The Associated Press June 9, 2011, 5:14PM ET

NJ gov pushes public-private school pilot program

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie added a new element Thursday to his efforts to give children in the state's lowest-performing school districts a better education while keeping the costs to taxpayers down.

He proposed letting local school boards hand control of some so-called "transformation schools" to education management organizations, possibly including for-profit firms.

The proposal is one of several ideas Christie is pushing to try to expand options for students in troubled school districts.

"None of these things are silver bullets," he said. The governor framed the idea as an experiment that could offer lessons to other schools.

At first, no more than five of the privately run schools across the state would be allowed -- and they would go only in places where the local school boards want them.

The schools would report to the local school boards and would get 90 percent of the per-student taxpayer money that the traditional schools spend. The management companies would be responsible for the costs of any school construction involved in creating the schools.

It's not clear how students would be assigned to any privately run schools in New Jersey. Schools run by educational management organizations often have longer school days or school years and have detailed curriculum. Their results in the 31 states where they operate have been mixed.

Christie pitched the idea in front of Lanning Square School, which is housed in a building in Camden constructed in 1876. Officials say there are no specific plans to privatize that school, but it certainly could be a candidate.

Camden Board of Education President Susan Dunbar-Bey said she would explore the idea of privatizing a school in Camden, but said she didn't know enough details yet.

The announcement wasn't a surprise. Christie has talked before about new ways to run struggling schools, and privatized schools have become part of the landscape of education, particularly in cities, during the last two decades -- though not in New Jersey.

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf is the former president of the world's largest for-profit operator of public schools, Edison Schools Inc. Christie once worked as a lobbyist for the firm, which has since changed its name.

New Jersey is a state of startling contrasts in school districts and complicated funding arrangements.

On average, the state's public schools are recognized as among the nation's best by measures such as performance on standardized tests and graduation rates. But there's a wide disparity between most suburban and urban schools.

For more than 20 years, the state Supreme Court has ordered the state to put more money into 31 low-income districts, including the one in Camden, which is among the nation's most impoverished cities.

As a result, most of the state's poorest districts spend more per student than many of its wealthiest districts. But in many areas, the results have not improved as much as hoped -- even in a handful of cities where the state took over schools entirely or in part.

Beyond that, the arrangement creates a major political problem: With the state directing the majority of its school subsidies to low-income districts, it means most of the state's schools depend heavily on local property taxes. And at about $7,500 per year for the average home, New Jersey has by far the nation's highest property tax bills.

Christie believes that more money hasn't helped the urban schools and is intent on other innovations to improve them. That's one factor in the Republican governor's longstanding war of words with the state's main group of teachers unions, the New Jersey Education Association. The NJEA sees moves away from traditional public schools partly as an assault on the union and its members. Christie, like many other school reform advocates, sometimes blames union-negotiated work rules, salaries and benefits for creating problems in the education system.

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian blasted the governor's proposal in a statement Thursday.

"It is part of his ongoing effort to privatize public education in New Jersey," she said. "Under the guise of helping students, he is attempting to create a system that would funnel taxpayer dollars to private companies."

There have been other efforts to try new types of schools.

Since the 1990s, the state has allowed charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate outside regular school districts. Most of the state's charters are in cities such as Camden, Newark and Asbury Park. George Norcross, a Democratic powerbroker in southern New Jersey, announced last week that he wants to use the foundations of his family and Camden's Cooper University Hospital, where he's president of the board, to help launch more new charters or expand existing ones in Camden. He was on hand Thursday and praised the idea. He said it his foundation could be involved with a privatized public school.

And within the school districts, there have been attempts to create different types of schools. For instance, Camden's Board of Education runs MetEast High School, part of the national network of Big Picture schools that focus on projects and internships.

Christie's administration also has expanded an existing state program that lets children attend public schools in other districts.

And Christie is supporting a proposal to offer businesses 100 percent state tax credits for funding scholarships that would allow students to attend public schools in other communities or private schools. While that proposal has bipartisan support, lawmakers have not approved it.

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Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco in Trenton contributed to this report.

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Reach Geoff Mulvihill at http://www.twitter.com/geoffmulvihill


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