The significance of George Norcross's speech on education reform last night at Rider University may have been as much about who was listening as what he said.
The South Jersey businessman and Democratic leader didn't make much new news, delivering what has become his standard pitch of late for education reform, save a few choice details.
He talked about the merits of charter schools, the need to save urban schools and their families, the importance of parental involvement, and the role for corporate involvement.
Interestingly, he did not mention school vouchers once or the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), previous favorites. He even skipped over the topic when it was offered up in a question from the audience of about 150 people, although he did talk about "alternative means, some of them controversial."
"It is absolutely wrong that kids who are residents of Camden or any other struggling city should not have the same opportunity as my children or yours," he said more broadly.
But through it all, the audience at the event hosted by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics was intent and listening -- and not a bad a crowd. In attendance was a who's-who of education lobbyists and advocates, all wanting to hear the education philosophy of a man who is arguably New Jersey's second most powerful political leader behind Gov. Chris Christie.
Among them were the executive director and the chief lobbyist of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), a group that has had its differences -- including attack ads – with Norcross. But they appeared friendly last night, with Norcross going over to both to say hello before his hour–long talk.
"It matters what he says because he's an influential guy, no doubt about it," said Vince Giordano, the NJEA's director. "And we're trying to exert some influence on an influential guy. Hopefully, he'll do what's best for kids."
Giordano said there had been a "little bit of a rocky start" with Norcross's support for pension reforms that the NJEA has viciously fought. But Norcross appeared to have said a lot of the right things for the NJEA last night, including that teachers and their unions need to be central players in the discussions as well.
"On a business level, we're working our way through," Giordano said afterward.
Ben Dworkin, the director of the Rebovich Center, said he was pleased with the attendance, many of them Rider students, as well as close to a dozen members of the press.
He said Norcross's easy speaking style and extensive comments about the complexity of school reform counter an image of a powerful and secretive political boss intent on his ways.
"George Norcross is a fascinating character in the world of New Jersey politics, business, and philanthropy," Dworkin said. "Lots of people have no idea what his voice sounds like. This was an opportunity to hear him in his own voice and not some caricature that has been created over time."
"I think there is a caricature that has been made of George Norcross, and he is much more subtle and sophisticated than that," Dworkin said.
Still, given Norcross's power, it is widely viewed that he can single-handedly direct legislation and policy through his influence over the state's Democratic leadership, especially those from South Jersey, including Senate Speaker Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
But Norcross didn't need reveal much in terms of the legislative jockeying that continues in the Statehouse around education issues such as tenure reform, charter schools, and even school vouchers.
The talk came a day after Christie captured the state's and nation's attention by announcing he would not run for president but would make education an immediate priority. Norcross last night said he would focus on urban schools, especially charters, and offering families more options.
He repeated that Cooper Medical, the Camden health center of which Norcross is chairman, plans to sponsor new and existing charter schools in the city. "In Camden there are literally 1,000 kids who desperately want an education, their parents want that opportunity, and there are no seats left," he said.
He also voiced some support for tenure reforms that would tie teachers' jobs and pay more closely to their student's achievement, probably the main issue expected to come up in the legislature's lame duck session after the election. But he did not put the same stock in it that others have, especially Christie.
"I don't think it is the be-all in and end-all in improving schools, but I do think people want a higher level of accountability for teachers," he said.
Norcross also offered up some words of caution and patience, something not that common in the current high-octane political environment. "This will take many, many years, and it will take a lot of folks being part of the solution.