TRENTON, N.J. — Voters looking to get smart on two top party candidates’ views on education in the race to succeed Gov. Chris Christie will find differences of emphasis and policy.

Democrat Phil Murphy has focused “laser-like” on his promise to pump more cash into education. Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has instead stayed quiet on the state’s school-funding formula and concentrated on property taxes, the main source of funding for schools.

Murphy and Guadagno will square off in the race’s first debate next week.

Murphy holds an edge over Guadagno in polls and fundraising. They both also face four third-party and independent candidates.

Christie cannot seek a third term because of term limits.


THE ISSUE

Polls show that New Jersey voters count education as a top issue in the contest to succeed Christie.

The topic is as broad as it is politically polarizing, and usually comes down to the crux of many political disagreements in the state: money — and how to spend it.

Specifically the debate revolves around the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which called for a state financing formula for New Jersey’s nearly 600 school districts. It hasn’t been implemented by the Christie administration.

Democrats, including Murphy, loudly call for the formula’s implementation, which carries an estimated $1 billion price tag annually. Republicans, including Christie, reject it, and call for funding to be equalized for every student instead of factoring in various district needs. Guadagno has not taken a position on the formula.

School funding also cuts across another key issue in the state — property taxes , which are the highest in the country.

In addition to the funding formula, expanding pre-kindergarten as well as access to vocational schools and community colleges have also factored into the two top candidates’ proposals.


IN THEIR OWN WORDS

A key plank in Murphy’s platform is “fully funding” the school aid formula. He reasons that it amounts to a “bottom up” approach that could help the state’s poorer districts perform better.

“We’re going to have to move as fast as we can to full funding for (the School Funding Reform Act),” he told the state’s largest teacher’s union recently.

He has also promised to scrap standardized exams by Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, commonly called PARCC.

Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Obama administration ambassador to Germany, has also promised to implement tuition free community college as well as expanded pre-K.

Guadagno’s campaign has focused mostly on reducing property taxes, which she proposes to do by capping levies at 5 percent of income, but with exceptions. Guadagno, a former federal prosecutor and Christie’s top deputy since 2010, has not said if she’d fund the formula or continue to fail to implement it. She has called for “reforming” the plan, but hasn’t laid out specifics.

She also says she wants to expand vocational education and supports the so-called school choice movement that led to the expansion of charter schools under Christie.


WHAT THEY’RE NOT SAYING

Murphy’s promise to fully fund the formula comes up against the Democrat-led Legislature’s approach to phase-in full funding over five years, which Christie agreed to this year as part of larger budget negotiations. Murphy has not specified whether he’s talking about budgeting the full, roughly $1 billion in school funding in his first spending plan, or if he’d go along with the phase-in.

Murphy’s calls for tuition-free community college, which he says would have to be implemented over time, carry an estimated price tag of $200 million. He has not identified specifically where funding would come from, but says federal assistance could help achieve the goal.

Under Christie, the state spends about $2 million, with nearly $18 million in federal assistance for early childhood education. It’s unclear how much Murphy’s expanded pre-K would cost.

Guadagno hasn’t taken a position on the school funding formula or Christie’s so-called Fairness Formula, which failed to get legislative support, but has praised it for getting “the conversation” started. The plan would have hurt poorer, mostly urban districts, but help suburban schools.

She’s called for expanding school choice, but hasn’t specified whether she means increasing the number of the state’s roughly 90 charter schools.


Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini


This is the second in an occasional series looking at issues ahead of the Nov. 7 election.