Just when it seemed like N.J.’s absentee governor Chris Christie couldn’t do any more damage to his brand, yesterday he managed to verify the perception that his blustery ego often outruns his brain. At an appearance at North Star’s Alexander Street School (Richard Whitmire noted in January that in one year this public charter, operated by Uncommon Schools, “was able to erase years of education malpractice”), Christie made the following remarks, as reported in today’s Wall St. Journal, Star-Ledger, and (as quoted here) NJ Spotlight:
Visiting the Uncommon Schools’ Alexander Street School, Christie yesterday issued something of a political threat, saying that if Baraka joined the “entrenched forces” against charter growth, it could imperil the state relinquishing its 20-year control of city schools — at least in the governor’s remaining two years.
“I hope not, but if he chooses to, we’ll run him over, too,” Christie said of the mayor. “It’s just that simple … He’s desperately protective of a whole failed system that he was part of. I’m not, and I’m not going to be. So he can be part of the solution or part of the problem.”
“I will tell you, his attitude will help to determine the progress made to determine whether this district is turned back to local rule or not,” he said. “His attitude and how he approaches these things, if he continues to do it that way, it will give all of us great pause about turning over the schools back to local control.”
When asked by a reporter if it was a threat, he said: “No, it’s a statement of fact.”
Newark’s public school system, which comprises both district and charter schools, is enduring a set of problems, some new and some old. State control, now twenty years old and counting, is widely resented. The district operating budget, currently $845,737,813 for its 49,000 students, is stretched thin, in large part because of the increasing popularity of charter schools like Alexander St. among parents. (The State just announced that it will grant an extra $22 million to Newark to ease reallocations that accompany a shifting public school landscape.) This past school year the school district paid $ 225,517,974 directly to charter schools in the form of tuition. In fact, fiscal stress is so bad that Superintendent Chris Cerf, an ardent foe of LIFO, was forced to place teachers rated “ineffective” back in classrooms.
And the political environment is complex. As the State gradually cedes back elements of governance to Newark’s school board, the pending April school board elections are more fraught than typical years. Currently an uneasy detente among some school choice supporters and some anti-reform proponents has generated a “Unity Slate,” endorsed by Mayor Baraka, who is himself responsible for some of the district’s heightened education politics. Baraka is a former principal of Central High School (at the same time he was a Newark City Councilman, which always puzzled me, given that the principals I know work 24/7) and won his mayoral campaign by demonizing then-Superintendent Cami Anderson, who served as an unwitting accomplice. Typically, Baraka endorses his own school board slate.
The trends in Newark are favorable. Pro-choice parents are more outspoken (for example, they protested N.J.’s ill-conceived charter school moratorium bill right in from of Assemblywoman Mila Jasey’s office) and Cerf’s superintendency is producing real gains among traditional schools. However, Christie’s Wild West remarks — “I’ll run over him” — provoke the sort of showdown that is irresistible to Baraka, who just last week told the media that the State D.O.E. decisions to expand some charters in Newark were “terrible, “irresponsible,’ and a “huge step backwards.”
Newark needs both municipal and educational leadership. Christie did neither any favors yesterday. Maybe we’re better off if he sticks to Trump appearances.