Backed by Norcross, Christie pushes another education initiative

South Jersey Democratic political powerbroker George E. Norcross III, CEO of Cooper University Hospital, is supporting education reform in Camden.

Standing in front of a 136-year-old public school in Camden this afternoon (and, it should be noted, without taking off his suit jacket), Gov. Christie said he was pushing a bill that would create “transformation schools,” possibly run by private companies, in places like Camden.

He wants the bill passed before the end of the month, although some Dem legislators say they know nothing about the proposal and don't know if that's even remotely possible. The language of the bill hasn't even been released yet, and the teacher's union is staunchly opposed to what it calls the "privatization" of education.

Like a charter school, transformation schools would receive 90 percent of the per-pupil funding that goes to public entities. Unlike charter schools, which are run by non-profit entities and selected by the state, transformation schools would be run by a for-profit or non-profit school managagement organization, and would require authorization from the local school board.

The transformation schools could take over a failing public school, as as has happened with mixed success in Philadelphia, or build a new school from scratch. Five would open in New Jersey during a five-year pilot pilot period.

Christie, a Republican, did not promise Camden a school, but with Democratic Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd at his side at the press conference — and with the unofficial leader of the Democrats in South Jersey, George Norcross III, standing in the back — the implication was that at least one school is targeted for Camden.

Christie stood in front of the former Fetters School, which is now run as part of Lanning Square Elementary School. The school is so old that a plan to hold the press conference Thursday in the auditorium was nixed because it was actually cooler outside — at well over 90 degrees.

For about a decade, there have been plans to build a new school in the Lanning Square neighborhood. During the Corzine administration, plans were approved for a state-of-the-art building next to where Cooper University Hospital and its chairman, Norcross, are creating a new medical school.

Millions of dollars was spent on clearing the land and taking people’s homes via eminent domain.

Those plans were suddenly halted this year by the state, for reasons that were unclear at the time. The project scored better than others that were given a green light by the state Schools Development Authority.

Christie said the halt to construction and his new public-private schools initiative are not connected.

Still, under this new model, the project might be back on.

“The governor, obviously by being here, has a high priorty for the school,” Norcross said afterward in a rare, if not unprecedented, improptu press conference.

Norcross has spent more than two decades running the Democratic organization in Camden County from behind the scenes. Education reform is the first policy issue he has supported in such a public manner, and despite the difference in party he is completely aligned with Christie on this.

Norcross’s Cooper University Hospital also stands to gain from a transformation school next door to its university.

“What we’re trying to do is bring educational change to the communtiy for some of our 5,000 employees who would consider sending their children there,” he said.

Much more in The Inquirer and tomorrow morning.