New Jersey has failed in its commitment to education, Gov. Chris Christie said during a visit to a Teaneck synagogue Sunday morning.

Speaking before a crowd of more than 500 people at the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center’s second Legislative Breakfast at Congregation Keter Torah, Christie called for more competition in the state’s educational system. The governor long has been a supporter of vouchers to allow for school choice, and he brought that message to an audience that largely pays into the public school system with its taxes on top of paying tuition for private religious day-school education. Christie, however, focused his message on the need to provide options for families in failing public school districts, without specifically addressing vouchers as an option for day-school affordability.

“I believe we need to provide each and every child in New Jersey with an outstanding education,” Christie said. “No matter where you live, no matter what your economic background, no matter your ethnicity, no matter what faith you observe, the one thing we know is quality education opens doors for each person, no matter who they are or where they come from.”

New Jersey spends more money on public education than does any other state, according to Christie; that, he said, is reflective of New Jerseyans’ attitude toward the importance of education. Of New Jersey’s 2,200 public schools, however, 200 are failing, the governor said. Calling those schools “failure factories,” Christie called for fixing the underlying system that created them. The problem, he said, is a lack of accountability and competition in public education.

“In every other aspect of American life, we believe that competition creates excellence,” Christie said. “In every other area of American life, we say that our system of democracy, our system of free enterprise, our system of challenging everyone to be their best and reach their full potential is what contributes mightily to the idea that excellence is available for everyone in this country in a way that is different than most countries around the world – except in public education.”

School choice is a message Christie has repeated throughout his gubernatorial term. The governor, who faces a re-election challenge from Democrat Barbara Buono on November 5, has been a supporter of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would provide tax credit-funded vouchers to students in seven of the state’s lowest-performing school districts, helping allow them to attend schools of their choice. The act, however, has faced opposition in the legislature, as well as from the New Jersey Education Association and proponents of church-state separation.

Not having education choice is the greatest irony in New Jersey today, the governor said. He pointed a finger at elected officials in failing school districts, who, he asserted, turn a deaf ear to thousands in Camden, Newark, and Paterson on waiting lists for charter schools because they cannot afford to move to better school districts.

“If we’re truly going to say that our society is one where competition fosters greatness, then it is time to bring competition to education,” Christie said. “It’s decision time.”

There is a future for school choice in New Jersey, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) told the Jewish Standard, but she asked who would foot the bill for vouchers. A $1,000 voucher to 4,000 day-school families would add $4 million to the budget, she said.

The senator does support providing state aid to secular areas of parochial schools, such as the existing busing, technology, and nursing aid already available to day schools. Before the governor took the podium, OU Advocacy honored Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) for their sponsorship of special-education bills now in the legislature that would allow public schools to refer special needs students to religious schools.

Under state law, school districts are allowed to fund nonsectarian private education for special-needs students. The bills before the legislature would allow special-needs students to be placed in accredited private religious schools, with state funding provided for the secular components of those students’ education.

“Special-needs children, whichever school they go to, deserve the best from the state,” Weinberg said. “We need to get that bill passed. That will be a step forward for the parents here, who have special-needs kids and struggle to keep their children in day schools.”

U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9th Dist.), who also attended Sunday’s breakfast, agreed with Christie that some money in public schools is wasted, but remained opposed to the idea of universal vouchers for private schooling. He did, however, voice his support for funding for aspects of private education.

“I believe in special support for health issues, special education, transportation, many of the things we can carve out that are constitutionally correct. But I will not accept universal vouchers,” Pascrell said.

Others in the audience appreciated Christie’s message but wanted more specifics.

“You want to know how he’s going to do it, how other people can help,” said one audience member from East Brunswick who requested anonymity. “How do you make those institutions that are successful the model for everybody to follow?”

“There’s always room for choice,” Barry Albalah of Haworth said. “If we don’t have choice, we have nothing. We need to keep choice available to all of us.”

Day-school tuition can run more than $15,000 for primary school and upward of $20,000 for high school. That is on top of property taxes that fund the public schools that day-school families chose not to use.

“Families who send their kids to nonpublic schools are hurting,” said Josh Pruzansky, the New Jersey regional director of OU Advocacy. “It’s a lot of money they’re spending on tuition on top of their property taxes – 60 percent which go to fund education – and then getting very little back from their investment. It’s time that our legislators understand that message.”

Pruzansky hopes that the breakfast’s attendees will become active lobbyists for school choice, but he noted that OU Advocacy’s message is not anti-public school. Education is a nonpartisan issue, and school vouchers are just one of the options the organization is examining, along with educational tax credits and better funding for public schools, he said.

“Make public schools stronger,” Pruzansky said. “But at the same time, help these families out to decide and choose what school works best for their child and give every child the opportunity to succeed. It’s not one size fits all.”

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Gov. Chris Christie addresses the Legislative Breakfast of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center on his vision for education reform.