New Jersey's Race for the Ax

A reform governor beheads his schools chief, almost making one wish the Evergreen State were more like the Garden State.
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Washington Schools Superintendent Randy Dorn

A reform governor beheads his schools chief, almost making one wish the Evergreen State were more like the Garden State.

In New Jersey, after the state just missed winning one of the "Race to the Top" federal grants for its schools, Gov. Chris Christie, a reform Republican known for making waves, dismissed his education chief, Bret Schundler, for bungling the application by submitting data for the wrong years. This being New Jersey politics, Schundler, the former mayor of Jersey City, is not going peacefully.

As a native of New Jersey, that much-maligned state, I have a certain fondness for its (shall we say) baroque politics. One complexity is that Schundler, while from a city known for its machine politics, is quite an education reformer and a strong advocate of charter schools. That's why Christie tapped him. Another nice touch: Schundler refused to resign, instead demanding to be fired so he could collect unemployment. Reform can only go so far!

This sort of thing would never happen out here. For one thing, this state, like many in the West, has all kinds of separately elected state officials, so Gov. Gregoire could never fire the state schools chief, Randy Dorn, even though they scarcely agree on education matters. Western-states politics, having formed up around the time of beating back railroad domination of state politics, dispersed power widely as a cure for railroad lobbyists. The cure has proved its own disease, weakening the ability of governors to have loyal and coherent cabinets. Two current examples: Attorney General Rob McKenna feuding with the governor over his Obamacare suit, and McKenna and Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark battling each other over power lines in Eastern Washington.

Chris Korsmo of the League of Education Voters thinks one of the reasons our state is so slow in enacting school reform, such as tying teacher evaluations to student performance, is the cacaphony of separately empowered voices in Olympia. Once one entity, such as the legislature or the schools chief, takes a stand on reform the others gang up to push their pet ideas. "Too many cooks in the kitchen" is the bane of any reform package, she laments. Meanwhile, state legislation is so restrictive on what localities can do to challenge long-standing contractual constraints, that there are few strong examples of local districts "racing to the top."

Our state finished so far behind in the federal contest that one would hardly know whom to fire — assuming one could.


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