Christie reaffirms commitment to charter schools during Newark visit

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By LINH TAT

NEWARK — When Gov. Chris Christie traveled to the state’s largest city two weeks ago, it was to help celebrate the opening of a new elementary campus in the Newark Public Schools system.

On Monday, he returned to Newark — this time to reaffirm his commitment to charter schools, which are often at odds with the local school district.

Gov Chris Christie North Star Academy

Gov. Chris Christie takes questions from students at North Star Academy Alexander Street Elementary School in Newark, N.J., Monday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Christie praised North Star Academy — part of the Uncommon Schools charter network — for its “groundbreaking” work in turning around a failing campus while visiting the North Star Alexander Street Elementary School.

North Star Academy beat the local district’s passing rate on state tests in English and math by more than 30 percentage points between 2010 and 2014 and outscored the state average on every PARCC subject in grades 3 through 8 during the 2014-15 year, he noted during a news conference.

“Their formula for learning is outperforming, exceeding expectations … and it’s those achievements that we want to replicate in charter schools throughout the state,” he said, adding that public leaders have a moral obligation to provide school options to families.

The governor had vowed to “aggressively pursue” regulatory relief for charter schools during his State of the State in January. And during a news conference last week, he called charter schools “the salvation of families, especially in failing urban districts.”

Under the Christie administration, the number of charter school seats in New Jersey has nearly doubled — from 21,687 in the 2009-10 academic year to more than 40,000 in the 2014-15 year, according to the governor’s office. That number is expected to surpass 50,000 by 2017.

To that end, the state Department of Education recently announced it had approved three new charter schools and the expansion of 16 existing ones throughout New Jersey. Two of the new schools and seven of the ones to expand are in Newark.

The city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, called the decision “irresponsible” because it would hurt the already struggling Newark Public Schools system. It would be better to halt charter school expansions until the local school district’s finances improve, he said.

One of the main issues in the national fight between traditional and charter schools has to do with public dollars being diverted from districts to charter schools.

But Christie on Monday vowed to fight those who want to maintain the status quo.

“They wouldn’t accept [failure] for their children,” Christie said. “I don’t accept it for mine … and I am not going to accept it for the children of this city. … If they’re looking for a fight, they’ll get one.”

Christie said he hoped Baraka, a former high school principal in Newark, was not among the entrenched, “but if he chooses to be, we’ll run him over, too.”

“Mayor Baraka is a former traditional public school employee. He is desperately protecting that whole failing system that he was a part of,” Christie said, adding that Baraka’s attitude will play a role in determining whether the state-run school district is returned to local control.

Baraka’s office did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Monday’s news conference also included remarks by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz — who said there are great lessons to be shared among all schools — and Brett Peiser, chief executive officer of Uncommon Schools.

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