Charter schools moratorium sparks sparring at Democratic gubernatorial primary debate

Democratic gubernatorial candidates John Wisniewski, Phil Murphy, Jim Johnson and Ray Lesniak. Credits: Pool Photo
Gubernatorial candidates Phil Murphy and Jim Johnson in an exchange during a debate at NJTV studio in Newark. Credits: Pool Photo
Gubernatorial candidates John Wisniewski and Phil Murphy in a debate at NJTV studio in Newark. Credits: Pool Photo

The question of whether there should be a moratorium on charter schools sparked heated discussion among the four major New Jersey Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates gathered at a television debate in the studio of NJTV in downtown Newark on Thursday night, putting a direct spotlight on a critical educational issue in the state's largest city. 

While the candidates were led through a series of back-and-forth exchanges by NJTV's chief political correspondent Michael Aron on a range of policy issues that included the pension system, transportation, health care and property taxes, Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) opened the door to a candidate exchange about the issue when he mentioned the concept of a moratorium on charter schools as part of a discussion on the state's public school funding formula.

Wisniewski expressed his desire for a moratorium on charter schools and noted that the flow of funds toward charter schools further hurts the efforts of a state public school system that is already underfunded. 

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At a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in October, Murphy, a voting NAACP board member, expressed reservations before the organization approved a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school growth, trying to temporarily put a break on the vote, as reported by TAPintoNewark. 

Murphy tried to open a discussion about the controversial resolution that has bitterly divided the African-American community in Newark and across the nation. But the other NAACP board members were not in a mood for dialogue and pushed forward with the resolution, one of 47 adopted by the organization during the meeting.

All of the other three Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates present at Thursday's debate, including Wisniewski, Senator Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) and Montclair attorney Jim Johnson, have stated that they are for a moratorium on charter schools. 

Aron pressed Murphy on the issue, asking him directly if he supported a moratorium on charter schools.

"This is a complicated one. This is hard," Murphy said while sitting under the lights at the NJTV studio in Newark's Gateway Center, the stage exposed to the viewing public behind glass. "I've never been a heck-no charter guy, but the way [funding] has been done under [Republican Gov. Chris] Christie is extremely troubling. So I had said let's call a time out and get some rules of the road in place here. We over-label this discussion. I want to be the guy that supports schools that are working. But there are very troubling governance issues, funding issues and demographic issues."

Wisniewski then interjected, asking if Murphy was for a moratorium or not.

Murphy answered that he voted against the NAACP call for a moratorium because he felt that it was "implying that federal money would have been cut off the next day, and kids would have been thrown out of school. And I'm not for that."

Johnson initially expressed confusion as to why Murphy brought up the NAACP board debate, then took a moment to clarify his position on a charter school moratorium. 

"I've called for a pause...but the other thing we need to be concerned about is that there are districts in which there is a choice between funding for charter schools and funding for traditional public schools," Johnson said. "We need to support our public schools but also take advantage of the knowledge and learning experience from charter schools." 

After the debate, which was co-sponsored by NJ Spotlight, Wisniewski continued to criticize Murphy's answer during the debate on the issue of a charter school moratorium. 

"He was multiple choice, like he was taking the PARCC test and filling in a couple of the boxes at the same time," Wisniewski told TAPintoNewark. "He's inexperienced, doesn't understand New Jersey policy or politics, and he was all over the place." 

Murphy countered by further clarifying his position on the charter school moratorium. 

"I absolutely stand for a timeout on charter schools. I was trying to make a point on what is the definition of a moratorium," Murphy told TAPintoNewark. "[The NAACP] definition was to cut federal money from schools, close schools tomorrow, and throw kids on the street. I'm not going to sign up for that."

Murphy received the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), which supported a charter school moratorium in New Jersey. 

When asked how this endorsement affects his stance on a charter school moratorium, Murphy said that it did not. 

"My view has not changed. In fact, [the NJEA] is probably organized in about 12 or fifteen charters. This is not the black-and-white issue that people make it out to be. It's also a different dynamic in Newark than it is in Montclair. As I mentioned, we're way over-labelling this."

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