Christie accepts award from schools group

Gov. Christie listens in on a physics class at Burlington County Community College during a visit June 25, 2013 to announce a new scholarship program to encourage women and minorities to enroll in vocational programs at the states 19 county colleges. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Gov. Christie listens in on a physics class at Burlington County Community College during a visit June 25, 2013 to announce a new scholarship program to encourage women and minorities to enroll in vocational programs at the states 19 county colleges. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 27, 2013

Gov. Christie accepted a citizen of the year award in Philadelphia on Tuesday from a group that funds scholarships for poor children to go to private schools - but his appearance came with a touch of irony.

Christie had just reached a budget deal with the Democratic-controlled legislature that eliminated a $2 million school-choice pilot program. It was one of the few concessions he made in the $33 billion budget, and it continued 31/2 years of his failing in attempts to bring school choice to New Jersey.

The Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia, which uses private donations to provide scholarships for low-income students to attend tuition-based schools, nonetheless honored Christie for his overall "school reform" efforts.

In accepting the award, the governor cited laws he signed to incorporate teacher testing into the tenure system and reduce benefits for educators.

Christie spoke in personal terms about how children of poor parents should still get a great education. "Their children's dreams are no less precious than the children of parents of greater means," he said.

At the end of his speech, part of the mostly minority audience gave him a standing ovation.

Later, at a news conference at Burlington County College, Christie said both Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D., Essex) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) "refused to even consider" the school-choice pilot program that he had budgeted. The program would have given 200 low-income students in failing districts a ticket to private schools or out-of-district public schools.

"So my choice was either close down the government over it or say, 'We'll come back and have that fight again next year,'" Christie said. He insinuated that opposition from the teachers unions - which he had criticized in Philadelphia earlier in the day - drove the legislators to keep the money out of the budget.

Teachers unions say well-funded public schools are the best way to help poor children achieve. They criticize school-choice programs - which they call "vouchers" - as a backdoor way of draining millions of dollars from public schools.

The fight will continue in Trenton. Christie said he would still push for school choice, including the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would give tax breaks to companies that issue scholarships to poor children.

In his remarks at BCC, Christie announced another kind of scholarship program. The Governor's Industry Vocations Scholarship for Women and Minorities will provide scholarships of up to $2,000 for as many as 250 women and minority students to enroll in construction and engineering certificate programs at county colleges.

Wearing a suit in the 90-degree heat and flanked by college students in shorts and T-shirts, Christie fielded a range of questions at the ensuing news conference.

Asked about Sweeney's bill to disband the Rutgers University board of trustees and transfer its powers to Rutgers' board of governors, Christie said he supported the idea because it would help "streamline" the hierarchy at Rutgers just as the university undergoes a major restructuring.

The trustees resisted efforts by Sweeney and Christie last year to restructure and merge the state's higher education system. Christie said this has nothing to do with revenge.

"Why would I want to exert revenge against somebody after I won?" Christie asked. "I won. I got the merger I wanted."

Gov. Corbett was scheduled to introduce Christie in Philadelphia, but was in Harrisburg working on Pennsylvania's budget. Instead, Pennsylvania's acting education secretary, William Harner, brought Christie on stage and hailed him as an "American hero" and "American original."

Christie warmed up the crowd by noting that his wife grew up in the Philadelphia area. So the award, he said, is "the second time I've been picked by Philly - the first time by her."


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

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