Inquirer Editorial: Adding race to debate won't fix bad schools

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver
Posted: March 19, 2013

Gov. Christie's clumsily veiled suggestion that poor schools are a black problem that African American politicians should be more eager to solve was inappropriate.

Christie made the remarks while explaining at a town hall meeting in Paterson why the Legislature had not passed the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give tax breaks to companies providing scholarships to students so they can enroll in better public or private schools.

Confronted by a heckler in the mostly minority audience who repeatedly yelled for Christie to "fix our schools," an agitated Christie seemed to blame Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) for blocking his voucher bill.

"We have an African American, female speaker of the Assembly who represents communities like East Orange and Orange, where there are failing schools all over, and she refuses to let people vote on this bill," Christie said.

Oliver, New Jersey's highest-ranking African American elected official, accused Christie of fomenting racial polarization. "I have never, nor will I ever, reference the governor's ethnicity, or make a veiled reference to the color of his skin, yet that's exactly what Gov. Christie did today when discussing me, as if it was the 19th century."

Christie's office said the governor's remarks were misinterpreted, and noted that Bishop Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Ministers Council, has also criticized Oliver's position on the voucher bill. But that example of blacks' having different views on the legislation is exactly why Christie shouldn't have couched the debate in racial terms.

The governor knows full well that the tools to fix failing schools are not color-coded, nor are urban districts the only ones with schools in need of repair. Parents of any ethnicity with children in poorly performing schools all want something better.

With good reason, many with children in schools that never seem to get any better want an alternative. Enter Christie with his charter schools and vouchers. But he gets an incomplete grade until he puts more emphasis and money into improving poor schools whose students, for the most part, aren't going anywhere.

Christie's proposed budget includes $2 million to provide $10,000 vouchers to about 200 students in the state's lowest-performing districts. That money won't be used to "fix our schools," as the heckler demanded.

It's fine to provide alternatives for children otherwise sentenced to a mediocre education. But Christie also must make sure the students left behind in poorly performing schools are not abandoned.

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