Christie Touts Education Record in New Jersey During Policy Address in Iowa

John Mooney | June 12, 2015 | Education
Touts tenure reform and merit-pay deal, but doesn’t mention controversies over Common Core and state takeovers of urban schools

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie speaks yesterday at Iowa State University.
When Gov. Chris Christie laid out his 15-point education plan during a speech yesterday in Iowa, it was notable for what he included — and, of course, what was left out.

The speech was touted as a major policy pronouncement in Christie’s yet-unannounced quest for the Republican presidential nomination, addressing a topic that has been a signature issue for him in New Jersey.

Spanning from K-12 through college, the plan highlighted one of Christie’s biggest accomplishments: the 2012 passage of a tenure-reform law.

“For the first time in 100 years, we came together to reform teacher tenure in New Jersey – so that failing teachers can be removed from the classroom, and held accountable for the performance of their students,” Christie said.

Christie also promoted the idea of merit or performance pay for teachers, citing its implementation in the state-operated Newark schools.

And the governor took credit for another law dating back a decade that has opened up school choice in public schools, calling for even further expansion of school choice to provide students with a pathway out of low-performing schools.

Sprinkled throughout the speech, he both praised “heroic” teachers, yet criticized their unions, which he described as fighting his reforms each step of the way.

“When the unions said that only more money could reform K-12 education, here’s what I said to them – we need accountability, competition and choice,” Christie said. “That’s what will put our children first.”

There were some notable omissions in the speech, some more curious than others.

Topping the list was that there was practically no mention of the Common Core State Standards, a topic of hot debate in New Jersey for the last few weeks – a debate largely driven by Christie himself.

The governor rocked the education establishment here earlier this month when he announced that the state would back away from the Common Core, after he had himself strongly backed the standards as recently as 2013. The reversal was widely seen as political posturing tied to his national aspirations.

But he did not play that card yesterday in the speech delivered at Iowa State University in Ames. He spoke of college readiness, but instead highlighted a far lower-profile pilot program in which community colleges are teaming up with public school districts. There was no mention at all of the Common Core or his change of heart.

Also absent was much mention of Christie’s aggressive interventions in the public school districts in Newark and Camden, two other touchstones of his time in office in Trenton.

There was nothing about his appearance on “Oprah” back in 2010 with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, announcing the $100 million donation to Newark schools that he said would transform the district.

Since then, the news out of the district, with the state’s appointment of Superintendent Cami Anderson, has been more contentious than transformative.

[related]There was only a little more mention of his more recent efforts to turn around one of the nation’s most troubled districts, Camden, citing charter school growth in that city and the advent of the new hybrid “renaissance” schools.

“We’ve brought in transformative leaders and programs,” Christie said. “And none of this we’ve done on our own. We worked with teachers. We listened to community leaders and parents to get buy-in.

He also admitted defeat on one key issue: teacher seniority. In the tenure law enacted in 2012 with bipartisan support, the state retained the practice of “last in, first out” in the case of layoffs, a provision looming large as Newark, Camden and Paterson schools all face teacher and staff layoffs.

Christie called for a national effort to erase the seniority protection.

“That makes no sense,” Christie said. “But the power of the teacher’s union has prevented us from instituting quality-based layoffs. It is insane but it is the worst policy money can buy – bought by the unions to protect their most ineffective members. So getting rid of ‘last in, first out’ must be something we take on at the national level.”