Buono unveils education plan

It's apparently education week on the gubernatorial campaign trail. I'll soon post my dispatch from Gov. Christie's visit to a school down the Shore, but meanwhile here's my story in today's Inquirer about Barbara Buono's education agenda:

NEW BRUNSWICK - As Rutgers University students shuffled past to the first classes of the semester, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Barbara Buono stood at the heart of the state university's central campus Tuesday to offer a broad plan for making education more expansive and affordable.

For K-12 schools, Buono promised to fully fund districts through the long-ignored state formula, give all children full-day kindergarten, restore cuts to before- and after-school programs, expand access to preschool, and spend more to fix dilapidated schools.

For colleges, Buono said she would increase state funding to lower tuition, create tax deductions for parents who save for college, expand scholarships, and allow children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. Buono's plan costs a lot of money - following the school-funding formula alone means adding about $1 billion to the state's $33 billion budget.

Buono said she would pay for her proposals in part by raising taxes on millionaires. Asked for more specifics, Buono, a state senator from Middlesex County, said that education would be funded "to the greatest degree possible."

"The fact of the matter is the budget is about priorities," she said. "This is a plan for my first term in office, and it will be enacted within fiscal constraints."

Her opponent, Republican Gov. Christie, often boasts that his current budget means more "state funding" for education than at any time in history.

But K-12 schools actually received more money in fiscal year 2010, thanks to $1 billion in federal stimulus funding. Christie's $820 million cut to schools the following year led to teacher layoffs and the elimination of programs. Funding has ticked up each year since.

This year, he says, most school districts are getting more money than last year - but several are seeing as little as a $1 increase.

Buono slams Christie for his past cuts to education. But if her proposed increase in a tax on high-wage earners is similar to the last "millionaire's" tax proposed by Democrats, it would bring in about $600 million annually, not enough to give schools the money they are owed under the school-funding formula.

Buono, who has been endorsed by the New Jersey Education Association teachers' union, does support one of Christie's signature education issues: tenure reform. In the Senate, she voted for a bill Christie supported to tie teachers' tenure protections to positive evaluations. Her education plan reiterates support for such measures.

On higher education, though, Buono bucked her party's leadership last year to oppose Christie's restructuring of the state's colleges and universities. The plan, often called a "merger," resulted in the dismantling of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, with its pieces spread to other campuses.

Buono said Tuesday that she remained concerned that the costs of the reorganization would be passed on to students. Proponents had said the merger wouldn't cost anything, but they now acknowledge that tens of millions of dollars are needed.

Christie countered Tuesday with a news conference at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, which is embarking on a $86.3 million construction project. The money comes from a $750 million bond referendum, supported by both candidates, that was approved by voters in November.

Christie struck a bipartisan tone, praising the Democratic leaders of the Assembly and Senate for helping with the bond's passage. His campaign also released a 2010 statement from Newark Mayor Cory Booker, now the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, lauding Christie for his educational efforts in Newark.

Christie seemed to make a veiled reference to Buono.

"You know you have lots of people who talk the talk about investing in higher education, and everybody understands that a better higher-education institution creates the opportunity for more good-paying jobs," Christie said. "The more difficult part is making the decision to commit the resources that are necessary to be able to make it happen."