Christie airs plan to ease charter-school creation

Gov. Christie outlined a proposal to improve and expand school choice in New Jersey at a town-hall meeting in Hoboken on Thursday, urging lawmakers to overhaul state law to allow charter schools to be established more easily.

The announcement followed a speech in Mercer County on Tuesday in which the governor called for changes in the way teachers at public schools are paid, retained, and promoted.

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Gov. Christie cited a need to expand school choice.

Christie, who was joined Thursday by Harlem Children's Zone founder and chief executive officer Geoffrey Canada and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, said the need for expanded school choice in New Jersey was clear.

"We cannot continue to ask children and families stuck in chronically failing public schools to wait any longer," Christie said. "Quite simply, parents and children deserve a choice. We must be able to fulfill our obligation to provide parents and their children with educational alternative that include expanding high-quality charter schools and providing interdistrict public-school options."

Christie, whose children attend private school, said the state laws needed to be revamped to encourage the growth of charter schools. He said he hoped to attract some of the nations' most successful charter-school operators to New Jersey.

The governor's ideas for expanding charter schools include removing hurdles for public schools to convert to charter status, approving new charter-school authorizers, allowing single-sex charter schools, allowing charter schools focused on special education, and encouraging cyber and virtual charter schools.

He also proposed allowing failing public schools to be closed and converted into charter schools and encouraging charter schools and local school districts to share physical facilities.

Christie also reiterated his support for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a voucherlike program that would allow low-income students in underperforming school districts to receive scholarships, paid for through corporate tax credits, to attend nonpublic schools or out-of-district public schools. He also called for lawmakers to make permanent a pilot program that allows students to attend public schools outside their local districts but in nearby neighborhoods.

New Jersey Education Association president Barbara Keshishian pointed out that not all charter schools were successful. She referred to a Stanford University study of 2,400 charter schools nationwide that found less than one-fifth outperformed public schools and that nearly two-fifths performed at lower levels than their public counterparts. And she said, a Rutgers University study found that New Jersey charter schools performed far below the average public schools.

"Clearly, there are excellent charter schools – like the Robert Treat Academy in Newark – and excellent public schools," Keshishian said. "Charter schools were meant to be laboratories of innovation, not a replacement for all public schools. If we're really smart, we'll identify excellent schools of all types and replicate their successes wherever we can."

Keshishian added that regarding vouchers, the NJEA did not believe that public money should be used for private and religious schools. The Opportunity Scholarship Act gets around that issue by having corporate sponsors pay for the scholarships in exchange for tax deductions.

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said that although he agreed that changes needed to be made in persistently low-achieving schools, most schools in the state were doing a good job of educating students.

"We've got great schools. Let's start to find ways to support their achievement as well," Bozza said.

New Jersey has 73 charter schools serving 26,000 students, or 1.4 percent of the K-12 student population in the state, according to the state Department of Education. More than 11,000 students are on charter-school waiting lists.

Christie, who has long been vocal about his support for school choice and charter schools, has not yet named a replacement for school commissioner Bret Schundler, another longtime advocate of school choice. Christie fired Schundler amid a controversy over the state's failed Race to the Top federal-grant application, which cost the state $400 million in federal aid.

Christie's first budget, totaling $29.4 billion, cut aid to schools by $819 million to help close a nearly $11 billion budget gap. He has frequently targeted teacher unions, arguing that they had declined to be part of the solution to the state's budget problems.


Contact staff writer Adrienne Lu at 609-989-8990 or alu@phillynews.com.