New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said school vouchers are needed to repair a public-education system that has left students unprepared for college and work.
The first-term Republican said he will push the Democratic-controlled Legislature to pass a test program by July 1 that would offer private funding to help parents send students in failing districts to other schools.
The governor has been urging lawmakers for more than a year to approve his proposed education overhaul, which also would institute merit pay for teachers and make it easier for administrators to fire educators deemed inadequate. The voucher program is “the tool that has the chance to get the most change, the most quickly,” Christie said during a speech in Jersey City to advocates of so-called school-choice programs.
“Parents cannot wait for us to get it together anymore,” Christie said. “In New Jersey, we’ve been trying to figure this out for 30 years. We’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars and we still haven’t got it.”
Christie, who took office in January 2010, has feuded with leaders of the state teachers union over his proposals and has accused Democrats of being recalcitrant on efforts to fix the state’s schools.
New Jersey spends more than $17,000 per pupil per year, the most of any U.S. state, yet 100,000 students attend schools that don’t meet educational standards, Christie has said. Newark, New Jersey’s largest city, spends $24,000 per pupil, and just 23 percent of the kids who entered ninth grade this year will get a diploma in four years, the governor said.
People “cannot trust entrenched interests” such as the teachers union to repair public education, Christie said at the American Federation of Children’s National Policy Summit.
The group’s chairman, Betsy DeVos, is a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. Other scheduled speakers during the two-day conference include Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and state legislators from as far away as California. Kevin Chavous, a senior adviser to the group, said education is the “civil-rights issue of the 21st Century,” and 14 states and Washington D.C., have implemented school-choice programs.
Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the union whose leaders Christie has called “political thugs,” said research doesn’t support his proposals. Vouchers sap money from public schools as children leave, Wollmer said in a telephone interview.
“We’re used to it, but now he’s playing on a national stage,” Wollmer said. “He was giving out red meat and telling them what they wanted to hear.”
Wollmer denied Christie’s statement that union leaders are “bullies” who have blocked changes to the education system in part by using a “slush fund” created by $130 million in member dues each year. The spokesman said the organization collects about $100 million each year that is used to fund teacher training and represent educators.
Christie, who proposed tougher high school-graduation tests earlier this week, said current student diplomas “don’t represent what we tell them” and twelfth graders are being tested for reading and math at eighth-grade levels. A failing education system will lead to dysfunctional families, drug abuse, higher crime “and even worse, despondency,” he said.
“This year my budget proposes $8.8 billion in direct aid to K-12 education, the highest amount ever proposed by any governor in our state’s history, and yet I know that much of that money will be wasted,” Christie said. “How much longer are we going to permit that to happen?”