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Christie nominates Bret Schundler as education chief

New Jersey Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie nominated school-choice advocate Bret Schundler yesterday to head his education department, sending his strongest policy and political message yet with a Cabinet appointment.

Bob Martin is to head the DEP.
Bob Martin is to head the DEP.Read more

New Jersey Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie nominated school-choice advocate Bret Schundler yesterday to head his education department, sending his strongest policy and political message yet with a Cabinet appointment.

The former Jersey City mayor has long-supported alternative education programs such as vouchers and school choice, as well as the less controversial charter schools.

Yesterday, Schundler struck a note of cooperation with potential adversaries, saying, "We have political leaders on both sides of the aisle willing to make changes that will make a difference in the lives of our students."

Schundler has run for governor twice on a firm conservative platform, citing the success of charter schools in Jersey City. As mayor, he gained a national reputation for cutting taxes and unemployment in the Hudson River city.

"Bret Schundler, from his earliest days on the political scene, has staked out a conservative position on school choice and vouchers, and therefore this is certainly a nod in the direction of that part of the party," said Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin.

The choice to put "a key representative of the conservative wing of the Republican Party in a very public role in the Christie administration further gives credence to the idea that his administration incorporates diverse ideologies," said Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison. She noted that Christie appointed a Democrat, Paula Dow, as attorney general.

Yesterday, Christie also nominated retired energy and utility consultant Bob Martin as commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Schundler has recently worked as chief operating officer of King's College, a Christian school in Manhattan. Unlike many New Jersey education commissioners, he does not come from a public education background.

Charter school advocates yesterday hailed Schundler's appointment, as potential opponents sought common ground.

"The stars have lined up for the charter school movement in New Jersey," said Carlos Lejnieks, chairman of New Jersey Charter Public Schools Association.

"We look forward to sitting with him and finding common ground we can work from," said Dawn Hiltner, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.

The NJEA argues that increased government support of charter schools and other alternatives would divert funds from public schools, weakening them. It ran television ads and sent literature attacking Christie's positions during the campaign, which he referenced yesterday.

When asked at a Statehouse news conference what sort of message the Schundler selection sent to the teachers union, Christie said, "I don't think the appointment of Bret Schundler sends any signal to the NJEA. The election of Chris Christie sends a message to the NJEA."

Christie campaigned saying he supported charter schools, as well as allowing students in failing public school districts to attend public schools in districts open to them. Haddonfield, for example, accepts tuition-paying students from Camden.

Christie ran to the right in the Republican primary, where he faced unexpectedly strong opposition from Steve Lonegan, who is more conservative than Schundler.

Political scientist Joseph Marbach at Seton Hall University said that with the Schundler choice, "Christie's living up to his promise that he was going to shake things up in Trenton."

Martin would bring a business background to DEP. He's a retired executive from the international firm Accenture L.L.P. and served as a policy adviser in Christie's campaign, focusing on energy policy. Christie wants to make New Jersey a manufacturing center for solar panels and wind mills.

While promising to protect the state's natural resources, Christie also said he would strip the DEP of regulations that hamper economic development.

Martin is active in Mercer County Republican politics.

The Environmental Federation, which endorsed Christie in the general election over Democratic Gov. Corzine, said it looked forward to working with Martin.

The state Sierra Club, though, was more cautious, saying it looked forward to Senate confirmation hearings to learn where Martin stood on conserving open space, protecting waterways, and preventing sprawl.

Both cabinet positions must be confirmed by the Senate.