ATLANTIC CITY - Education officials meeting here this week called for more civility as the debate intensifies over sweeping changes in New Jersey public schools.

Gov. Christie and the powerful teachers' union have clashed as Christie tries to advance an agenda that includes abolishing lifetime teacher tenure, awarding teacher raises based on merit, and tying educators' evaluations to student achievement.

On Wednesday, in separate panel discussions sponsored by the New Jersey School Boards Association, the executive director of the union, and Christie's education commissioner asked that discussions be less politically charged.

"The political discourse we are having in this state about educator effectiveness is unusually, and I think unnecessarily, charged," acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said. "It's characterized by remarkable misstatements and political posturing."

Continued incivility could doom efforts to bring about change in education, Vince Giordano, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said earlier.

The overhaul sought by Christie and others has been driven by the achievement gap between low- and high-income school districts.

While statistics show the state has among the highest graduation rates in the country, the rate drops to 24th when students graduating by alternate means are factored in, said the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council and an advocate of overhauling urban schools.

New Jersey has the nation's fourth-widest achievement gap between rich and poor students, and Christie has said repeatedly that many urban schools are failing the students who attend them and taxpayers who pay for them.

Proponents believe that changing how teachers are retained, evaluated, and compensated would improve student performance. Others say the larger problem of poverty must be addressed or students will continue to lag.

Opponents of Christie's agenda fault him for eliminating funds for a popular afterschool program for low-income children and for cutting money for schools in his first year in office. With the economy slightly improved, Christie this year returned some money he had cut from the education budget. The state Supreme Court also ordered the administration to budget hundreds of millions more for poor, urban schools than was proposed for the year.

The latest debate involves which changes to make to public education and how best to make them. Some bills could be considered by the Legislature before the year's end.

Cerf said the administration aims to advance learning by having public schools graduate a significantly higher percentage of students who are college- or career-ready.

He said an unacceptably high 98 percent of those who enroll in Essex County Community College need a year of remedial help in language, math, or both. At Bergen County Community College, the figure is 90 percent, he said.