions mandated additional help.

Corzine's system was the first in decades to stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny. It pumped aid into districts whose funding had been static for years. Some districts - mostly working-class with sizable low-income populations - got as much as 20 percent more aid.

But the formula has its critics. Leaders of the Education Law Center, which represented the Abbott districts, said they feared those districts would lose the gains they had made.

This year, when fiscal woes drove the Corzine administration to make wide-ranging budget cuts, school aid was kept flat or increased slightly. But it still fell short of what the new funding formula called for. That, along with putting preschool on hold, prompted the law center's executive director, David Sciarra, to label the formula not "worth the paper it was printed on."

Corzine's education policies have found strong support with the powerful New Jersey Education Association, which represents more than 200,000 teachers and school support staff and has endorsed his reelection bid.

"Jon Corzine's record as governor on education is really outstanding," said Steve Baker, an NJEA spokesman, noting that education funding has increased by much more than $1 billion since Corzine took office.

Detractors include those who were once supporters and are hearing things they like from the governor's opponents, especially on charters and school choice in urban areas.

Yesterday, all three candidates were slated to speak to the Latino Leadership Alliance, a statewide coalition of 250 churches, labor groups, and other organizations that is based in New Brunswick. President Martin Perez said the alliance had endorsed Corzine in the past but was undecided this time.

Perez said his organization was part of a group that included legislators, ministers, and activists who have broken with their party in displeasure over what they see as Corzine's lack of strong support for a bill that would provide scholarships with corporate tax money.

And while charter schools have increased in number since Corzine took office and he has announced proposals to streamline charter approval, the Latino Leadership Alliance and some other organizations are looking at his challengers, who have seemed to have embraced charters and vouchers.

"The Democrats used to take us for granted, and the Republicans didn't care," Perez said. "We're trying to change that."

Some political observers say Christie's and Daggett's open endorsement of charters and vouchers may cut somewhat into Corzine's urban support.

Other observers, however, argue that charters are largely an urban issue and unlikely to educate the majority of students. Some add that a voucher system paid, as proposed, by corporate taxes would take money from other programs.

Christie and Daggett may not have an education record to run on, but they have plenty of ideas.

Daggett, who does environmental work in the private sector, said he would scrap the Special Review Assessment, which is given to students who don't pass normal standardized state tests. He called it a "backdoor loophole" that allowed students to graduate without adequate preparation for college or the workplace.

Corzine's Education Department has revised the assessment process and is tightening its scoring.

Christie, in a televised debate, likened government-sponsored preschool to state-funded babysitting. He also has expressed concern that government-funded preschool would hurt the private preschool industry. Currently, districts can create their own programs or contract with private providers.

Whoever wins, much will come down to the money at hand.

"The big elephant in the room is, 'What about next year?' " said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents many suburban districts.

The state Office of Legislative Services has projected a possible $8 billion budget shortfall. What then?

Daggett said all would have to "sacrifice to put this state back on track financially. No one will be spared."

Christie adviser Gregg Edwards, president of the Center for Policy Research of New Jersey, said his candidate would strive to maintain education funding. It could "be difficult to do anything but tread water next year," he said.

Elisabeth Smith, Corzine's press secretary, said, "Regardless of the future budget situation, Gov. Corzine will continue to prioritize education - from prekindergarten through higher education."