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Governor addresses education

Nicole Michels | Sunday, November 20, 2011

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie drew on his childhood schooling as an example for education reform Friday in the Eck Hall of Law.

Christie delivered the keynote address of the symposium titled “Education and the Law,” sponsored by the Notre Dame Law Review, to a packed house.

To understand how he feels about the issue of public schools, Christie said he would need to explain his origins in Newark, N.J., and how that related to the quality of his education.

Christie said he is convinced he wouldn’t be where he was today if his parents had not relocated his family to another school district, because the Newark public school system was not adequately educating its students.

This has driven Christie to seek ways to improve public schooling to ensure that today’s children will be better prepared than the previous generation to meet life’s challenges, he said.

“I can’t help thinking how many men and women in the public schools system have the talent to be the next governor of New Jersey, but they never will because we can’t stand up for the children,” Christie said.

Christie cited numerous statistics demonstrating the failure of Newark public schools to provide quality education and prepare its students for college or a career. He said 23 percent of Newark’s kids who entered the 9th grade two months ago will graduate with a diploma in four years, and that 90 percent of Newark’s high school grads who go to community college need at least one year of remedial education to even sit in a college class.

“They’re not college or career-ready,” he said. “Though the money spent on these kids per pupil is well above the national average, it only goes towards an abject failure.”

His primary argument is that the education system needs to be structured differently so kids from different backgrounds can benefit.

“For the kids having problems at home, we need to change the system,” Christie said. “Why do we teach those children the same way that we teach my children and say that both should be successful? It doesn’t make sense.”

Christie said his outlook is dictated by common sense. He focused on several points, but related everything back to this need for increased practicality. Among other ideas, Christie said he wants a longer school day, different teaching methods and merit-based pay practices used in challenged school districts.

Despite the immediacy of other concerns, Christie said that first and foremost the focus should be on accountability.

“No place else in American success do we demand so little for accountability for the product that is produced,” Christie said.

With a variety of measures, Christie would see this demand for increased accountability institutionalized, but not by standards mandated by any national legislation. Christie said he believes each state should be allowed to craft individual state solutions to this issue.

“More stuff being decided at the local level will permit in most instances better decisions being made to address socioeconomic realities and to avoid one size fits all solutions,” Christie said.

Structuring national legislation to empower the states to pursue innovations that will better the school systems, Christie said, is the best role for the national government to fulfill in this situation — and the best chance for bipartisan cooperation.

He cited recent successes in Indiana, Illinois and Ohio as examples of this successful cooperation.

“One thing that I think about this issue is that it is not partisan,” Christie said. “Given the state of political dialogue in our country shouldn’t we seize this to show that we can actually agree on something? This is a moment that we can come together and do something important for people who haven’t decided yet if they want to be Democrats or Republicans.”

Despite the difficulties in overcoming the enormity of the problem, Christie said he is not ready to write off the ability of public school systems to get students career and college ready.

Fr. Tim Scully, director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the Center for Social Concerns, said it was refreshing to hear someone speak his mind without worrying about the political response. This talk, Scully said, fit in nicely in response to the positions taken by others earlier in the symposium.

“I just find that whenever you have a frank and open dialogue by such a thoughtful public leader, raising important questions, that it really does embody what a university is all about,” Scully said.

Christie said above all, society has an obligation to reform education so that every child can realize his or her full potential.

“I am from there. That could have been me,” Christie said. “There is no more important moral imperative than preventing that, and to do that we must stop putting the comfort of adults ahead of the potential of children.”