Christie tells crowd at Cape May Airport he plans to make failing teachers re-earn tenure

Juliet Fletcher | The Press of Atlantic City

LOWER TOWNSHIP — Gov. Chris Christie brought his case for education reform to a cavernous airport hangar Tuesday, warning the state’s entire budget hinges on the issue.

He laid out plans to make failing career teachers re-earn their tenure if they flunk assessment, and said any court ruling to restore education funding to earlier levels would lead to drastic cuts in other government programs.

Surrounded by fighter planes dating to World War II that are housed at the Aviation Museum, Christie said he would fight the New Jersey Education Association teachers union, which he called a “bully,” and the “lawyers in black robes” on the state Supreme Court, who have been advised his cuts to school funding are unconstitutional.

As an anticipated state Supreme Court ruling threatens to invalidate Christie’s past and future cuts to education, Christie said Tuesday that the court should rule to change the state’s school-funding formula, which spends an uneven amount of money on urban schools versus suburban ones. Christie called the formula “a failed theory.”

But if the court rules against his education cuts, Christie said the administration would have to look to large programs such as municipal aid to pay about $1.6 billion more to schools.

Of the $25 billion spent by the state on K-12 education, $10 billion comes from income tax, he said. “The rest, $15 billion, comes from your property taxes,” he went on.

Running down the failure rates of urban school districts, he said, “The results we’re getting, they’re not what we’re paying for.”

Christie said he plans to hold failing teachers accountable. Currently, district heads are terrified to fire bad teachers, he said. “Tenure proceedings cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Christie said.

In a three-point proposal to change tenure rules, he said teachers should no longer have the right to infinite protection after three years of seniority.

If teachers are assessed as needing improvement, they would have to improve performance before their tenure would be restored.

And he said those teacher assessments would take into account student test scores, but would also factor in a teacher’s adherence to good working practices.

But he made no secret — and made several jokes about — the pushback from the teachers union, which he said has $130 million a year to spend on lobbying and advertising their position.

“They say it’s the greatest attack on the state of public education in the history of New Jersey, to demand accountability,” he said.

He attacked the NJEA’s use of its war-chest to influence Trenton politicians. Comparing Trenton to a school yard, he said, “When you have got $130 million, and you’re used to buying everything you want, either by good favor or intimidation, you’re standing there in the middle of the school yard with your chest puffed out.”

School districts, children and taxpayers were the children rolling on the school-yard bleeding, he said. But other politicians had gone to the union and chosen to “whisper in their ear,” Christie said.

“I have a different approach,” he said. To the bully, he said, “I say: You punch them, I punch you.” Christie acknowledged the battle to change education is in places unpopular.

“If this is what takes me down as governor, at least I went down having a fight that was good and right and moral,” he said.

Atlantic City, Vineland

Christie took questions from the crowd, and was quickly asked about his efforts to revive Atlantic City.

Christie has set out to put Atlantic City’s casinos and key attractions in a state-run district, and also has acted to reduce regulation of casinos in an effort to save those gaming operators money and boost business.

Mahmoud Mahmoud, who said he owns a hotel in Wildwood, asked Christie why he spends so much attention on Atlantic City.

“Could we just get a little bit?” Mahmoud asked.

Christie laid out his reasons for the policies on Atlantic City, enacted in February.

“When Atlantic City was going great guns, it was an ATM machine for the state,” he said.

He said he could have let it live or die on its own.

But with billions of dollars of investment there, he said, “I felt we need to take one last chance to turn it around.”

He said he had dismantled the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority because of its low investment in marketing.

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the new operators of the state-run district that will be defined later this month, will end up spending eight times more on marketing in the future, he said. At the same time, the CRDA revenue will now remain in southern New Jersey, he said.

“It’s time to stop milking the cow down here and taking the milk,” he said of CRDA revenue going all over the state in the past.

Of the plan, he said, “I can’t guarantee it’ll work.”

Increased marketing and investment will benefit neighboring shore towns, he said.

“I more look at this as a regional issue,” Christie said. “We all like to think of our towns. “But in an era of limited resources, we need to invest regionally.”

To Mahmoud’s request for a little attention, Christie added with a smile, “Everyone’s always asking for just a little bit.”

Christie said his budget proposes closing the Vineland Developmental Center, in Cumberland County.

While medical experts say many patients who need long-term care do better in group homes than institutions, New Jersey institutionalizes more patients than any other state, he said.

On the closing, “My mind is 98 percent made-up.”

Crowded room

At the beginning of his speech, Christie took a moment to look around the hangar, grinning. Looking up at the wings and bellies of fighter jets and helicopters standing high off the ground, he said, “This is the best town hall setting ever.”

It was Christie’s second town hall meeting in southern New Jersey in two weeks. He was in Hammonton on March 29.

But some of the standing-room only crowd, who numbered more than 650, wished for a little more space.

Louis Boharsik, a retired teacher, said: “They should take some of these planes outta here.”

Christie plans to follow up his focus on education at Tuesday’s town- hall meeting with a news conference on education at 11 a.m. today with acting education commissioner Christopher Cerf.

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