Camden schools are well along in their comeback after four years under state supervision, Gov. Christie said Friday in a sometimes emotional, hour-long speech to students, parents, and officials gathered at the city's newest Renaissance school.
The Republican governor, a frequent visitor to Camden nearing the end of his second and final term, credited his bipartisan partnership with local and state Democratic leaders for turning around the city's ailing school system and other accomplishments.
"Eight years ago, change began to take hold in this city," Christie said, saying the relationship between him and Democratic Camden Mayor Dana Redd took root as they launched bold plans to save the city from increasing crime, infrastructure problems, poverty, and failing schools soon after each of them was elected.
Among the results, Christie said, has been a sharp improvement in the high school graduation rate — from 49 percent in 2013, when the state took control of the school system, to 70 percent in 2016. Nearly 20 charter and Renaissance schools have opened by now, supplementing the traditional schools.
The governor spoke just two days after the state relinquished its often rancorous 22-year control of the Newark, N.J., school system, returning it to local control. But he did not indicate how much longer Camden would remain under state supervision and left without taking questions from reporters.
The school systems in Jersey City and Paterson also were placed under state supervision when officials determined they were failing their students. Jersey City schools were returned to local control earlier this year.
Christie posed for pictures with students who attend the newest Renaissance school — the KIPP Cooper Norcross Whittier Middle School. The school opened last month in the renovated building of a public school, built in 1910, that was forced to close two years ago because it had fallen into disrepair.
Christie spoke before an enthusiastic crowd of about 150 officials, parents, and students who gathered at the school to hear his remarks about improvements that have been made to the city's education system.
But the Camden Education Association, in a news release Friday, said that Christie, Redd, state-appointed Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, South Jersey Democratic political leader George E. Norcross III, Congressman Donald Norcross (D., Camden), and other officials had "used political connections, driven by financial and ideological interests, to exploit the Camden community; its residents, and its children."
The teachers union accused Rouhanifard of using a "politically orchestrated state takeover" to close at least six neighborhood schools to make way for Renaissance school operators to take over the buildings and to make a profit. Renaissance schools are privately operated, but publicly funded. They are open to all of the students residing in the schools' neighborhoods. These schools and charter schools are alternatives to traditional public schools that serve more than half of the city's 15,000 students.
Keith Benson, president of the CEA, could not be reached for comment; there were no visible protests or other union presence at the event. The CEA release said that there was "little empirical evidence" to prove the state takeover had improved the education offered to the city's students and that residents should identify and examine "who is doing the educating."
Rouhanifard, who spoke at the Kipp school before Christie, disputed the union's assertions in an interview after the event.
"The only people benefiting are the kids. This school is run by a nonprofit that opened the doors to better serve the kids. If they had not done this, the building would still be vacant," he said.
The superintendent also said that after the state supervision started, there was a 53 percent reduction in school suspensions, and more than $323 million in capital improvements were made to about 13 schools.
Sharell Sharp was among the parents who attended the event. Her daughter, Trinity Holland, 13, is enrolled in the Cramer Hill Mastery Renaissance school. "It's excellent, I love it," Sharp said. "Prior to Mastery, my daughter struggled significantly with reading. … She's jumped up three reading levels."