Governor’s State of the State Address Focuses On the Pension Amendment & Charter Schools

Posted · Add Comment

Governor Chris Christie delivered his State of the State address January 11 to a joint session of the Legislature.  The bulk of Mr. Christie’s address was focused on New Jersey issues, in one of his most public returns to state affairs since launching his presidential campaign last June.  Gov. Chris Christie called them his “three challenges,” a set of programs and legislative changes aimed at “dramatic results” for students, retirees and the most vulnerable in New Jersey.  The three challenges – a call for expanding addiction services, abolishing the estate tax and loosening regulations for charter schools in the state .

Christie’s 6th address also included his strong feelings on the proposed Constitutional Amendment to fund public pensions, as well as several highlights on what his administration considers his ‘education accomplishments’ thus far, including revisions to tenure and establishment of the ‘Urban Hope’ program.

Pension Amendment

Among the harsher moments during Tuesday’s address was the Governor’s criticism of Legislative action on a constitutional amendment, on ACR-3 (Prieto) /SCR-184 (Sweeney/Turner), which would require payments by the State to State-administered retirement systems on a schedule established under the amendment.

For almost 10 minutes, Christie did not pull any punches in his criticism of a proposed constitutional amendment, claiming that the amendment would cause the state to sacrifice spending on health care, education, children and other priorities to “pander to pensioners.”

“This is the road to ruin,” Christie said. “Stop this before it’s too late. We cannot deny funding for health care, education, criminal justice, the poor, our environment, our children and our infrastructure to pander to pensioners.”

Christie argued that to fund the amendment would require an increase in the sales tax to 10 percent or a 23 percent income tax increase.

Administration Wins

The Governor touted reform of tenure rules, greatly expanded charter schools, the Renaissance schools under the Urban Hope Act, and two years in a row of graduation rate increases in Camden. He also applauded his Administration’s investment in education – more than $12.8 billion in funding this past year for schools, arguing this constituted more than a quarter of FY2016’s budget and some of the highest per-pupil spending in the nation.

He also touted performance-based pay to schools in Newark and the launch of a new College Readiness Now Program in partnership with the community colleges to help at-risk students graduate from high school and to get prepared to attend college. According to Christie, 19 community colleges partnered with more than 60 high schools across the state, serving 900 high school students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 97% of the students completing the program in Atlantic and Cape May Counties enrolled in Atlantic Cape Community College as freshmen.

Charter Support

The Governor also spoke of his Administration’s support of the expansion of charter schools in the state, growing to 89 from 39 since he first took office in 2010.  He also applauded that New Jersey has  attracted some of the ‘best charter school operators.’

Christie announced yesterday that he will seek to make it easier for charter schools to acquire facilities.  He also called for relaxation of teacher certification rules, something the Administration actually effectuated two years ago via regulation.  In addition he urged the establishment of more charters, including schools serving children with autism and developmental delays.

To help drive home his point, the governor introduced a charter school teacher, Allison Cuttler from Newark’s North Star Academy, who started her school’s Girls Who Code club and whose students made up more than a quarter of all black students statewide who passed the AP computer science exam last year. Cuttler received the national Milken Educator Award last month.

“Charter schools in New Jersey have been successful in spite of our regulatory environment — not because of it,” Christie said. “Instead of giving charter schools the autonomy they need to deliver the great education outcomes, we’re regulating them using almost all the same regulations that apply to traditional public schools. … It’s not good for attracting more innovative charter school operators to our state.”

Drug Addiction

The headline announcement of his address was the transformation of the shuttered Mid-State Correctional Facility in Wrightstown as a certified drug abuse treatment facility, for inmates who need treatment more than prison time.

“The victims of addiction deserve treatment, whether they’re in the community or incarcerated,” Christie said. “If we can break the cycle of addiction anywhere, we should break it.”

The new facility would go hand-in-hand with an additional $1.7 million toward the state’s “recovery coach program,” placing certified specialists in hospital rooms of overdose victims. When Narcan saves someone from a near-fatal overdose, they will be greeted by a recovery coach who can provide guidance, support and referrals for treatment.

“With the benefit of their own experiences on the path to recovery, these coaches can step in at the moment when victims of drug abuse are often at their most vulnerable and when support is most needed,” Christie said.

Christie also announced a $100 million commitment to increase mental health and substance abuse services, particularly to three regional accountable care organizations that will identify high-cost patients and coordinate their physical and behavioral recovery while reducing hospital and emergency room care.

Response Generally

Opponents said Mr. Christie’s speech was tone deaf to New Jersey’s issues, and faulted him for cutting promised pension payments during his past budgets.

“It’s frustrating when you don’t want to focus on the problems of the state and you just want to get everyone fighting with each other,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.