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Visiting Newark Charter, Christie Jumps Headlong Into City’s Debate

Spending day surrounded by kids and teachers, governor takes time to warn that mayor’s attitude could delay state returning control of Newark schools

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Gov. Chris Christie on a visit to the Alexander Street School, part of the Uncommon Schools’ charter network.

Two weeks after Gov. Chris Christie visited a Newark district school to trumpet its reconstruction, he returned to the city yesterday to spend some time where it seems his heart truly lies: Newark’s charter schools.

Christie wasted no time in adding to the city’s charter churn, making some controversial remarks against those who might slow their growth -- including his on-again, off-again ally Mayor Ras Baraka.

Baraka last week called the Christie administration’s approval of 16 charter expansions -- including seven in Newark -- a “terrible decision” and a step back for the city, saying it will only hurt the Newark Public Schools district further as it tries to close a deep budget gap.

Visiting the Uncommon Schools’ Alexander Street School, Christie yesterday issued something of a political threat, saying that if Baraka joined the “entrenched forces” against charter growth, it could imperil the state relinquishing its 20-year control of city schools -- at least in the governor’s remaining two years.

“I hope not, but if he chooses to, we’ll run him over, too,” Christie said of the mayor. “It’s just that simple … He’s desperately protective of a whole failed system that he was part of. I’m not, and I’m not going to be. So he can be part of the solution or part of the problem.”

“I will tell you, his attitude will help to determine the progress made to determine whether this district is turned back to local rule or not,” he said. “His attitude and how he approaches these things, if he continues to do it that way, it will give all of us great pause about turning over the schools back to local control.”

When asked by a reporter if it was a threat, he said: “No, it’s a statement of fact.”

The governor’s visit to the Alexander Street School in the city’s struggling West Ward was a boisterous love-fest. He spent the morning at the converted district school surrounded by its twirling and chanting student body.

Uncommon Schools and its North Star Academy network in Newark, as well as Camden, are known for their daily school-wide assemblies, where students cheer their progress, show off their learning, and just rev up for the day to beat of drums and chants.

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All eyes are on the governor during his visit to the Alexander Street School, part of the Uncommon Schools' charter network.

With Christie looking on, the school’s 450 students lined the wall of the gymnasium to march through a number of exercises en masse, including word and math problems.

“What I want is children throughout the state to have that experience,” Christie said in a press conference afterward. “And there is no reason they shouldn’t.”

Still, while Christie has clearly put his backing behind charters, there remain limits as to how much he can do for them in a state with an ailing budget and his own political capital on the wane.

In his remaining months in office, he is clearly not going to give up trying. The governor said when he privately met in Newark with charter leaders from across the state last November, a repeated call was for the loosening of regulations, especially those dealing with facilities. He was providing few details yesterday, but said the changes would not be inconsequential.

“We’re working on it now,” he said of the coming regulatory changes. “We’ll have lots more announcements in the next month or so … But there will be major changes.”

He denied that there was any shift in his administration’s emphasis on charter schools, from opening new ones to expanding existing ones. In the latest round, the 16 expansion approvals came as the administration approved just three new schools.

“If next year he came to me with 16 new ones and three expansions, I’d be fine with that too,” Christie said. “It’s about increasing the opportunity in high-quality, high-performing schools.”

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