Paul Shelly expected Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address Tuesday to focus heavily on Hurricane Sandy’s effect on the state.

So the spokesman for the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities was pleasantly surprised when the governor also mentioned excellence in education as a top priority for the state this year in improving the state economy.

“We really didn’t expect to get mentioned at all,” Shelly said.

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But he and K-12 education advocates said while recognition is appreciated, the real message will come with the proposed budget next month, when projected revenue shortfalls of as much as $2 billion could affect aid allocations.

In his speech, Christie said the education system is critical to the future of the state. He cited the Higher Education Task Force led by former Gov. Tom Kean as helping develop strategies to make colleges more competitive.

“We need to turn New Jersey’s universities, including Rutgers, from good to great because it will help us keep more talented New Jersey students in New Jersey and will strengthen the link between higher education and high-quality jobs,” Christie said.

He cited the recent mergers of Rutgers with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and Rowan with the UMDNJ Stratford campus as the heart of reforms and critical to assuring that medical and health science institutions remain first-class.

Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona said the college plans to ask for a one-time $12.5 million payment in the FY2014 budget to help complete the merger process, but is not expecting additional state aid for undergraduate education. Rowan opened its Camden medical school in September with 50 students.

“It’s encouraging that he mentioned higher education, but we really don’t expect an influx of new aid,” Cardona said. “There is a lot going on in the state, and we have been operating for years with the understanding that there would be less and less state support, and we would have to find partnerships and other ways to sustain ourselves.”

Christie also cited what he called great strides in K-12 education, including the teacher tenure law, a new performance-based teacher contract in Newark, the growing number of charter schools — now at 86 — and the expansion of the public school choice program, which will allow 6,000 students to attend public schools outside their home districts next year. He also mentioned the $8.9 billion in education aid awarded to districts for 2012-13.

“Both money and reform of our schools are essential,” Christie said. “But neither alone is sufficient. In New Jersey, we are leading the way for the nation in providing both.”

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said it is encouraging that the governor recognizes that adequate resources matter. But, he said, previous cuts to school funding caused districts to reduce critical programs and staff. He said he hopes the proposed budget for 2013-14 meets the state school funding formula requirements.

New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said 2012 was a year of tremendous activity in public education policy, so it was logical for the governor to want to mention it.

“The TEACHNJ (tenure reform) law alone was major,” Belluscio said. “But funding is driven by revenue, so we won’t really know what this means until the budget comes out at the end of next month.”

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