Video Spotlight: Gov. Christie’s Education Speech

John Mooney | May 4, 2012 | Education
Governor uses national platform to pitch for vouchers, dump on Newark public schools

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
American Federation of Children Summit
Where: American Federation for Children’s “School Choice Summit,” Westin Newport Hotel, Jersey City.

When: Lunch keynote, Thursday, May 3.

What Christie said: Before the national conference of nearly 350 school voucher and charter school advocates, Christie gave his red-meat speech on education reform in New Jersey. He led with his support of the pending Opportunity Scholarship Act, but also spoke of proposals for tenure reform, charter school expansion and merit pay. Watch Christie Video

What he said that’s new: Not a lot, but he at least drew on some new stories. A couple of them were about Newark public schools and what he said were some egregious examples of dysfunction and waste. Not surprisingly, his versions are in dispute.

Opportunity Scholarship Act: Given his audience, no surprise he called the proposed voucher bill his first priority before the legislature takes its summer break. “The reason I talk about it first, it is the tool that has the most chance to bring the most change the most quickly.”

OSA’s true prospects: The bill has seen many lives over the last decade and has a decent shot with even Democrats, at least in a scaled-down pilot that has been sponsored by the Assembly’s leadership. “We have repeatedly said that we would consider a scaled-back version of the Opportunity Scholarship Act,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver in a statement yesterday. “We welcome [the governor] to come to the table and discuss a compromise that does not further threaten our public education system.”

State of tenure reform: A tenure reform bill sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) was said to have bipartisan backing, but Christie yesterday threw some cold water on the plan and said it appears to have stalled under Democratic and union politics. “Some of the proposals I like, but I’m worried because nothing is moving. When nothing’s moving, you know in New Jersey that something is afoot.”

Biggest applause line: At the end of his familiar attack on public employee unions in general and New Jersey Education Association in particular, Christie likened his battles to facing the schoolyard bully. “You need to decide whether you will sidle up next to the bully and whisper sweet nothings in his ear and hope he doesn’t punch you, too. Or do you walk up to him with the big smile on his face and punch him first.” Except for the closing, the line drew the longest applause of the speech.

Newark story No. 1: Christie in claiming the state’s tenure system is broken said that Newark spent 17 months and $450,000 in legal fees to get rid of a single teacher accused of poor performance. He was referring to the case of elementary school teacher Wesley Gilmer, ultimately stripped of tenure last summer after more than a year of court proceedings.

The response: The Newark Teachers Union does not contest the length of the fight, but said the cause was as much the dysfunctional management of the school in question, the Quitman Street Community School. It cited the state’s report of the school that panned the school’s leadership. The NTU does contest the $450,000 price tag, saying the district’s in-house counsel handled the case. Efforts to reach Newark officials yesterday were unsuccessful.

Newark story No. 2: Christie said another example of the district’s pervasive problems is a new pool of 70 teachers who have not been assigned to classrooms and “paid by New Jerseyans every day to do nothing . . [except] eat lunch, read the newspaper, do the crossword puzzle.” At another point, he said they were paid to stay away from children “for the harm they would cause to those kids.” He said the policy was a decision of the Newark school board.

A more complicated truth: The teachers pool is a creation of Christie’s appointee as superintendent of the state run district, Cami Anderson. (The district’s board is purely advisory while the state remains in control, with virtually no power to set such policy.) Called “educators without placement,” they are teachers who were downsized out of closing schools and not picked up by other principals. Albeit maybe unpopular, they are not necessarily “ineffective” teachers, local officials have said, and they continue to work in schools as tutors and other support staff.

The conference: The American Federation for Children is a Washington, D.C.-based organization that is best known for its support of school voucher legislation. Betsy DeVos, a well-known school choice advocate from Michigan and former head of Michigan’s Republican party, heads it. The group is said by critics to have ties to the conservative activist Koch brothers. The group denies they have any role, but Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council was being distributed there.

The follow up acts: Christie was just the first in a star-studded lineup for the group’s conference, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal speaking last night and Newark Mayor Cory Booker speaking today.