Christie wants to transform schools

Three large floor fans were set up for Gov. Chris Christie and others outside the Lanning Square School in Camden on Thursday as he spoke alongside Mayor Dana Redd. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

Gov. Christie’s idea of letting private education companies operate failing New Jersey schools provides another viable option for parents and children, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of families who don’t exercise it.

During a stop in Camden last week, Christie proposed legislation that would create “transformation schools” in struggling school districts.

If approved, it would be a bold experiment in New Jersey to drastically change how some traditional public schools are operated. It’s hard to be opposed to another alternative to failing public schools when each year brings another graduation class of poorly educated students.

Instead of a local school board, the transformation schools would be run by for-profit or nonprofit management companies. Five schools would open in the state over a five-year pilot period.

Christie, who has shown a renewed interest in Camden lately, stopped short of promising that the city would get a transformation school. But the possibility that the city could be one of the first in line for an alternative school comes as welcome news.

The South Jersey district has an abysmal graduation rate and has consistently failed to meet the state’s testing benchmarks in reading and math.

The transformation schools idea also could provide a way to fulfill the state’s promise to build a new Lanning Square Elementary School in Camden. The project was halted last year, leaving students trapped in a crumbling school built in the 1800s.

The transformation proposal falls in line with Christie’s school-choice reform agenda. He has made a push for vouchers and more charters as the best routes for students to flee poorly performing public schools.

Whether Christie can sell his proposal remains to be seen. The New Jersey Education Association, anticipating that the privately-run schools will be nonunion, opposes the idea.

Certainly, the proposed transformation schools should not be seen as a panacea. School management companies have had a mixed track record, especially in Philadelphia.

Critics understandably fear the transformation schools are just the latest attempt to abandon urban schools without fixing them. Help also must be provided to the majority of students who will likely remain in neighborhood schools.