New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has never been one to moderate his rhetoric, but his speech at the Breakthrough Victories for Children and Policy Summit, a gathering of educational stakeholders who are supportive of school choice, set a new standard for telling it like it is. The topic that engaged his emotions was the “fight” he plans to wage in the last 59 days of this legislative session in order to ensure the passage of a law that would allow low-income students attending “chronically failing” public schools to receive vouchers that can be used for private school tuition.
Christie’s speech was enthusiastically received by the Summit’s 150 delegates, who often interrupted with 45-minute presentation with thunderous applause. Christie is a popular figure in the school choice movement because of his efforts, during his tenure as governor, to expand school choice offerings in the state.
The speech drew the biggest reaction when Governor Christie attacked the traditional bogeymen of the school choice movement, the teachers’ unions, for refusing to negotiate on tenure reform and for fighting introduction of merit pay.
“We have a tenure system that is economically prohibitive to dismiss a defective teacher,” Christie said. “We need to get ineffective teachers out of the classrooms. We need to make average teachers better, and we need to reward the outstanding teachers.”
Saying that teachers get raises in New Jersey for being able to “fog up a mirror,” Christie scoffed at arguments that evaluations for merit pay are too complicated.
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, who was singled out by Christie as a “person now who stands most in the way of passing [the bill],” responded to the Governor’s remarks in a statement saying that while the Democratic majority in the Assembly would consider the Opportunity Scholarship Act in a scaled-back version, she refused to countermand what she saw as a constant erosion of public education in New Jersey.
“The governor has spent two years divesting in public education and now he wants to divert even more funds from our public schools into the hands of the private sector,” Oliver said. “If the governor thinks I’m the only one standing in the way of the bill, then I challenge him to get it through the Senate first.”
Since taking office, Governor Christie made education reform one of his administration’s legislative priorities, specifically focusing on charter schools, voucher programs and overhaul of teacher evaluation systems and tenure. It was because the Governor’s efforts that the state’s first online-only charter school is scheduled to open this fall and Christie is also pushing to overhaul the state’s outdated student assessment system to make it more like the Board of Regents testing regime in the neighboring state of New York.