(Updates with comment from Christie in third paragraph.)
Jan. 12 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed a bill that gives private firms the authority to run failing public schools in three inner-city districts.
The Urban Hope Act creates a 10-year pilot program that will allow nonprofit organizations to build and operate “renaissance” schools in Newark, Trenton and Camden. Groups can apply to local boards and then the state Education Department for as many as four schools in each city.
“This is more than just an inner-city problem and one that needs to be addressed across the state,” Christie, 49, a first- term Republican, said today in Camden, one of the poorest cities in the U.S., and where he first proposed the new policy in June. “The Urban Hope Act is just the first step I will be taking over the next year.”
A year after Christie declared 2011 “The year of education reform,” the Urban Hope Act is his first legislative victory for a four-bill package that also includes a privately funded school-voucher program, overhauling teacher tenure and expanding charter schools. Christie has pledged to jump-start debate on the remaining bills in 2012.
Christie’s initial proposal for the Urban Hope Act would have allowed for-profit firms as well as nonprofits to be eligible to run the new schools.
The governor and Democrats who sponsored the measure said it will expand choices for students stuck in districts where administrators have been unable to boost graduation rates and test scores, even with increased state aid.
Renaissance schools are similar to charter schools, which have operated in New Jersey for more than a decade. Founders of charters, which operate independently from districts, can be teachers, parents, universities or non-profits.
Charters get as much as 90 percent of the district’s per- pupil costs, and their students are admitted through a lottery process. Attendance in renaissance schools would be based on geography, not lottery. Charters also don’t need local boards of education approval, according to Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Christie.
The Urban Hope Act will let the state or district sell or lease land to the groups to build the new schools. The organizations would receive 95 percent of the local district’s per-pupil government funding to run the schools.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union that has feuded with Christie over many of his education proposals, endorsed the measure last week.
“This bill ensured that employees in the proposed renaissance schools will have all of the rights of other public school employees,” Barbara Keshishian, president of the 195,500-member union, said in a statement on its website.
New Jersey spends more than $17,000 per pupil a year, the most of any U.S. state, yet 100,000 students attend schools that don’t meet educational standards, Christie said.
“We need new schools that will give our students the type of education they need to graduate and be successful in college or in their career,” Senator Donald Norcross, a Democrat from Camden and a sponsor of the bill.
Norcross’s brother, George E. Norcross III, is a Democratic party leader in southern New Jersey who was a vocal backer of the measure and attended Christie’s Camden announcement in June.
In Camden, 57 percent of students graduated high school in the 2009-10 year, compared to a statewide figure of about 95 percent, according to data from the education department. The rate was 88 percent in Newark, the state’s most-populous city, and 78 percent in Trenton, the capital.
--Editors: Stacie Servetah, Ted Bunker
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