Christie Stakes Legacy Claim to New Jersey Charter Schools

John Mooney | May 27, 2016 | Education
Speech to charter leaders and advocates mixes passionate rhetoric with regulatory changes

Gov. Chris Christie’s fiery speech yesterday seeking to rally charter-school leaders and advocates — and excoriate their critics — wasn’t entirely a surprise.

For the past several months, he has been a one-man cheerleading squad for the charter school sector, highlighting these schools in his State of the State address and visiting a host of them in urban and suburban communities alike.

But yesterday he put a bit more substance — and brimstone — into the half-hour talk before the annual conference of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association in Atlantic City.

He offered up a series of regulatory changes for the schools that have long been sought by their leaders. And he didn’t scrimp on the rhetoric, slamming critics of charters and, specifically, the state’s dominant teachers union as protectors of failing district schools.

In the end, he all but goaded critics into battle, and ensured charters will be a center of attention — and debates — for his final year and a half.

“This is a fight, and don’t ever for a moment think it isn’t,” he told the crowd at Bally’s. “And it will only get more intense over the next few months.”

The L-word

Christie clearly staked his claim to an issue he hopes to carry through 2017, a long-time favorite that doesn’t face the no-win outcome of the budget crisis, transportation funding, or the coming Bridgegate trials.

“People are asking me all the time now about legacy. This is one of the hot topics now. What I think my legacy is, what I want my legacy to be, what I think others will think my legacy is. [The issue of charter schools] is one of those areas where I will not stop building legacy until the minute I leave, he said.

Christie spoke of further expanding the charter footprint, especially in the state’s cities, where waiting lists are in the thousands, he said. More than 50,000 students are expected to be in charters next year, more than double when Christie arrived in office.

He didn’t say how many more were to come — and two-dozen charter applications are now waiting word from his Department of Education for approval — the governor very much sounded like the Christie of 2010 whose administration approved more than 20 at once.

“We need to expand your profile in this state over the course of the next nineteen months. We need to open more charter schools. We need to expand more charter schools,” he said. “You need to take risks with me. Sixty-five hundred families in Newark, two thousand in Camden, and countless thousands of others across the state waiting for an opportunity for their children to reach their dreams is unacceptable.”

And in a talk as much battle-cry as policy statement, Christie was back to his familiar ways chiding the teachers union, namely the New Jersey Education Association, and what he called their “fancy cars” and self-serving ways.

“You see, what the opponents of this movement are counting on is that we won’t serve that population. They are counting on the fact that we will be cowed by the political muscle job that is done in the state capitol by the teacher’s union against this movement. We will not be deterred,” he said.

“This is a fight, and don’t ever for a moment think it’s not,” he continued, “and it’s only going to get more intense in the next few months.”

Different set of rules

It’s been a favorite small-government issue for Christie for both his terms, how to reduce government regulation on all public schools. And while some steps were taken on behalf of district schools early in his first term, the focus has clearly turned to charter schools for his second.

Last fall, Christie met privately in Newark with charter leaders to talk about ways his administration could help them, and he said the response was a overwhelmingly to loosen regulatory rules that they said hamstrung them.

Yesterday, he came back with the list of proposals to administrative code that would go before the state Board of Education, a far easier track than the Democrat-controlled Legislature these days.

Most notable were loosening certification requirements for hiring new teachers, ones that he maintained prevented qualified educators from working in the classrooms. This is an old debate, and the state’s pioneering “alternate route” program has long been a favorite of charter schools to hire outside traditional teacher tracks.

But without going into details, Christie said he wanted to do more to provide still more freedoms to charters. He described one charter school that wasn’t able to hire a 20-year educator from an “elite” private high school.

“This is silliness and with a stroke of a pen, we will end this silliness for charters across the state,” he declared.

Another significant change would be new flexibility for charter schools to have access to vacant district buildings, especially in the state-operated districts of Newark, Paterson, Jersey City and Camden, and also to be able to use public funds toward building renovations and expansions.

And a third is a proposal to allow for single-gender or other specialized schools, a murky legal area up to now in New Jersey. Several years ago, one such charter proposal in Newark for students with autism ran into legal challenge and was eventually abandoned.

Proposals for all-boys or all-girls schools have also been questioned as potentially discriminatory, although they do exist in districts.

“By the way, all of these ideas came from you, all of them came from you. All of them came from that meeting and the subsequent meetings since then about the things that we could do from a regulatory perspective, without any involvement from the legislature, to make you missions more achievable. To make you lives a little bit easier. But most importantly, to make the education that you are providing to the children in your care more effective, more efficient, more meaningful for them and for their families,” he said.