Education-reform advocate George E. Norcross III declared last week he will not be intimidated by the state education lobby’s million-dollar TV ad campaign opposing efforts to revitalize New Jersey’s urban schools.
Norcross, chairman of the Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital, said the lobby is a special interest group desperately seeking to protect its own financial interests at the expense of quality schools for students and better value for taxpayers.
Asserting that the time had come for “an educational revolution by the public to demand change in our schools,” Norcross vowed to redouble his efforts to build a grassroots movement across New Jersey to bring about needed reforms.
“It is indisputable that our cities cannot survive and thrive unless they are safe and their schools meet the standards of those in nearby suburbs.”
Norcross said the TV ad campaign, sponsored by the New Jersey Education Association, is an affront not only to parents and children, but to the hundreds of people throughout New Jersey seeking critically needed school reforms. Several of those advocates were on hand to support the need for school reform and question both the intent and timing of the NJEA attacks.
“At a time when we most need to build consensus to improve education, the NJEA is selfishly trying to sabotage those efforts,” Norcross said. “Instead of spending a million dollars to intimidate and threaten people, they should spend it on working on ideas to provide families in New Jersey’s urban centers the quality education they deserve. Rather than obsessing about their own pay and status, the NJEA should be trying to do something about the countless sub-standard schools from Newark to Camden that are failing under its watch.”
Joining with Norcross to signal their continued support for urban education reforms were former Gov. Jim Florio; Newark Mayor Cory Booker; Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive-director of the Black Ministers of New Jersey; Msgr. Michael Doyle, Pastor of Sacred Heart R.C. Church in the Camden Diocese; Chancellor Wendell Pritchett, of Rutgers University, Camden; Jeannine LaRue, a former NJEA senior executive and a former senior aide to Gov. Jon Corzine; and Dr. Gloria Bonilla-Santiago, Board Chairwoman of the LEAP Academy University Charter School.
U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews and Bishop Joseph A. Galante of the Archdiocese of Camden issued statements supportive of Norcross’s reform agenda.
“As part of his family's longstanding commitment to the City of Camden, George Norcross has stepped forward to support efforts to improve the quality of education for the city's children, Andrews said. “As the leader of the city's largest employer, Cooper University Medical Center, he has correctly emphasized the impossibility of fostering a growing city without a strong education system.
Andrews added, “The effort to give all the city's children the education they need and deserve requires cooperation among all those with a stake in the city's future--not negative attacks on those who would dare to suggest that we try new approaches to solve old problems. Instead of spending its resources attacking Mr. Norcross and those who seek a better city, the state NJEA leadership should join local leaders--including local NJEA members--in a common effort to improve education for the children of Camden.”
Bishop Galante said he was “sadly disappointed at the leadership of the NJEA attempting to intimidate you and your efforts on behalf of a quality education for the children of the City of Camden. Personal attacks always distract people from an intelligent discourse on any issue. Your arguments on behalf of educational opportunities have always been reasoned and principled, and it is unfair for you to be maligned because of your efforts in this regard. You deserve the gratitude of the children whose cause you have championed.”
Norcross said he was not surprised that the NJEA television ad is built around personal attacks on himself, Gov. Christie and others promoting education reforms.
The NJEA, Norcross said, has spent decades extracting exorbitant financial benefits from the state by brow-beating and threatening both Democrats and Republicans in Trenton. He said the organization doesn’t actually represent the interests of the thousands of teachers working in public school classrooms in New Jersey, but rather the financial and political interests of union officials. If the NJEA was truly interested in the working teachers, Norcross said, it would join him in supporting pay incentives for those teachers who excel as educators, rather than clinging to the failed tenure system as the guideline for raises and promotions.
“Using the hard-earned dues of its member teachers, the NJEA is trying to influence, intimidate and threaten public officials, community leaders, parents and students who oppose its do-nothing strategy to change urban education,” Norcross. “I will not be intimidated, and neither will the respected, determined members of the coalition fighting for the rights of kids and parents, especially those in our urban centers.”
Norcross said the NJEA was misleading the public in asserting that he was working against the interests of organized labor. His father was president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council, and his brother, Donald, is current president of that organization, as well as business agent for the local Electricians Union. “My family,” Norcross said, “has far greater organized labor credentials than anybody at NJEA.”
He also dismissed the NJEA’s assertion that his insurance company stood to benefit from his efforts. Norcross said his company, Conner-Strong, is a national business that operates in all 50 states and is “not dependent on the outcome of health-care debates in any particular state. The changes being discussed in New Jersey have no real bearing on our national business model one way or another.” He added that the company obtains contracts based on competitive bidding, and that it has a longstanding ban on corporate and personal political contributions.
Norcross stressed that his involvement in the education reform movement grew out of his longtime association with Cooper Hospital, which is located in the city of Camden. He said he has seen firsthand how deteriorating schools can help drag a city down. He said it is “impossible to grow a strong, vibrant city without quality schools and safe streets and neighborhoods.”