N.J. Democratic Leader George Norcross Calls for More Charter Schools, Change to Teacher Tenure
Matt Friedman | The Star Ledger
George Norcross, a south Jersey Democratic power broker and insurance executive, called for more charter schools, a change to the teacher tenure system and corporate sponsorship for public schools at a forum tonight.
Norcross told a Rider University audience of about 100 that some private schools educate students successfully for less money than failing public schools.
“As a businessman you can see there’s something wrong with that picture,” he said, adding there’s too much bureaucracy.
“Sometimes I wonder how teachers can teach,” he said.
Norcross, who has never been elected to public office but is one of the most influential people in state politics, used to keep a low public profile. But he has recently spoken out on overhauling the state’s public education system, beginning in poor, urban areas.
“I think we need to be yelling and screaming until change takes place,” he said.
Norcross said he supports converting failing public schools to charter schools, though he said those are not the “be-all, end-all” solution. He said he believes in merit pay to “reward excellence,” that he would like to see incremental changes to the teacher tenure system and that school days should be longer. And he said corporations and higher educational institutions need to sponsor public schools.
“Why doesn’t Rider put their name on a school? Meaning a charter school or a public school or some other form of education and get people engaged in what goes on here. Why not he Campbell’s Soup company? Why not PSE&G? Why not our great institutions of higher learning,” he said.
Democrats, not Republicans, should be leading on changing public education, Norcross said.
“I have been disappointed at times that the Democratic Party has not led this issue, because I think by and large those who are affected by it in an adverse way are Democrats”
While describing himself as a “proud Democrat,” Norcross offered some mild criticism of President Obama, saying “it’s fair to say” many Americans don’t view him with “leadership qualities.” He compared him to Ed Rendell as mayor of Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia might not have been doing great, but Ed Rendell made people feel good about Philadelphia,” he said.
Norcross’s views on education, and his support of curtailing public sector benefits, have led to clashes with the New Jersey Education Association – the state’s largest teachers union. Less than four months ago, the union aired an ad accusing Norcross of financially benefiting from the pension and health benefit overhaul Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), his close ally, was shepherding through the upper house. Norcross hit back with his own press conference, accusing the union of personal attacks because they want to avoid reform.
But tonight, Norcross joked with and had cordial conversations with NJEA officials. Vince Giordano, the union’s executive director, said things had cooled off a bit since the ad was aired.
“We’ve been in dialogue about where we can find common ground and things that would be good for public education in New Jersey,” he said, but adding they’re not completely at peace.
“Kumbaya? That’s too strong a word,” he said.