Spotlight Interview: George Norcross

John Mooney | August 8, 2011 | Education
The recently emerged school reformer sits down with NJ Spotlight to discuss unions, Camden and charters

George Norcross — part Democratic power broker, part South Jersey businessman and cheerleader — has recently added a third attribute: self-proclaimed school reformer.

He has publicly backed a controversial tax-credit voucher bill called the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). He has talked about opening a network of charter schools in Camden. And he has grown ever more outspoken in criticizing the public sector unions that have lately made him Public Enemy No. 2 behind Gov. Chris Christie — especially the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

On Friday, Norcross sat down with NJ Spotlight to talk about where these education issues have come from and where they’re headed.

Fresh in his mind is the ongoing battles with the public unions, the latest chapter coming in their endorsements — or lack thereof — in the upcoming legislative elections.

But he also discussed charter schools and his own plans for Camden, as well as how and why he suddenly came to endorse the OSA. The following are excerpts from that conversation, held in the tenth floor conference room of Cooper Health Care, where he is board chairman.

Public unions and pension reform:

Norcross is not shy about his feud with the public unions. Nor are they, for that matter. The unions — including the NJEA’s PAC – last week refused to endorse the bulk of South Jersey’s Democratic incumbents in November legislative elections, angered by the pension and healthcare changes signed by Christie and endorsed by the Democratic leadership, including Norcross and his longtime ally, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

A month earlier, the NJEA slammed Norcross in a statewide ad campaign as being part of a conspiracy with Christie to gut union rights. Norcross was still a little angry about that Friday, but said the NJEA also knows the numbers.

They keep count. They do polling, too, and they know they made mistakes in this and overplayed their hand. They went in believing that they could stop [the pension changes], particularly in the Assembly, and there was never a chance of them stopping anything. They overplayed their hand, and when the music stopped, there were no chairs.

A day before the NJEA PAC’s vote on Saturday, Norcross was accurate in at least some of his predictions:

I predict a bunch of “no endorsements,” as opposed to anti-endorsements, and that will be the smoke signal they want peace. It is time to focus on who they believe the real enemy is, the administration.

Whenever you try to affect public policy, history has taught us it has to be incremental and has to take time. Some of Christie’s proposals are aggressive, and I think it will be important for the NJEA to say, let’s get ahead of what they, the public, is irritated about. If smart, they will put their own proposals together that are reasonable. Pass them and get it over with.

Urban schools and how (and when) he got involved:

Norcross said his conversion to school reform clicked a year or two ago, when he was first touched by a family trying to get out of Camden schools. He said he came to realize that saving Camden would require saving its public schools, or at least the educational options open to its families.

In Camden, you have 1,500 to 2,500 kids who have a mom and/or dad with their hand raised wanting a seat outside the Camden [public schools]. That’s how I got involved, almost by accident. I was at a Cooper community event, three blocks from here, and a mother came up to me, no idea who she was. She said, “Mr. Norcross, I know you are, you are a powerful man, and I need your help. I thought she’d ask about a job. She said I have two children, I can’t get them out of Camden public schools, I can’t get in charter school, and I can’t afford a parochial school. I need you to do something to get them in charter school.” I thought I could do that, but then found out the real deal, and it’s a lottery-driven system, and because of the avoidance of the Democrats over the years in approving alternative education, charters and others, there were no seats available.

Plan A: The Opportunity Scholarship Act

Norcross’s most stunning stance has been in support of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would open up private school vouchers to low-income students in selected districts. But he said it has gone too far and needs to come back its roots.

I liked [OSA] more when it was the original pilot program, when it was only three or four districts, and much smaller. And then some folks got carried away on a grandiose plan, taking it to 200 [schools] and a $1 billion plan. I’ve been advocate for quite a while to paring it back to a pilot with a sunset clause. Let’s see if it works, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

I am a big believer in pilot programs, they have beginnings and they have ends, and they have to have measures. One of the things in OSA that I was always a big proponent of was that before they enter, the students have to be tested. And they have to be tested every year. So you can see at the end if it worked.

Plan B: Charter school conversion

More recently, Norcross has been talking about charter schools as a key solution, either by opening new ones or allowing existing schools — private and public — to convert to charters.

I’m behind anything that opens seats instantaneously for kids. The Assembly passed a charter conversion for private schools. That will pass [in the Senate] at the end of this month in committee, maybe full Senate, and I am trying to get the Catholic church [on board] in a desperate way. They have four schools in the city that cost $1.5 million to subsidize and 80 percent of the students are not even Catholic. Those schools are going to close, or they will convert them to charter schools that they can operate themselves through a separate nonprofit, and take the $13,000 per student from the state and give world-class education. I don’t get what’s wrong with that picture.

Plan C: Partnerships with new or existing charters

Norcross said he likes the sound of a Cooper Charter School or a Campbell Charter School, to invoke another Camden institution, Campbell Soup. Here’s his rationale, and how long he said it will take:

We are trying, meaning Cooper and my family foundations, to sponsor new or existing charters. That means a combination of branding so it develops some level of credibility in broad-based way in the community. And Cooper is the most favorable brand you have in all South Jersey.

We don’t want to run charter schools. We want to be facilitators, we want to be the foundation, the philanthropist, whatever you want to call it. Camden’s interests are in education and public safety, and those for Cooper are inseparable. We have no choice.

These charters need a big brother or sister, they need a big corporation, a philanthropist. They need high-end corporate or institutional engagement. A Campbell Charter School would never fail, a Cooper Charter School would never fail. You need to add an element of authority that is going to engage the corporate or institutional body.

I am not going to take over something that won’t advance our mission of excellence.

I think a material change could happen from 24 to 30 months from now. I see starting in the next number of months, principally with affiliations we have, and then the process of a new projects would follow.