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Re-educating Camden -- One School at a Time

Democratic power-broker George Norcross wants to see eight charter schools in Camden, and Gov. Christie has some ideas, too.

The Lanning Square site in downtown Camden that is slated for the state's first "renaissance school."

This time, Democratic power-broker George Norcross wasn’t on stage with the governor, but at the rear of the sweltering crowd gathered yesterday for Gov. Chris Christie’s second visit to Camden in a week.

The governor was introducing his "Transformation Schools" plan, a small pilot program that would permit private companies to take over the management of select poorly performing public schools.

But even though the governor was at the podium, much of the attention was on Norcross.

With good reason.

Norcross -- who characterized the Camden public school system as a "prison" and a "sewer"— spoke to reporters at length and said that his family foundation and the Cooper Health System and University Hospital, of which he is chairman, plan to provide resources for what could be a chain of charter schools.

The priority for Norcross is a charter built on the site of the former Lanning Square Elementary School, adjacent to the construction site for Cooper’s medical school in downtown Camden. But that's just the beginning.

Norcross said he has held meetings with a number of charter management organizations already in Camden, including Mastery and Camden Promise. And he said action on the proposal would come soon, even if no application has actually been filed with the state as yet.

Schools Development Authority

The property itself is in the hands of the state’s Schools Development Authority (SDA), and has been slated for a Camden district school under the court-ordered school construction program.

Those plans have been put on the back burner, and while not speaking about Lanning Square specifically, SDA officials said last week that they are considering a number of different options about a variety of properties.

"We are considering a number of possibilities on all SDA-owned properties as we determine the best approach to meet the facility needs that exist in SDA districts while ensuring fiscal responsibility," said spokeswoman Edythe Maier. "Until decisions have been made and a public announcement is appropriate, the SDA is not in a position to discuss the future plans for any SDA-owned sites."

A Man with a Plan

But Norcross sounded like a man who viewed those more as formalities than obstacles. He spoke at length about the crisis in Camden schools and the urgency in providing choices to families. He said some of his plans could also incorporate Christie’s for public-private partnerships, but the central point is a new school that will be located on the Lanning Square site.

"We’re moving ahead regardless," he said. "There is no question there will be a school there, but the question is will it be a charter or something like the governor discussed today."

He called some of Camden’s public schools little more than "juvenile prisons."

And standing outside on South 3rd Street, where the governor’s press conference was held, Norcross said the foundations providing the same kind of financial support to Camden public schools would be equally fruitless.

"See that sewer drain?" he said, to a gathering group of a half-dozen reporters. "That is what giving them money would be like."

Norcross wasn't stopping with one charter school either. "I would be happy if we had eight charter schools under the Cooper engagement," he said, roughly a quarter the size of Camden’s entire district.

Coming Out

The comments continued an extraordinary coming-out in the past few months for Norcross on school reform issues. Known to be a bit camera-shy, Norcross last week stood with Christie at a graduation to push for school vouchers and the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

A close ally of Camden Mayor Dana Redd and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and now a Christie stalwart, Norcross is in good position to press his visions for reform in Camden’s schools.

The new proposal from Christie and his acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf adds some more twists to governor’s own agenda. Under the plan, local school boards would petition to the state to be one of five pilot districts that could use "education management organizations" (EMOs) to run their lowest-performing schools.

New Jersey has more restrictive rules than most, but EMOs can now run charter schools, under some conditions. Christie’s proposal would move EMOs into local district schools as well, and would be the equivalent of the districts themselves remaking their most troubled schools. Still, the new schools would be accountable to the state, Christie said.

It’s not a new idea, either, and EMOs are currently operating schools in 31 states. They have become a prime option with federal turnaround grants as well.

"We’re putting this together with our other education reforms, and hoping that the legislature will pick it up," Christie said.

Cerf said local buy-in was critical. "It’s a different kind of public school," he said. "It's all about local decision-making."

Still, the proposal will be controversial in itself, especially with both Cerf and Christie, to a lesser degree, having histories in for-profit education. Cerf in much of the 1990s was president of Edison Schools Inc., a pioneering private management company that operated schools in Philadelphia to limited success. Christie as a private lawyer lobbied for the same company.

When asked by a reporter, Christie yesterday dismissed his history with Edison as influencing his proposal, only saying all options should be considered to improve the schools. Edison also has since moved away from school management.

Christie said he was not guaranteeing that Camden would be among those chosen under his plan if the proposal is enacted, but he didn’t hide his preference as he stood before the temporary Lanning Square School.

"Let’s get the legislation passed first," he said. "And then I can come back to Camden to sign it."

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the teachers union, quickly came out to denounce the proposal.

“While the details of Gov. Christie’s plan are very vague, the objective is clear," said NJEA president Barbara Keshishian in a statement.

"It is part of his ongoing effort to privatize public education in New Jersey. Under the guise of helping students, he is attempting to create a system that would funnel taxpayer dollars to private companies."

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