Christie in Camden to Laud After-School Program, Sidesteps Other Issues

John Mooney | January 24, 2014 | Education
Governor takes questions from schoolkids, pointedly ignores press hoping for even oblique reference to scandals

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie visits Thomas Dudley Elementary School in Camden on Thursday to praise a pilot program that provides after-school activities and an evening meal to students. He spent 20 minutes talking to kids who are in the program.
Gov. Chris Christie traveled to Camden yesterday to talk about education reform, a reliable standby for a governor who badly wants to change the subject these days. But even his education agenda continued to raise more questions than answers as to what’s next.

The visit to Thomas Dudley Elementary School was markedly low-key. The governor came to praise a pilot program in six district schools that provides after-school activities and an evening meal to students — no more, no less.

Actually, the Camden visit was mostly a photo opportunity. The governor spent close to 20 minutes talking to students about their after-school program and taking questions about everything from his dreams as a child (pro-baseball player) to his favorite movie as an adult (“The Godfather”).

Christie did not take questions from the press.

Given Christie’s call for a longer school day in his recent State of the State, there were some expectations that he might announce that he was taking the after-school program statewide. But the Camden initiative will stay in Camden, at least for the time being. And questions about the governor’s new education agenda remained unresolved.

In fact, administration officials said Camden was just one tangential idea, with the broader plan remaining under development, with no precise process or even timetable at this point.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf was on hand for the event and said afterward that he was looking at a number of options for the governor’s proposal.

He downplayed the possibility that there would be a stand-wide mandate, such as extending the current 180-day calendar, but appeared to be looking at an assortment of possibilities that may apply to different districts in different ways.

“It is literally under design,” Cerf said of the broader plans. “Ideas are being generated, and thoughts drawn out. We’re balancing a number of considerations.”

Cerf said it was not just about adding time to the clock: “Longer day, longer year doesn’t add any value unless it is quality time,” he said. “It could mean lots of different things. It could be summer work, it could mean tutoring.”

Cerf acknowledged that one of the big issues is the potential cost of programs, all but precluding a change in the statewide calendar. Christie’s next state budget is to be presented in February, with considerable pressures on revenues and required pension contributions.

“A statewide mandate would run into serious budget realities, and also undermine local decision making,” Cerf said.

“We’re not spending time bickering with each other,” the governor said, “We’re spending time trying to find common ground with each other.”

He alluded to the state‘s takeover of the district almost a year ago, and said proof of the progress was the cooperation that the state had seen from local officials, including Camden Mayor Dana Redd, who was also on hand.

The Camden program has been paid by federal funds, Camden officials said, serving about 125 students in each of the six schools with a late afternoon or evening meal. One of the conditions is that they stay after school for enrichment, homework help, and other programs.

With the governor unavailable to press questions, others were left to parse his responses to the questions from adolescents for any clues to his state of mind, such as when one boy asked him if he liked his job.

“I’m never bored, I’ll tell you that, I’m never bored,” he said.

Another asked about how he keeps everything under control.

Christie initially smiled at the question: “It depends on the day, it depends on the day.”

“This is what you have to learn in life,” he said. “You can try to control everything, but you can’t. Sometimes things go out of control, and what matters is how you fix it. Sometimes, I think I do a pretty good job controlling things, and every once in a while, it doesn’t work out. It just means you have to fix it when it doesn’t work out.”