Governor Chris Christie, who has called the leaders of New Jersey’s teachers’ union “political thugs,” urged Harvard University students to disrupt school systems that protect incompetence at the expense of children.
“There are now smoldering around the country the embers of revolution” in public schools, Christie said today in a speech at the Ivy League institution’s Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “The need for revolutionary change is as appropriate as anything in public life today.”
The first-term Republican, whose proposals to change government pension and benefit plans sparked a surge in teacher retirements last year, spoke to a packed 270-seat auditorium and three satellite rooms around the campus. Christie, 48, has said 2011 will be “the year of education reform” as he pushes to change tenure, link teacher pay to performance and make it easier to fire educators deemed ineffective.
“We have an education system that is set up for the ease, comfort and security of those who operate it,” Christie said, urging his audience, many of whom may become leaders of schools, to be “disrupters.” He said they should disrupt “fat, rich and entitled unions” because that’s what’s needed to fix U.S. public schools.
“If you don’t do it we’ve got no hope,” the governor said. “If you’re unwilling to do it, we’re sunk, because you have less to lose than anybody. Take chances. Take a little risk.” Christie received a standing ovation.
“There are a lot of things that he said that are really powerful,” said Julia Stuart, 29, a master’s degree candidate from Monterey, California. “People really want to see what’s going to happen. A large majority are in agreement that these are the problems.”
New Jersey spends $17,620 per pupil annually, more than any other U.S. state, yet more than 100,000 students are trapped in failing schools, Christie has said. Stuart
“Money is not the answer to that problem,” Christie said in his remarks. “New Jersey is the laboratory that proves that.”
While New Jersey has 150,000 teachers, just 17 have been removed for incompetence in the past decade, he has said, blaming tenure rules. The New Jersey Education Association, the union representing 200,000 current and retired school employees, spent $6.6 million on broadcast advertising last year, the most of any state lobbying group, according to the Election Law Enforcement Commission in Trenton. Many ads attacked Christie.
Christie likened leaders of the state teachers’ union to “a bunch of political thugs” in an ABC News interview this month with Diane Sawyer.
“The reason I’m engaged in this fight with the teachers’ unions is because it is the only fight worth having,” Christie said to applause from his Harvard audience. He said that he has tried to focus his attacks on a system that protects poor- performing teachers instead of favoring students.
“I am prepared to ratchet down the rhetoric,” if the teachers’ union gives him an indication that they are willing to compromise, Christie said. Teacher retirements surged 95 percent last year, the largest increase of any government group, according to state Treasury Department data.
This week, New Jersey voters approved 80 percent of school budgets. A year earlier, they rejected a record 59 percent of the spending plans as Christie urged them to do so in districts where teachers had refused to accept wage freezes.
Not ‘Condoning’ Views
“I’m in no way condoning every aspect of Christie’s agenda, but he’s at least putting himself out there and I respect that,” David Donaldson, the student who invited the governor to speak, said in a telephone interview.
Donaldson, 26, is head of the Education Policy and Management Student Association speaker series at Harvard, the oldest and richest U.S. university. Other speakers this year include Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.
The typical speaker event attracts about 125 people, Donaldson said. More than 400 were expected at Christie’s speech, he said.
“Christie is among the most prominent governors when it comes to education issues,” said Michael Rodman, a spokesman for the graduate school. “Certainly he’s controversial but we welcome controversy and we think his ideas should be discussed and debated.”
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