Christie, Cerf Appear in Secaucus to Push for Education Reform Bills

November 16, 2011

SECAUCUS — Gov. Chris Christie today took his education reform show on the road, pressing the state Legislature to take swift action on four bills his administration supports during a visit to a Secaucus secondary school.

The comprehensive set of bills aims to change the way teachers earn and keep tenure; expand access to charter schools; offer vouchers for students in failing schools to attend private and parochial schools; and privatize some failing schools in the state’s five lowest-performing districts.

The legislation recognizes there is "no single solution" to fixing the state’s failing schools and that "a piecemeal, incremental approach" will not help the state close its achievement gap between wealthy and poor students, said Christie, who appeared alongside acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.

He also argued the bills do not attempt to undermine teachers.

"This is not about being angry at teachers. I’m not," Christie said during a press conference he held after speaking with students in a peer-leadership class. "I’m angry at the union that refused to be a part of the reforms deemed necessary by this governor, governors around the country and the president of the United States."

The four bills are: School Children First Act (S2882/A4168), Charter School Bill (A4167), Opportunity Scholarship Act (S1872/A2810) and the Urban Hope Act (S3002/A4264).

Democrats welcomed Christie’s discussion about the need for reform but criticized his approach, which in the past has been hostile toward teachers. Christie once accused teachers of using their students as "drug mules" and called their union leadership, most of whom are former teachers, "political thugs."

"The governor’s input is welcome, but his education agenda has so far been tainted by poisonous rhetoric and politics and been a failure for children and property taxpayers, so we’ll continue working on our own education reforms," said Tom Hester Jr., a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats.

Though Christie’s bills have some bipartisan support, many members of the Democrat-controlled Legislature oppose them. The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has also opposed Christie’s proposals on tenure, vouchers and charter schools.

Some Democrats, including Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) have introduced bills of their own to revamp teacher tenure and update the state’s outdated charter school law. Those bills also are stalled in the Legislature.

Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA, said the union stands by its own proposal to increase the time it takes to earn tenure and bills sponsored by Democrats to increase charter school accountability.

Baker said the union’s plan would preserve a fair dismissal process and positively affect student outcomes. The governor dubbed the union’s pitch "well short of anything that would change anything."

Many of Christie’s proposals are rooted in the state’s recent application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the federal law governing school accountability nationwide. Under that law, which requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, schools and districts that don’t meet achievement benchmarks are labeled "failing."

Under the proposed accountability system detailed in New Jersey’s application, the worst schools would be deemed "focus" and those with wide achievement gaps would be considered "priority." The best schools would be classified as "reward" and could earn schoolwide financial bonuses.