Gov. Christie may have declared this the "year of education reform," but for legislators, this is the year of reelection.
Amid campaign fund-raising and door-knocking this fall, legislators are only sporadically convening to consider bills. That means Christie's efforts to overhaul public education have slowed until after November.
So far unable to push a single significant education bill through the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Christie is lowering his short-term goals, easing the antiunion rhetoric, and highlighting more mild aspects of his reform agenda.
During visits to three schools last week, Christie laughed with students and sought advice from superintendents, downshifting from the aggressive style he used earlier this year in weekly, jam-packed town-hall meetings to successfully sell public employee benefits changes.
With bigger education plans on hold, Christie used one stop to unveil a preliminary report from an Education Transformation Task Force he appointed in May.
The task force's proposals, many of which Christie could enact through gubernatorial authority alone, include asking for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law so the state can create a new, less cumbersome accountability system.
Such a system is used to monitor schools and intervene in failing districts, but the one currently in place is considered too onerous and paperwork-heavy. The superintendents Christie gathered for the announcement support a change.
The task force - which included a principal and retired superintendent but no current teachers - also said the state has "gone too far" with its 1,200 pages of education statutes and 1,000 pages of regulations. Such regulations specify the type of file cabinets to house records, prohibit "multicolor glossy" paper for school district publications, and mandate student records be kept for a century.
Many of these regulations were established to control spending, but the task force said that with Christie's 2 percent property-tax cap, such dictates are unnecessary.
Other proposed regulatory changes would ease the approval and renewal process for charter schools, which are a cornerstone of the Christie education agenda.
Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf last week detailed how he has "completely dismantled" the state Department of Education, creating new positions - such as "chief talent officer." And the department is considering using an exam like the SAT or ACT as a graduation requirement, instead of the High School Proficiency Assessment, or HSPA, which he said isn't an effective measurement of college-readiness.
Christie also used his school tour to highlight previously approved changes to the education system for captive children, faculty and media. He dropped in on Sharp Elementary School in Cherry Hill, for example, to discuss new national curriculum standards in language arts and math that had been adopted by the state board of education three months earlier.
The next day, he went to a school district in Bergen County that has joined a state pilot program on teacher evaluations - the seeds, Christie hopes, of a statewide system of merit pay in which teacher salaries are tied to student performance.
In the school appearances, he didn't lay a hand on his favorite target - the powerful New Jersey Education Association teachers' union - but he still talked tough about closing the disparity between low-income and wealthy districts.
"I'm not going to have urban mothers and fathers lied to about the quality of education they're receiving, and I'm tired of giving out fake diplomas to people who can't qualify to sit in a college classroom," he said.
"We need to hold people accountable who are providing that education, and we need to hold students accountable for achieving to a level that entitles them to that diploma."
Christie might have to wait some time before he gets the accountability he envisions.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) controls which legislation comes up for a vote in the Senate, where several education bills are awaiting final approval, but he is cool to many of the governor's ideas.
"He's not going to get away with the fact that he cut funding to education," Sweeney said. "You can do all the reform you want to do, but you've got to fund it, too."
Sweeney is most amenable to changing tenure, but he doesn't want to change the last-in, first-out approach. Christie wants to replace that with a system that evaluates teachers on test scores and classroom observations.
Sweeney also rejected Christie's merit pay plan. The governor believes salaries should be based in part on performance, with additional money for teachers in hard-to-staff positions.
Sweeney said he'd be open to a proposal to send more resources to improving schools so teachers have an incentive to work for smaller class sizes, for example. But he doesn't think the judgment of a principal should influence a teacher's salary.
Skeptics, in the teachers' unions and beyond, say there is little research supporting the claim that such reforms improve student performance in the poorest districts. They say poverty and lack of parental involvement inhibit student learning, and cannot be rectified with education "reform."
Christie counters that the status quo, in which schools are allowed to fail every year while draining tax dollars, cannot continue and all options must be tried. There is no silver bullet, he says.
The trick for Christie will be to keep his proposals on the forefront without waging a scorched-earth campaign that could frame him as anti-teacher and buoy Democrats running for Legislature.
In response to Christie's proposals this week, Democrats issued news releases saying the governor needed to first concentrate on creating jobs.
Those in the education reform movement heard a familiar tune.
"It is really easy to put the interests of kids last because they don't vote, and it's really easy to put the interest of poor kids last because they don't vote and their parents don't vote," said Derrell Bradford, executive director of Better Education For Kids, which backs tenure reform.
"I happen to believe the governor's disruptive nature was critical to getting the conversation where it is now . . . but the nature of the conversation is fundamentally alien to our leaders in Trenton, which is why it's so hard for them."
Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D., Middlesex), the chair of the education committee, believes the conversation can begin by, well, having a conversation. "Let's include everybody in the process rather than dictating, because [Christie] will be surprised there's a lot more common ground than he may believe there is," Diegnan said.
"The divisiveness is never in the long run effective. It may get headlines, it may make you feel good, it may give you a national stage, but in terms of bringing consensus and change, it's never productive."