Education in the Media
Gov. Christie Talks School ReformApril 10, 2012
If you judge by average tests scores, New Jersey has one of the nation’s best public education systems. But if you zero in on the failing urban districts, the need for reform is compelling.
That’s going to create spark in the next few months in Trenton, as the Democratic Legislature considers Gov. Chris Christie’s reform plan.
Christie discussed it last week with Star-Ledger Editorial Page Editor Tom Moran. An edited transcript appears below.
(Note: The Opportunity Scholarship Act, referred to below, would provide vouchers for students in some failing districts to attend private schools, even those with religious affiliations.)
Q. Do you think education reform is the most important fight of the coming year?
Q. And is tenure reform the most important part of that?
A. I see tenure, merit pay and OSA as a bundle. I’d like to see them all go together. By repairing the tenure system, we’ll be able to get rid of some ineffective teachers, but then we’ve got to get effective ones in there and it’s going to be years and years. So that’s why I think OSA is such an important part, and increasing charter schools in urban areas, so that those kids don’t get lost while the fixes of tenure and merit pay are fixing the system in a 10-year horizon.
Q. How are you going to influence the Legislature as this is discussed over the next few months?
A. By continuing to say things like I (did) to a group of independent college presidents I had breakfast with this week. One of the professors got up and said, “We’re first nationwide in eighth-grade reading and we’re first nationwide in eighth-grade math.” And I say that’s great! But it does not change my focus on the kids in the 200 failing schools who are nowhere near that.
The thing that’s stunned me all along about this is that I don’t understand Democrats who are the ones who are predominantly representing these kids and don’t stand up and fight for them. I don’t understand it. Here I am, a Republican living in a suburban district, with an overwhelming majority of my votes coming from rural and suburban voters, who are generally served very well by their public education system, except for cost. And I’m the one fighting, I’m the one delivering every Republican vote in the Legislature, I’m fighting, tooth and nail, with Democrats who are watching the kids in their districts fail. So, I’m going to be talking very directly, in that way about it. And putting it on them. It’s on them now.
Q. Let me ask you something about Newark, speaking of urban schools. As I’m sure you know, Cami Anderson, the new superintendent, has given principals the power to say “no thanks” when a teacher’s placed in that principal’s school. So, there are now about 80 teachers no principal wants in an “excess teacher pool” that’s costing the district about $8 million a year. What’s your reaction to that?
A. Great job. She’s absolutely doing the right thing. Listen, I hired her with the commissioner of education because I thought she was just the type of tough, courageous person who would not give a darn about anything other than fixing a broken public school system, and I think this is a perfect example of it. I want those teachers out. And if we had tenure reform, I think they could be. But if you give me a choice between having an ineffective teacher in the front of a classroom or paying an ineffective teacher for doing nothing in the short term, I’d rather pay an ineffective teacher for doing nothing.
Q. On the tenure reform bill, the Democrats are talking about making an exception to the LIFO reform — Last In First Out — that would make it hard for her to fire those teachers by grandfathering in tenure for all the existing teachers. How important is that?
A. It’s really important, but I can’t yet tell you it is a deal-breaker for me or not. I’ve got to see what else is around it. What I’ve also learned in this job is that sometimes I don’t get everything I want — things that I have to live with as a short-term interim step that will allow me to make some progress, but not lose my ability rhetorically to continue to try to grab for even more.
Q. Is the teachers union the state’s most powerful lobby?
Q. Does that explain why Democrats aren’t on board for some of the reforms you’re talking about in the cities?
A. You’d have to ask them.
Q. The charter school movement is facing serious push-back in the suburbs, as you know. Do you agree with those who say charters are not needed in successful districts?
A. I think that charters are much more needed in failing districts, and so the focus of this administration is going to be there and not worry as much about expanding in the successful districts.
I don’t think, for instance, that some of these specialty schools that are coming up, like Mandarin immersion or Hebrew immersion, should be the focus of the movement, and I know our administration has approved one or two of those. In my view, the focus of the movement is to save kids in failing districts by offering another choice within the public system to parents who don’t have the money to give their kids another choice.
Q. What if the bill the Assembly approved requiring a referendum to open a charter school becomes law in New Jersey? How would that affect the movement
A. I have grave concerns about allowing that to become law.
Q. That sounds almost like a veto threat.
A. It is expressing my concern and hoping that they would reconsider.
Q. The latest version of the voucher program, the Opportunity Scholarship Act, shrinks the pilot program even further. What’s your reaction to that?
A. I’m disappointed. But if any small group of kids and families get helped, that’s a positive for the state. So my view is: Let’s just get going on it, let’s get going. Let’s give it a try.