Standing in front of a 136-year-old public school in Camden, Gov. Christie on Thursday created another option for students in struggling districts like Camden: "transformation schools" that could be run by private companies.
He proposed legislation that would let school boards bring in for-profit or nonprofit management companies to run schools. Like charter schools, transformation schools would receive 90 percent of the per-pupil funding that goes to traditional public schools.
School management companies could take over persistently failing public schools, as has happened with mixed success in Philadelphia, or start fresh by building a school. Five transformation schools would open in New Jersey over a five-year pilot period.
"It is unacceptable to me to have children in this city and in other cities across New Jersey continue to be assigned to failure factories that we neither have the will, or the guts, to stand up and fight to stop," said Christie, a Republican.
Christie did not promise Camden a school, but with Democratic Mayor Dana L. Redd at his side at the news conference - and with the unofficial leader of the South Jersey Democrats, George E. Norcross III, standing nearby - the implication was that at least one transformation school was targeted for one of the nation's most impoverished cities.
Christie stood in front of the former Fetters School, now run as part of the Lanning Square Elementary School. The school is so old that a plan to hold the news conference in the auditorium was nixed because it was cooler outside - at well over 90 degrees.
That's why there have long been plans to replace the school and its sister building, blocks away, which was temporarily closed in 2002 because it was in danger of collapse.
During the Corzine administration, plans were approved for a state-of-the-art Lanning Square School next to where Cooper University Hospital and its chairman, Norcross, are building a medical school.
Millions of dollars were spent clearing the land and taking homes via eminent domain to build the Lanning Square School, but the state halted work this year. The project scored higher than others on a list of construction projects that were given a green light for continued funding by the state Schools Development Authority.
Christie said construction of the public school had not been halted to make way for one of his new transformation schools.
But some saw his choice to hold the news conference in Camden beneath a Lanning Square banner as meaningful.
"The governor, obviously by being here, has a high priority for the school," Norcross said afterward in an unusual, impromptu news conference.
Norcross has spent more than two decades running the Democratic organization in Camden County from behind the scenes. Education is the first policy issue he has supported in such a public manner, and despite their difference in political party, he and Christie are aligned on the issue.
Norcross' hospital stands to gain from a transformation school next door to its growing footprint.
"What we're trying to do is bring educational change to the community for some of our 5,000 employees who would consider sending their children there," he said.
His family foundation would help, he said, by financing initiatives such as testing for learning disabilities.
Norcross would prefer to have a neighborhood school run by an outside entity to one run by the school board, which he sees as ineffective.
"You see that sewer drain?" he asked. "That's what it would be like to give the school board 10 cents."
Even a school board member, Sean Brown, agreed with that assessment. "He's right on the ball, absolutely," Brown said.
Under Christie's plan, the school management company would assume the costs of building a school, a savings to the state.
Yet students in the two dilapidated Lanning Square School buildings wouldn't get priority for enrollment. The new building would be open to all district students through random selection, not just to those in the neighborhood, according to the governor's office.
Christie wants the bill passed this month, but its language has yet to be released.
"The idea that it's going to be on a board list for next week is absurd," said Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D., Middlesex), chairman of the Education Committee. "I know nothing. It's kind of a typical approach. No outreach before it was dropped, no consensus."
And the most powerful lobby in the state, the New Jersey Education Association teachers union, is staunchly opposed to what it calls the "privatization" of education.
"This proposal is nothing more than an attempt to walk away from the state's obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education to every student by handing over our students and our tax dollars to private companies," NJEA president Barbara Keshishian said in a statement.
Calling the state's school system the most successful in the country, she said Christie and acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf had "long and deep connections to the private, for-profit education sector."
Several years ago, Cerf led Edison Schools Inc., a large for-profit manager of schools, and more than a decade ago, Christie was a registered lobbyist representing Edison Schools. On Thursday, Christie said he was "very proud" of that work.
Cerf said: "This is neither in reality nor appearance a conflict."
Bill Mathis, managing director of the National Education Policy Center in Colorado said the track record of school management organizations showed that administrative salaries tended to increase, teacher salaries tended to fall, and "you don't see improvement in test scores."
At the Education Law Center, which sued the Christie administration over school funding, executive director David Sciarra said: "Camden students need the governor to work on fixing their schools now. They don't need vague plans for a marginal experiment."