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Governor Trumpets Reforms – and Makes Surprising Pitch for School Vouchers

Speech also touts initiative in Camden district but barely mentions more controversial changes in Newark

tom kean jr
Sen. Tom Kean (R-Union), chief sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The issue of school vouchers just won’t die in New Jersey.

Gov. Chris Christie gave vouchers a surprising second life -- or was it the third or fourth life? -- during his State of the State address yesterday in Trenton.

“More school reform is needed, and a great first step is to listen to the visionary leadership of Sen. (Thomas) Kean and pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act,” Christie said, alluding to the voucher bill sponsored by Kean.

“Let’s keep driving for better outcomes, and let’s give parents and students more choices, not less,” Christie said.

School vouchers have been a pet issue for Christie throughout his five years in office, but this time his call appeared to be wishful thinking, at best, as Democratic leaders scoffed at the idea and even some Republicans appeared to be caught by surprise.

Kean’s bill would create a scholarship program for low-income students, funded through state tax credits. But the legislation had been left for dead, politically, after coming close but failing to win support two years ago, when even some Democrats were willing to support a pilot program limited to a handful of districts.

“What’s old is new again,” said a beaming Kean, a Union County Republican, when he was approached by NJ Spotlight after the speech yesterday.

But he hedged on the real prospects for passage.

“I’m always optimistic,” Kean said. “The governor called it out as important, and I’m hoping we can get bipartisan support on it.”

Asked what might be next for the bill and whether there had been any talks with Democrats, Kean replied: “We have weeks to go before the budget process starts in earnest.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) was more blunt.

“That came out of left field,” Sweeney said in an interview after the speech. “That completely came out of left field. I looked at Tom Kean when he said it, and he even looked shocked.”

Asked about the school-voucher bill’s prospects, Sweeney said: “No, we’re not even going to discuss it.”

Where the resurrected proposal came from was unclear, as it had been barely discussed even by Christie over the last two years – especially after the enactment of the Urban Hope Act, a bill to create a new type of charter schools in Camden, which was also cited by Christie yesterday.

“We did Urban Hope as a compromise to see if that works,” said state Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly majority leader, who had supported the pilot version of the school-voucher bill. “Now let’s see if it works.”

As for the call for reviving that legislation, Greenwald dismissed it: “That was to get the applause. That was a more of a national thing.”

Indeed, school vouchers remain a national issue that can earn some conservative points for Christie, who has long been expected to make a run for president. While the issue has died down a bit as a prominent cause, some observers said Christie almost had to reassert his support, given that some of his main rivals, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, come from states that have school-voucher programs.

And Christie’s mention of vouchers certainly won applause from the gallery and from Republicans in the chamber. Some long-time supporters said they were pleased to hear Christie revive the issue.

“I support it 100 percent, we need it, God knows we need it,” said Patricia Bombelyn, an advocate who attended the speech yesterday and helped an unsuccessful court effort to win passage in 2012.

”I was happy to hear it,” she said. “It’s always possible. There are always new challenges on the table, and older ones more difficult. In the course of that, there comes a time where you can’t say no any more.”

The OSA bill was not the only education topic highlighted by the governor yesterday, as he trumpeted education as a prime area of accomplishment during his first term.

He cited the bipartisan enactment of a new tenure-reform bill, and what he claimed was record state funding for schools during the last four years of his governorship.

The latter claim has long been disputed. Total state funding reached a new high last year but only after steep cuts in Christie’s first year. And the state education spending totals include court-ordered funding for the state’s neediest districts under the Abbott v. Burke rulings. Meanwhile, state aid has not returned to pre-Christie levels in three-quarters of the state’s school districts.

Christie also continues to portray the state’s takeover of Camden city schools as his shining example of education reform, to a degree even more than the reform instituted in the state-run Newark schools.

Last year, Christie invited the Camden and Newark school superintendents to be his guests at the State of the State address. Yesterday, the governor cited the three-year-old Newark teacher contract – the first in the state to include performances bonuses -- but that was the extent of his praise for a district where state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson has been embroiled in disputes with community leaders.

But the Camden schools were once again front and center, with schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard sitting in the front row for a second straight year, along with Camden Mayor Dana Redd and Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson.

“These are the leaders getting the job done,” Christie said.

“Hope and optimism is up, and the fear of failure is down,” he said of the Camden schools. “I have been in Camden High School, and those children are once again feeling a sense of pride of where they go to school and what their future looks like.”

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