Gov. Chris Christie told a synagogue audience that he was prepared to risk his political career to bring radical change to the state’s public education system.
“This is the only fight worth having, because if we don’t make every child in the state better, the future of our state will continue to decline,” Christie said in a May 26 talk at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. “This will define my governorship.”
“We need to have excellent education for every student in the state regardless of their socioeconomic status,” he continued.
The governor called for sharp reductions in granting tenure, arguing that a small handful of the state’s public school teachers ever lose their jobs because of incompetence.
“We see a system where we see failure and we feel it, but we are not going to change it,” he said. “Change will mean that ineffective teachers will either have to get better or get out.”
Some 1,200 people were at the event, part of the synagogue’s Cooperman Family Distinguished Speakers series, which was open to the public.
Christie also attacked the New Jersey Education Association, which represents some 150,000 public schoolteachers. The governor accused the union of spending $6 million on television advertising defending tenure and pension rights.
“What these commercials are really about is hate,” he said. “Just ‘hate me,’ as if that would solve anything.
“You can boo me all you want,” he said to his opponents, “but the fact is this system is going to collapse. If you don’t think so, take a look at General Motors and Chrysler and what happened with the pension promises that were made there.”
Bemoaning the high cost of the state-subsidized teachers’ pension plans his administration inherited, Christie said he feels “like the guy who was invited to a lavish dinner by four former governors. Then right after we finished, they got up from the table” and left him with the check.
‘I’m not ready’
Christie also cited figures showing that only 23 percent of Newark’s public high school students will graduate in four years. He said most will need remedial help if they go to college.
“It is unacceptable and, in fact, obscene, what is happening to young people in places like Trenton and Camden and Jersey City and Paterson and Passaic. The quality of the education and the price we are paying for it is absolutely outrageous,” Christie said.
Christie said he was “supremely confident” that he would not be governor today if his parents had not moved from Newark to nearby Livingston and enrolled him in the town’s public schools.
He said the young people who attend inner-city public schools today will not have such opportunities “because we don’t have the courage or political will to change a failed system.”
During a question-and-answer session, the governor said he supports charter schools and would not limit them to urban areas. “But there should be a need for that school and a demand for that school,” he added.
Speaking in an area of the state with a large percentage of Democrats — presumably including many in a nevertheless friendly audience — Christie said he has a good relationship with President Barack Obama.
“The president and I agree on education issues,” he said. “The president and I agree on renewable energy. The president and I agree on a lot of different things. But I will tell you he has failed the leadership test.
“We have elected our presidents and governors to be leaders, but sometimes being a leader doesn’t mean following the polls.”
Christie also fielded the now frequently asked question of whether he will run for the White House in 2012.
“People say to me, ‘You can win.’ Here’s the way I look at it. I’m not ready to be president, and if you’re not ready you should not run,” he said. “I don’t think what you should be saying is ‘I can win, I hope I’m ready.’ What you should be saying is ‘I am ready. I hope I can win.’”
Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz likened the attendees who filled the space nearly to capacity to the attendance on the High Holy Days.
Christie said he “could not think of an audience that values education more.”