In a speech for the Brookings Institute in New York City this morning, Gov. Chris Christie (R., N.J.) seemed poised to complete a pivot from the fiscally-focused first year of his administration — characterized by a knack for effective confrontation and strong-medicine budget-cutting — to an issue that is critical to New Jersey’s future, and also a potential bipartisan winner that allows him to present a kinder, gentler face to the electorate. Namely, education reform.
The policy on offer included a number of proposals conservatives should cheer: an end to seniority-only-based pay and employment practices; a radical transformation of the tenure system that would make it easier to fire bad teachers; merit pay for good ones; and a partial devolution of responsibility for assessing teaching success to the local level (plus increased support for charter schools and school choice, which Christie has proposed in his budget but did not mention in his speech).
But perhaps what was most notable about Christie’s address was not its substance but it’s style. Christie has always stressed, and did so again today, that the issue is not about “attacking teachers” but rather “our children and how much those teachers who are really good . . . can be empowered,” careful to balance tough criticism of the unions (“monied special interest,” “bullies and thugs”) with praise for educators themselves. But today’s speech was practically a teacher love-fest. He reminded the audience that he thanked his own grade-school teachers along with just four other people in his election-night victory speech in November of 2009, and rehearsed his oft-used line that had his parents not borrowed money to move him out of Newark and into the school system of suburban Livingston when he was five years old, “I would not be governor.”
Pushing back on the popular conception that he is anti-teacher, he joked about pundits’ attempts to “put him on a couch” and psychoanalyze his recent fights with the unions. “What happened to him in elementary school?” he asked in his faux pundit voice, before again assuring the audience that his teachers were a source of his success, not an obstacle to it. “I trust teachers,” he said at one point.
In another uncharacteristic move for those who are perhaps only familiar with the Christie that makes YouTube’s greatest hits, the governor spent time on the social consequences of New Jersey’s failing urban schools. Violence, drug abuse, along with “rampant promiscuity, premarital sex and teen pregnancy,” he said “can occur when you live in a society that is devoid of hope.”
“Today,” Christie said, children “are even more aware of what the world will require from them to be successful than they were when I was a kid.” “They know that they’re getting a lousy education . . . and that strips away their hope for a better future.” As a result, kids in failing schools resort to crime and drugs, and young girls “look for affirmation anywhere they can, in any act they can.”
There’s no question that New Jersey’s inner city schools are chronically failing money pits. The state spends the most per pupil in the country, and as Christie says, just 31 — mostly inner-city — districts of the state’s nearly 600 receive some 59 percent of total state aid. Some of the worst, including places like Asbury Park and Newark, spend double the state average per pupil, and more than three times as states like New Hampshire and Virginia per pupil. And there’s no question that doing what needs to be done to reform tenure — just 17 teachers have been successfully fired for incompetence in New Jersey, over the last decade — and compensation rules will require the support of a broad coalition of veto players. But will the governor’s opting for honey over vinegar, and appealing to “hope” over hardball, get him there? We’ll see.