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Has Chris Christie Turned a Corner on Higher Education?

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Much of 2012 has been taken up with the fantasy of the "Jersey Comeback."

In recent weeks, Gov. Chris Christie has moderated the tale to suggest that it is more like "Jersey Comeback: The Startup." This is good, because there is no credible evidence that New Jersey is anyplace but at the tail end of any recovery from the ravages of the Great Recession.

Indeed, the evidence from reliable measures of job creation, unemployment, economic activity, credit ratings, and tax collections suggest that New Jersey is one of a few states that might technically still be in a recession (two successive quarters of negative economic growth).

All this may explain why "comeback" was not heard in the governor's keynote address to the Republican National Convention.

The problem with the comeback fable is not that another politician is exaggerating or telling incomplete truths. The real problem is that it focuses the public discourse on the wrong targets. Comeback says we're over the hump and it's time to celebrate with more tax cuts. In the governor's proposal, those tax cuts would have eventually cost the state $1.5 billion in lost revenues each year.

If we have the $1.5 billion, then we should spend it on methods proven to create well-paying jobs, not waste it on tax cuts that most residents will hardly notice.

New Jersey is losing its high-value-added jobs to states with great research universities, pleasant communities with high-performing public schools, and a culture that welcomes well-educated people.

Hey! That describes us.

So why are pharmaceutical jobs moving to other high-tax states like California and Massachusetts? It's not because their taxes are lower. Instead, when drug invention moved from chemicals to biogenetics, those states had the research centers, medical schools, and hospitals to facilitate patient trials. New Jersey lost a step when it stopped investing in public-private partnerships and modernizing facilities at its public colleges and universities to deal with rapidly expanding enrollments.

Christie understands. At the signing of the bill re-organizing the health sciences at public universities, he offered the hope that the new law -- which transfers two medical schools, a dental school, and research institutes to Rutgers -- will convert the state university from a "good" university to a "powerhouse" of scholarship and research.

By the important measure of federal grants secured, the merger will move Rutgers from 47th to 25th in the nation. He emphasized that this improved standing can attract scholars and researchers from across the world, encourage partnerships with private industry, and draw additional grant dollars. The governor pointed to the recent decision of Allergan to locate its research facility and 300 new jobs in nearby Bridgewater as an example of what can happen.

This is the first strong indication that maybe, just maybe, the governor is turning a corner, shifting attention from tax cuts to investment and opportunity.

In 2010, speaking to the state's college and university presidents, the governor promised that any improved revenues would go first to higher education. State operating support for public colleges has deteriorated by 15 percent over the past ten years when adjusted for inflation, but ignoring enrollment growth. Delivering on that promise would also shift the conversation back to where it belongs: providing concrete educational opportunities to students from poor, working, and stressed middle-class families. In fact, with the funds now aimed at tax cuts, the governor could more than double state support to higher education and help freeze -- or even reverse -- recent tuition hikes.

Such a move would give life to "opportunity" in the state's political lexicon.

Beyond signing the bill, Christie enthusiastically endorsed the $750 million higher education bond issue that is to be voted on in November. This represents the first such effort since 1988, a 23-year drought of public investment in the state's 31 public institutions of higher education.

Then, the governor noted that the state has authorized an additional $540 million for higher education bonding that it has never issued but, maybe, should. He appears willing to go "all in" in reversing decades of costly neglect to the state's higher education infrastructure.

Now we're talking! The governor's finally discussing the kinds of investments that states competing with New Jersey for good jobs have been making all along. Here's what they all know: the quality of the available workforce is far more important to businesses than tax rates. New Jersey is home to brilliant scientists, researchers, and engineers (proportionately, more than any state). To hold onto these prized assets, New Jersey needs to make the kinds of investments suggested by the governor.

Getting the bond issue on the ballot is a welcome triumph, but not if it's not passed. The key to its passage is a united, bipartisan campaign of support, the kind that produced major changes in the public employee pension and benefit programs and higher education re-organization. When it comes to making the case to voters, however, the governor is the star. He owns the pulpit and the microphone for connecting with New Jerseyans.

The bond issue campaign, in short, gives the governor the chance to turn the corner by using his commanding leadership and communications skills to lend urgency to its passage.