As many as 12 schools built by nonprofit groups and funded largely with tax dollars will be allowed to take root in three of New Jersey's struggling cities under a new law Gov. Chris Christie signed Thursday, a move he says is a step toward bigger school reforms.
The new schools must comply with the state's standards for public schools but in some ways will act as private entities. Under the law, called the Urban Hope Act, there can be four schools in each city that qualifies: Camden, Newark and Trenton.
Christie lauded the law, calling it "immediate relief for students trapped in some of the most chronically failing schools in the state."
One major supporter of the law, Democratic party power broker George Norcross, called it "the most important thing to happen in 20 years." Norcross' brother, Democratic state Sen. Donald Norcross of Camden, was the bill's main sponsor. George Norcross, who did not attend the bill signing, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he expected to announce soon a partnership among his family foundation, the foundation of Cooper University Hospital, where he's the chairman, and education groups to establish new schools allowed by the law.
For many who welcome the legislation, it's seen as helpful, but not the big step needed to give parents in underperforming districts a real choice of places where their children can be educated.
The biggest cheers the governor received came when he promoted one of those ideas — publicly funded scholarships that could be used to send students in poor districts to private schools.
Passing the measure, which has bipartisan support in the Legislature but hasn't yet gained much traction, can change what he says is a reality about the state: "In our failing school districts in New Jersey," the governor said, "ZIP code is destiny."
Children raised in some suburbs, he said, have unlimited opportunities, while those in some inner cities are trapped. Both he and George Norcross said they expect compromise in the next several months on some of those bigger, more divisive measures.
Christie visited the Lanning Square School in Camden, one of the nation's most impoverished cities, to sign the bill in a multipurpose room with a portable basketball hoop similar to one found in a driveway. The governor's booming voice had to compete with the clanging of the furnace.
The room was full of officials and school-reform advocates, but only a handful of parents.
One parent, Rosa Rivera-Franqi, said she didn't want a new kind of school for her children, who are in 3rd and 8th grade. She just wants the regular public school to have a permanent building. Her children have been shuttled among buildings for years because of structural problems since the previous Lanning Square School was razed about a decade ago before an undelivered promise to rebuild.
"I love the teaching," she said. "My kids get the right education with their teachers."
While the new schools are inventive, they are not a particularly bold step. They're intended to have many similarities with the publicly funded charter schools that have been operating in New Jersey's cities for 15 years.
The new schools would differ from the charter schools in that they would be part of local school districts, and not operate as separate entities. Like charter schools, they would be funded by the local school board. But they would receive more money per pupil — 95 percent of the public school's allocation, rather than the 90 percent charters receive.
The schools, like some charters, could have longer hours and more school days.
One key difference is that they would be housed in new buildings. And while state and local tax dollars set aside for public schools could be one funding source, the state would not offer additional money for construction as it does for traditional public schools.
Perhaps because the law represents a relatively small change, it was adopted with support from Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature and with the blessing of the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, which opposes aspects of many of Christie's ideas to overhaul the public school system.
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the union, said the group agreed because lawmakers listened to their suggestions for changes.
A provision that would privatize existing schools was removed, as was one that would allow for-profit companies to run the new schools. Baker said the teachers union also supported the bill because it gives educators in the new schools collective bargaining rights.
"It's just another of a series of things that NJEA has supported," Baker said. "There may be an intent to mislead that the NJEA is opposed to making changes, and we're not."