LOWER TOWNSHIP, N.J. - Gov. Christie took his education plan to the southern tip of the state Tuesday, renewing his call to push aside "bully" teachers' unions, fire bad instructors, and allow students in poorly performing public schools to learn elsewhere.
"The way we're funding education and the results we're getting are not what we paid for," Christie said, referencing the state's annual $17,000 average cost per pupil and its 200 "failing" schools.
But while the governor's voice echoed at a town-hall meeting in the cavernous Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum at Cape May Airport, the state's top education official was in the hot seat in Trenton.
Democratic legislators hammered acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf on funding cuts to public and parochial schools and adult education, and how the aid reduction has forced towns to increase taxes to help make up the difference.
"The governor's $1 billion school aid cut drove up property taxes across the state to record high levels and led to new school-activity taxes, and taxpayers still won't be better off under the governor's new plan," Assemblyman Louis D. Greenwald (D., Camden), chairman of the budget committee, said in a statement Tuesday.
By dramatically cutting aid to districts last year, New Jersey essentially "abandoned" the court-mandated formula for school funding, Greenwald argued at the hearing.
The state Supreme Court is reviewing how to proceed after a court-appointed special master recently ruled that the cuts deprived students - particularly those in poorer districts - of a "thorough and efficient education," as required by law. The court could force Christie to fork over as much as $1.6 billion to schools.
If that were to happen, it could upend the governor's proposed budget for fiscal 2012 and could lead to funding cuts to municipalities, hospitals, and universities, Christie warned the several hundred people at the town meeting.
In Trenton, Cerf added that cutting full-day kindergarten in poor districts would save much of the money, but that the move would be a "tragedy."
Christie made an effort to separate teachers - most of whom he said were "good, hardworking, caring people who want the best for the students" - from their unions, which he called "moneyed special interests who benefit personally from the system at the expense of the children."
Unions have vehemently opposed Christie's proposed education overhaul, which includes merit pay based on student performance, the removal of tenure protections, the expansion of charter schools, and a voucher system to enable students in failing schools to enroll elsewhere.
The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers' union that spends more money lobbying than any other entity in the state, also did not agree to a pay freeze that Christie said could have averted layoffs last year.
"What the union cares about more than anything else is raw political power," Christie said, referencing a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign the union recently launched against his proposed policies.
Christie's rhetoric is "an attempt to drive a wedge between NJEA and its members," association spokesman Steve Wollmer fired back in a statement. "It's all part of a national strategy by conservative politicians to attack public employees and their unions. We saw it in Wisconsin, and we're seeing it in New Jersey."
Back at the Assembly hearing, Cerf said the state does not have enough money to fund the education aid formula fully, which is why cuts were made. Last year, when Christie cut $1 billion from schools, the state faced an $11 billion deficit. In the coming fiscal year, Christie has proposed restoring $250 million.
The education cuts, "as painful as they were, were the most logical" solution, Assemblyman Declan J. O'Scanlon Jr. (R., Monmouth) said.
Cerf presented Christie's education plan to legislators, including a new system that would use teacher evaluations to establish tenure, not seniority. Tenure is largely what determines who is let go during layoffs.
"We need to get the best teachers in the classrooms and hold them accountable," Cerf said. "We need to hold schools accountable. . . . If it's a lousy school, let's phase it out."
Assemblyman Gary S. Schaer (D., Passaic) said it was not just public schools that were hurting: The state also has cut aid to private and parochial schools, which are struggling to stay open because fewer parents can afford the tuition.
Christie praises private and parochial education, Schaer said, but then cuts their funding.
"I'd like to know when I can see the dollars and not only the rhetoric," Schaer said.
He also criticized cuts to school breakfast and lunch programs.
"If you haven't eaten breakfast and you haven't eaten lunch, it's going to affect your performance," Schaer told Cerf.
While the overall state aid to parochial and private schools has decreased from last year, enrollment also has declined, Cerf said.
Throughout the hearing, Cerf conceded that the cuts were hard, but said the state had previously spent money it didn't have. A culture change is needed, he said.
For example, more parents now pay fees for their children to play sports and participate in other extracurricular activities, a change Cerf called "regrettable," but perhaps necessary.
"What's the alternative?" he asked, adding that he would draw the line at students having to pay for advanced courses.
"I don't think we should be charging kids for math classes," he said.
Also on Tuesday, the state announced it had received $11 million in federal funds that persistently underperforming schools, including 11 in Camden, are eligible to apply for.
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Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read the Christie Chronicles blog at philly.com/ChristieChronicles.