Christie signs "renaissance school" measure at Camden ceremony

Gov. Christie greets students at the Lanning Square School in Camden after signing the "renaissance" school bill. Newark and Trenton are also included.
Gov. Christie greets students at the Lanning Square School in Camden after signing the "renaissance" school bill. Newark and Trenton are also included. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 13, 2012

A new kind of hybrid school is coming to Camden - part for-profit, part public, part nonprofit, and intended to begin to bridge the achievement gap between students in New Jersey's cities and in its suburbs.

There could be as many as 12 "renaissance" schools constructed in Camden, Newark, and Trenton as part of a 10-year pilot measure passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature on Monday and signed into law Thursday by Republican Gov. Christie at a ceremony at Lanning Square School in Camden.

"It is unconscionable to me to see what is going on in this city," Christie said of public education. "I can no longer sit by as governor and allow these children's voices to be silenced."

The renaissance school is technically a public school because it will receive 95 percent of the per-pupil tax dollars that regular public schools get. That's more than the 90 percent provided to charter schools.

But unlike other kinds of schools, renaissance schools are to be run by nonprofits empowered to use the per-pupil money to buy property and hire for-profit companies to construct buildings.

As an alternative to building a new school, the nonprofit can lease privately owned property, which would provide a badly needed boost to the tax base of cash-strapped Camden.

The nonprofit can also contract with private interests for a range of services, including staffing, management, and bookkeeping, as long as the nonprofit retains control over "instructional services."

In the most controversial part of the law, those contracts do not have to be publicly bid to find the lowest price. Further, the law appears to allow the contracts and names of the companies hired to be kept secret.

The state education commissioner and Camden Board of Education must jointly approve renaissance schools. But if the state initiates a partial or complete takeover of the school district - which some in Camden education circles believe could happen - the education commission could single-handedly approve a renaissance school.

Christie said Thursday he has no appetite or plans for a takeover.

A diverse array of interests aligned to enact the law, Christie's highest-profile education measure to date.

At a Camden news conference in June, Christie announced an initiative that would, after many revisions, become what is known as the Urban Hope Act.

Democratic political leader George E. Norcross III endorsed the measure. He has said a renaissance school supported by his family's charitable foundation and the charitable arm of Cooper University Hospital, where he is chairman, could replace the deteriorating nearby Lanning Square School.

Norcross' brother Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) sponsored the bill in the Senate, and a Cooper employee, Assemblyman Angel Fuentes (D., Camden), sponsored it in the lower house.

After receiving concessions, including retaining collective bargaining at the new schools, the New Jersey Education Association endorsed it.

Christie was asked Thursday whether the provision permitting private contracting would be problematic considering New Jersey's long history of pay-to-play. Christie said he wasn't concerned.

"We want to get this thing moving quickly, and we don't want to have this thing bogged down in red tape," he said, referring to the prolonged public bidding process. He added that oversight would be handled by the commissioner of education.

Former Camden school board member Jose Delgado saw a more nefarious scenario.

"It frees up a huge amount of public money into the private sector without any form of transparency or local control," he said.

Delgado also noted that the Lanning Square School, where Christie made his announcement in June and again Thursday, is a deteriorating 19th century building that was supposed to be replaced a decade ago.

The state's Schools Development Authority has already spent about $10 million clearing and acquiring property in the Lanning School neighborhood for a new school, including invoking eminent domain to acquire homes.

The Christie administration put construction of the school on hold last year even though it had a higher priority ranking than those of other schools cleared for construction.

"The affair that should be occurring on this day is the opening of a school," Delgado said of the bill-signing ceremony.

Peter Denton of the school-choice group Excellent Education for Everyone said the state would save as much as $500 million from its school-construction coffers by passing along the obligation to another entity.

"From the state's point of view, it's a free school," he said.

Christie, standing in front of a group of children and flanked by Donald Norcross and Democratic Camden Mayor Dana L. Redd, dismissed recent threats of a lawsuit against the new law by an advocacy group.

"And I really don't care if what I do here gets me five more votes or five less votes in the future," he said. "What I want is some of these children standing behind me to have a chance to run for governor one day."

Next to him were a series of signs bearing the hopes of Lanning Square students. They were far less aspirational than running for governor. One read: "We dream of a school with a separate gym and cafeteria."


Contact staff writer Matt Katz at 609-217-8355, mkatz@phillynews.com, or @mattkatz00 on Twitter. Read his blog, "Christie Chronicles," at philly.com/christiechronicles.

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