Education reform is one of Gov. Chris Christie’s favorite topics, but the time and place of this talk — and his exchange with a feisty great-aunt — set this “town hall” meeting apart.
Two days after he again put school reform among his legislative priorities in his State of the State address, Christie brought the subject to Irvington’s Christian Love Church.
The governor joked that the audience, packed into pews and along the walls, was hardly the heart of his fan club. Just 4.7 percent of Irvington voted for him in 2009, he said, barely 450 people.
“That’s bringing people together,” he said to laughs, “I united 95 percent of Irvington.”
But Christie nonetheless laid out the heart of his controversial platform as to what ails struggling urban schools like those in Irvington, where barely half of the students pass the state’s tests in reading, writing and math.
He repeated his now familiar mantra of revamping how teachers are granted and keep tenure, for providing merit pay for the best of them, and offering more choices for parents through charter schools and school vouchers.
“We need to worry more about the future of our children and less about the comfort of the adults running the school system,” he said.
The interesting part came afterward, when Christie opened it up for questions. By and large, he had won with his speech a smattering of “amens” and at least polite applause from a mostly minority audience that was not there to defend the schools.
But then there was Vivian Prescott, a 63-year old Newark native and teacher’s aide of nearly 40 years who was handed the microphone second. In her white hat and red winter coat, Prescott said she didn’t totally disagree with Christie’s intentions.
“But I think the methods are wrong,” she said.
From her years in a half-dozen Newark schools, she said there are weak teachers that a better evaluation system might catch, but also weak principals evaluating them that need their own reform movement.
And the testing that will serve as a benchmark of Christie’s new evaluation system?
Prescott described one of the best teachers she ever worked with who saved lives but never did get those scores up. “There are some who test well, and some who just don’t.” she said.
And to use those scores to provide merit pay? Prescott said it’s not an even playing field.
“After all the charters and magnet schools, they are left with some of the toughest kids,” she said. “How are you going to evaluate them on merit?”
Christie played down the test scores as just a piece of his planned evaluation system, and said there will be improvements in how the state evaluates principals, too.
He agreed parental involvement and loving homes do matter, but they are not something the state can mandate. Instead, he promoted longer school days and longer school years, and even helping pay for it.
“It’s not about a system that’s perfect but about doing better,” he told Prescott. “Every time we improve, it will still help a whole bunch of kids.”
He eventually moved on to other topics: criminal justice reform, urban development, a little – but not much – about his income tax cut proposal. And Prescott stuck around, one of the last to leave.
“I think I riled him up a bit,” she said afterward. “But merit pay is not fair pay, not enough principals are fair.”
She didn’t want to discount the governor entirely, but he was unlikely to have changed her vote.
“I know there has to be change,” she said. “But I think he just wants to put forward his agenda.”