CAMDEN - The de facto Democratic leader of South Jersey, insurance and hospital executive George Norcross III, will be involved in sponsoring several new charter schools in Camden.
Speaking at the graduation of an alternative high school in the city - where he shared the stage with his unlikely school-reform ally, Republican Gov. Christie - Norcross promised expanded education options for Camden's youth.
"I'm hopeful sometime next year we're going to be celebrating some new schools, new alternatives, and new opportunities for your children, and for our grandchildren . . . that replicate what my family has been blessed to have," said Norcross, who described himself as a "suit" from Cherry Hill.
Cooper University Hospital, of which he is chairman, may "brand" a school with its name, Norcross said after the event.
In addition, money from the Norcross family foundation will help fund several Camden charters, both existing ones and others in the pipeline.
And the state, he said, is developing a school through a public-private partnership in which Norcross said he would be involved.
Acting State Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf, who also spoke at the graduation for the Community Education Resource Network (CERN) school, said afterward: "There's a lot of activity, but I don't know that anything's baked."
A possible location for one of Norcross' schools would be adjacent to Cooper University Hospital, on land the state had prepared for a new public elementary school. Houses on the site were taken and demolished through eminent domain with millions of public dollars, but the Christie administration put construction on hold earlier this year.
Another spot, near the Northgate apartment complex, is to be considered Monday for a zoning change to permit a charter school.
Christie has made expanding the number of charter schools in the state a cornerstone of his educational policy, and Norcross is ideologically aligned with his Republican counterpart on that.
In a stark departure from the behind-the-scenes political role he has played for a quarter-century, Norcross also used his remarks as keynote speaker in the Rutgers-Camden auditorium to advocate passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act.
That bill would provide tax credits to businesses that give scholarships to children from districts such as Camden to attend other public or private schools.
The state's largest teachers' union and some Democrats staunchly oppose the bill, which they say will defund public schools and privatize education. Christie has made the bill a part of his educational agenda.
"If one of my children weren't getting the quality education that America is supposed to provide and the State of New Jersey is supposed to provide, you'd be damn sure I'd be raising a lot of hell," Norcross said. "It's now time for everyone in this room to raise some hell."
The graduates he spoke to joined CERN, which is run by a school-choice activist and a Baptist minister, after dropping out of Camden schools because of violence, personal problems, or poor teaching, students said.
The school is not certified by the state, but the degrees it awards give students the piece of paper they need to pursue other opportunities. More than 2,500 have graduated from the program.
Housed in an East Camden church, the school is free-wheeling but held together by the loud, excitable personality of activist Angel Cordero and the calm, imposing demeanor of the Rev. Tim Merrill.
Cordero is a convicted drug dealer accustomed to being on the outside of the political establishment; he ran a long-shot campaign for mayor, and a couple of years ago, he sat outside then-State Sen. Dana L. Redd's office wrapped in blankets week after week to press for school-choice legislation.
On Friday, though, Cordero was on the inside, bringing together two of the biggest names in New Jersey politics. Christie got a lukewarm response from the crowd in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.
"Folks who hold positions of power have been unwilling to tell the truth, to shake the trees, and to break some china," Christie said. "If they came here and saw all of you and heard all of your stories, and they knew that you want something better not only for yourself but also for the next generation of the kids from Camden, they would understand a lot more."
Several graduates spoke, often without notes, of imprisoned brothers and murdered fathers.
"I fell hard. I dropped out of school at 16. I had kids early," Tomacine Robinson said. "But now I'm 26, and I did it!"