Gov. Christie collected the Citizen of the Year award this morning at the Merriam Theater on Broad Street from a school-choice group, the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, and received a standing ovation from part of the largely minority crowd.
The irony, though, was this: Just yesterday, the Democratic state Legislature approved a budget -- negotiated by Christie and his team -- that eliminated a $2 million school choice pilot program that Christie had sought. It was one of the few concessions that Christie made in the budget process.
The Children's Scholarship Fund uses private donations to provide low-income students with scholarships to attend tuition-based schools, like Catholic schools. Christie has sought to set up something similar in New Jersey. After Democrats repeatedly refused to hold a vote on legislation known as Opportunity Scholarship Act, Christie proposed a smaller version of the program that would have budgeted $2 million to give 200 low-income students in failing districts a ticket to private schools or out-of-district public schools.
But that program was eliminated in the final budget. Christie has yet to sign the spending plan, but he is expected to.
After being hailed as an "American hero" and "American original" by Pennsylvania's acting education secretary, William Harner, Christie warmed up the crowd by noting that his wife grew up in the Philadelphia area.
So the award, he said, is "the second time I've been picked by Philly – the first time by her."
He then went on to reference his accomplishments in the area of "education reform," including changing the state's teacher tenure law to incorporate performance evaluations. He also referenced the landmark 2011 law he signed that reduced teacher health and pension benefits.
But he repeatedly turned to a familiar theme, that poor children in urban schools should have the same access to education as wealthier suburban children.
"I will say it over and over again: No one cares about a child’s education more than a parent. And parents need to be empowered to make those choices regardless of their income, regardless of the means they bring to the table," he said. "Their children's dreams are no less precious than the children of parents of greater means."
He said if he hadn't moved to suburban Livingston from urban Newark at a young age, he may never have been governor. That's a familiar refrain from him -- but this time he mentioned "Pennsylvania." (FYI, Pennsylvania is a presidential swing state.)
"How many children today are sitting in the school system in my old birthplace, the city of Newark, or here in the city of Philadelphia, who have all of the God-given gifts to some day become governor of New Jersey, governor of Pennsylvania, because we don’t have the guts, we don’t have the courage to take on a failing educational establishment?"
Pennsylvania Gov. Corbett was supposed to introduce Christie, but he apparently had to stay in Harrisburg to work on that state's budget.