Gov. Chris Christie advocated for charter schools, vouchers, and other forms of school choice during a Teaneck event sponsored by the Orthodox Union.
Speaking before a crowd of more than 500 people at the OU Advocacy Center’s second Legislative Breakfast, at Congregation Keter Torah, Christie said New Jersey has failed in its commitment to education and called for more competition in the state’s educational system.
“I believe we need to provide each and every child in New Jersey with an outstanding education,” Christie said. “No matter where you live, no matter what your economic background, no matter your ethnicity, no matter what faith you observe, the one thing we know is quality education opens doors for each person, no matter who they are or where they come from.”
The governor has long been a supporter of vouchers, which provide public funds for students to attend qualifying schools, public or private. Vouchers and other “school choice” proposals earn heavy support from an Orthodox community where a majority of families pay tuition at private day schools and yeshivot.
Christie, however, focused his message on the need to provide options for families in the state’s 200 failing public schools. Calling those schools “failure factories,” Christie blamed their fate on a a lack of accountability and competition in public education.
“In every other aspect of American life, we believe that competition creates excellence,” he said.
Christie, who faces a re-election challenge in November by Democrat Barbara Buono, has been a supporter of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would provide tax credit-funded vouchers allowing students in seven of the state’s lowest-performing school districts to attend schools of their choice. The act, however, has faced opposition in the legislature, as well as from the NJ Education Association and proponents of church-state separation.
Buono opposes the Opportunity Scholarship Act, saying that a “strong public education system is the best way to ensure that all children in New Jersey have the supports and opportunities they need to succeed.”
Christie said elected officials in failing school districts turn a deaf ear to thousands in Camden, Newark, and Paterson who are on waiting lists for charter schools because they cannot afford to move to better school districts.
“If we’re truly going to say that our society is one where competition fosters greatness, then it is time to bring competition to education,” Christie said. “It’s decision time.”
Footing the bill
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Dist. 37), who was honored at the event, said there is a future for school choice in New Jersey, but questioned who would foot the bill for vouchers. A $1,000 voucher to 4,000 day-school families would add $4 million to the budget, she said.
Weinberg does, however, support providing state aid to secular areas of parochial schools, such as the existing busing, technology, and nursing aid already available to day schools. Before the governor took the podium, OU Advocacy honored Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Dist. 37) for their sponsorship of special-education bills currently in the state legislature that would allow public schools to refer special-needs students to religious schools.
U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Dist. 9), who also attended Sunday’s breakfast, agreed with Christie that some money in public schools is wasted, but remained opposed to the idea of universal vouchers for private schooling. He did, however, voice his support for funding for aspects of private education.
“I believe in special support for health issues, special education, transportation, many of the things we can carve out that are constitutionally correct. But I will not accept universal vouchers,” Pascrell said.
Day-school tuition can run more than $15,000 for primary school and upward of $20,000 for high school.
“Families who send their kids to nonpublic schools are hurting,” said OU Advocacy NJ director Josh Pruzansky. “It’s a lot of money they’re spending on tuition on top of their property taxes — 60 percent of which goes to fund education — and then getting very little back from their investment. It’s time that our legislators understand that message.”