School Choice a Key Factor in New Jersey Governor Race

Published October 1, 2009

School choice is fast becoming a key issue in the race for the New Jersey governor’s office as it speeds toward the November 3 election.

Challengers to incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine’s (D) educational status quo are Chris Christie (R) and Chris Daggett (I). Both support school choice in the form of vouchers and more charter schools statewide.

Christie has made a concerted effort to garner the urban vote, visiting cities all over the state and outlining his plan to expand the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund, a 41-year-old state program that gives motivated low-income students grants to attend college, to provide mentoring and tutoring for more personalized counsel and progress tracking.

Christie has been endorsed by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean Sr., businessman Steve Forbes, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Bold Proposal

Daggett, however, may have taken the campaign to a new level with his call to abolish teacher tenure.

In an August 14 press release, Daggett said, “While there are superb teachers in every school district in New Jersey, there are too many teachers who are not performing. Parents know this, school boards know this, administrators know this, fellow teachers know this, and students know it best of all.”

Daggett’s plan would replace tenure with five-year performance-based contracts and merit pay.

Grassroots Calls for Change

Meanwhile, Corzine is facing the potential loss of some traditionally Democratic constituencies thanks in part to a grassroots movement of urban parents, ministers, and politicians who are taking a stand for better education.

That was illustrated July 2 when a group of concerned citizens braved a pouring rain to participate in a school choice rally in Newark.

“Injustices shown to the poor through inferior educational options will ultimately result in a broken society,” explained Kim Chorba, director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families, who spoke at the rally. “There are gross disparities in the way American children are educated, and I mourn for those who have slipped through the cracks of a broken educational system.”

Choice Seen as Civil Right

Earlier this year Christie turned down an endorsement from the state teachers union, a move suggesting the organization’s huge power in state politics may be weakening. Some Democrats—most notably Newark Mayor Cory Booker—also have broken ties with the union. Booker is working with conservatives to push for a voucher program in eight cities with the worst schools.

Recent polls show Corzine’s support weakening among minority voters, for whom school reform is a chief concern.

The Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey and an outspoken champion of school choice, said he supports Daggett’s version of school choice.

“Our children have a right to a quality education,” Jackson told participants at the July 2 rally. “The civil rights movement is not over yet.”

Corrina Jennings ([email protected]) writes from San Jose, California.