By David Cruz
Since his return to New Jersey as a not candidate for president, Gov. Chris Christie’s focus has been on education — specifically, the expansion of charter schools around the state. Ground zero for that expansion is Newark, where the state has approved two new charter schools and OKed the expansion of seven others. Today, Christie was at Alexander Street School, part of the North Star Academy charter school chain, where he joined students for a learning circle.
“There is nothing that gives me a greater sense of satisfaction than to come into a room like this, in this school, that little more than a year ago was failing and was on line to be closed and to see these students, happy, performing and doing extraordinary things,” said Christie.
Roughly 30 percent of Newark school kids are in charters. The governor said 30 new charters had opened during his tenure, with student enrollment statewide going from 21,000 to over 40,000 over the past five years. But Christie’s charter expansion initiative has not been received well by either Mayor Ras Baraka or the teachers’ union, who see charter expansion as a threat to the entire school system.
“Gov. Christie’s approval of the expansion of Newark charter schools is a terrible decision, unfortunate, irresponsible and damaging to the city’s public schools,” said Baraka in a statement. “The expansion could not have come at a worse time.”
Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon agreed. “The expansion of charter schools in Newark is detrimental to the traditional public schools,” he said. “Even our current superintendent Christopher Cerf — a grandfather to the charter school movement — has had to make that admission publicly.”
State Education Commissioner David Hespe acknowledged the effect charter expansion is having on local districts and said districts like Newark will have to just figure it out as they go along.
“We have to wait to see the adjustments that the traditional public schools are going to make in response to the loss of these kids to a charter school,” he said. “We’re also going to have to look at how the charter schools expand in the future. What we’ve said is we’re going to allow you to expand.”
The governor was less diplomatic when talking about Baraka’s opposition to this expansion.
“Mayor Baraka is a former traditional public school employee and he is desperately protecting that old failed system that he was a part of. I’m not. And I’m not going to,” he said. “His attitude and if he continues to do it that way will give all of us great pause about turning over the schools back to local control.”
Late today Baraka said he hoped decisions around local control are going to be based on fairness and democracy and not made “simply because we don’t share the governor’s point of view.”