New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will lay out his ideas for overhauling teacher tenure, giving parents a choice in where their children attend school and shoring up a teetering public worker pension system in his first State of the State address.
Christie told The Associated Press in an interview that he plans to stick to three themes Tuesday in a speech that will top out at under 30 minutes: education reform; changes to the pension and health benefits funds for government workers, teachers, police and firefighters; and responsible budgeting.
"It's going to be brisk and direct," Christie said of the speech, "talking about those things and why they're so important to the future of the state. We'll do a little bit of a review of where we've been and what we accomplished our first year in office, but the majority of the speech will be talking about those three big issues to me."
Foremost on Christie's 2011 agenda is education reform. Already a well-established nemesis of the state teachers union, Christie said he will push for merit pay for teachers who perform well and penalty pay — called differentiation — for teachers who are not up to par.
"We have to do a complete relook at teacher tenure. It's not working. It's not just merit pay," Christie said Thursday. "You have to encourage pay differentiation so that everybody is incentivized with carrot and stick."
The governor said he'll also push for passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a pilot school choice program that offers tax credits to corporations that contribute to scholarships for children in failing schools to attend private or parochial school or public school in another district.
Christie said he calls the idea "parental choice" rather than "school choice" because it gives parents "the best opportunity to choose the best education for their child."
"These programs benefit disproportionately the lower middle-class and poor, who don't have the money to make a choice to send their children to a parochial school or a private school," he said.
Christie said he'll address the achievement gap that still exists between wealthy and poor districts despite massive amounts of money poured into poor districts in an attempt to raise test scores and graduation rates. He said he'll call for more charter schools and for a rule change to allow struggling districts to hire superintendents who lack experience as educators. The administration put that proposal before the state Board of Education last week.
"I'm trying to bring forward this sense of making the system cater to the children, not to the adults," Christie said. "That's a paradigm shift we have to get to."
Christie also plans to revisit pension and health benefits changes many agree are needed to fix two chronically underfunded systems.
He'll call for employees to shoulder more of their health care costs, and will propose higher deductibles, higher copays and that workers pay part of the cost of the premium rather than a portion of their salaries, as they do now. Health benefits were free until last year, when workers were required to start paying 1.5 percent of their salaries toward their benefits. Christie said the higher costs would be phased in and the state will offer health plans with a range of cost options.
Christie said he'll talk about pension changes that he proposed in the fall that include raising the retirement age and rolling back a 9 percent benefit increase approved a decade ago. He said he'll reiterate his plan to fix the current pension system — currently $53.9 billion in the red — before thinking about phasing it out.
The Republican governor and national GOP party darling, who will begin his second year in office later this month, will also take a victory lap for first-year achievements, which include enacting a 2 percent property tax cap and adopting a budget with few changes from Democrats.
"The first year in my mind went better than I could have hoped," Christie said. "The Legislature deserves a good share of the credit. We did get a budget passed, get pension and benefit reform for new employees, get a property tax cap, get interest arbitration reform and a cap. If I had told anyone on Inauguration Day that we were going to do all that and get a budget passed two days early, people would have just laughed me out of the building.
"More importantly, I really do believe we've changed the dialogue," he said. That's what I meant on election night when I said we were going to turn Trenton upside down. I think we have. Now our job is to make the most of that opportunity."