CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Gov. Chris Christie said Friday that “embers of revolution” in public education need to be stoked as he pushed his reforms and continued attacks on New Jersey’s largest teachers union for allegedly blocking progress.
Christie, who’s won national attention for his willingness to take on public employee unions, spoke at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education before taking questions from students and educators.
The Republican governor referred to the region’s history as the birthplace of the American revolution, then spoke of a brewing nationwide revolution in public K-12 education.
“Those embers of revolution … need to be stoked and in some respects need to have gasoline thrown on them,” he said. “We are losing generations of children and we are losing them as we speak.”
Christie spoke about various obstacles to reform and cited the New Jersey Education Association, which he called a “political thuggery operation” and said was “fat, rich and entitled.”
Earlier this month, Christie referred to the leadership as “bullies and thugs” during a speech in New York.
Asked by a student Friday if he felt his combative tone was preventing progress on his reforms, Christie said he struggled with that question more than people realize, but it wasn’t time to change his approach.
“I am prepared to ratchet down the rhetoric if I could get any indication that there’s any interest in changing the failed system,” he said.
“I have to first awaken the public to the fact that the house is on fire,” Christie later added.
NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer expressed doubt Christie would ever change his approach.
“His tone has been consistently hostile for 16 months,” he said. “It’s the only tone he knows.”
He said it’s “malarkey” that the union is standing in the way of reform, then pointed to recent cuts in staffs, budgets, program and user fees under Christie. “And he’s the champion of public schools?” he said.
“We’re willing to meet,” Wollmer said. “He should be meeting with us rather than insulting us.”
Christie wants to end lifetime teacher tenure, tie educators’ raises to student performance and speed the process for getting rid of bad teachers. The union accuses Christie of trying to force out higher-paid, experienced teachers and say he and his staff just don’t understand how a school works.
The union does agree with Christie’s call to reform the process for getting rid of bad teachers.
Christie’s trip north is his second out-of-state trip this month to speak in a prestigious setting. He was in New York earlier to give a speech sponsored by the Brookings Institute.
In his remarks, Christie said his state has long been in thrall of a failed educational theory that spending more money on education improve performance.
“Money is not the answer to the problem,” he said. “New Jersey is the laboratory that proves the failure of that experiment.”
He pointed to the city of Newark, where he said more than $24,000 is spent per pupil annually, but the graduation rate is 29 percent. He said 90 percent of students who do go on to college need remedial classes to get up to speed, then referred to a Newark high school diploma as “a meaningless document.”
Christie said the educational system must be transformed to demand accountability and excellence, instead of perpetuating a failed status quo that doesn’t benefit students. But he said bringing that kind of change in the United States will be tougher than dealing with the country’s other threats, such as terrorism, foreign unrest and a declining industrial base.
“In my view, this is the biggest fight we can have,” he said.
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