Four years ago this month, Newark was the centerpiece of Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda, as he stood alongside folks like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and then-Mayor Cory Booker to trumpet his reforms.
Flash forward, and Christie has unofficially moved his reform campaign almost 100 miles south down the New Jersey Turnpike, where the friendlier city of Camden has now become the centerpiece of his education plans, displaying less of the rancor while facing challenges similar those faced by its northern cousin.
The feel-good sentiment was on display yesterday, as Christie made another visit to Camden’s schools, which his administration took over in 2013 as the backdrop for the new school year.
“I'm pleased and proud to welcome our governor back to his second home, which is the city of Camden,” declared Mayor Dana Redd in hosting the governor’s visit yesterday.
Christie returned the favor, calling Camden potentially a national model of education reform -- no small thing for a guy many expect to run for the White House.
“What I tell people all the time when I talk about Camden is that unlike other places in our state, this is a place that has truly come together to welcome partnership, to welcome change that we all knew was necessary because in this city, the interests of the children have really been placed first,” he said.
“And I hope you all appreciate what you have, because it's not present everywhere in New Jersey and it's certainly not present everywhere across the country.”
Call it coincidence or good timing, but the scene for Christie’s visit at Camden’s Octavius Catto Community School stood in stark contrast to that in Newark, where the opening of schools last week drew new rounds of protest yesterday.
This time, the protests were reportedly joined by close to 200 Newark high school students who said they were boycotting the opening to call for the resignation of state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.
Much of the discord has been over Anderson’s reorganization of the district under the “One Newark” plan that includes a universal enrollment system that moves students across the city to both district and charter schools.
From Camden, Christie mostly discounted the Newark dissension as the product of a few. That comment came with a not-so-subtle swipe at Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who has been among the most openly critical and who was among the protesters yesterday.
“We're a democratic society, and I don't ever bemoan someone for going out and protesting if that's what they want to do,” Christie said.
“That's fine, but what we've had in some other places, in Newark in particular, are people who are trying to undercut the success of the very schools they're sending their children to, with boycotts and other things and politicians who are just trying to make a name for themselves off of that.”
Christie didn’t stop there, saying it spoke to the challenges of reforms in urban schools in general.
“It's really emblematic of the problem that we have in a lot of our urban areas with public education, which is the interests of adults are being put ahead of the interests of children,” he said.
“We need to grow up and understand that as adults those children are counting on us to put aside our differences and to act like adults and to get the job done. They're doing that here in Camden.”
Still, not all was friendly for the governor in Camden, either, as a fledgling community group has filed a legal challenge against some of the reforms, and various parents are starting to speak out against what they call the mismanagement of the district under the state’s new watch.
The latest complaint has been the teacher vacancies at the start of the school year that some parents have claimed is only worsened by the layoffs of more than 200 teachers and other staff last spring.
State-appointed Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said yesterday that he met with a group of parents and assured them that vacancies would be filled.
He said that such vacancies are not unusual in any district, especially since teachers file their resignations at the end of summer. His staff said that 95 percent of classes were now filled by permanent and certified teachers, leaving about 50 vacancies at last count.
“It is not uncommon for schools to have vacancies,” Rouhanifard said yesterday. “This is not a new phenomenon. They are alleging it is driven by layoffs, but these are driven by late notifications and retirements over the summer.”
Nonetheless, one parent took to her own media campaign yesterday, standing outside the Catto School and distributing her complaints in leaflets to any press members who would listen.
Carmen Crespo, the mother of three children in the district, said that she was not among those who met with Rouhanifard, and she was still awaiting resolution to the situation in which her kids had already seen three substitutes in the first week of school.
Crespo, also a plaintiff in a case against the Christie administration over its approval of new charter schools in Camden, said she was told new hires are now under way. “But why didn’t we resolve this before schools started?” she said last night. ”We’re now in the second week of the school year.”