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Striking new tone, Chris Christie says education reform is led by GOP

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Christie counting down the days to the end of the legislative session in Garfield, N.J.,(Mel Evans/AP)

Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, said Thursday that Republican politicians are leading the way for better educational opportunities for poor and minority children through voucher programs for private schools, while Democrats passively stand by or obstruct their efforts. The partisan framing of his education agenda is a bit of a departure from Christie's earlier praise of President Barack Obama's education reforms, and may hint at how the issue will play out in the presidential campaign. Mitt Romney said Wednesday that President Obama's lack of support for the voucher program in Washington, D.C., is "inexcusable."

Christie made the remarks Thursday at the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice's annual policy summit in Jersey City. The groups advocate for the formation of more charter schools and for state-funded vouchers for low-income children in failing schools who want to attend private schools. Christie said it was "ironic" that he, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana—all Republicans—were the national political leaders vying to become leaders on school choice.

Christie has pushed for a voucher bill since taking office in 2009 in New Jersey, where he faces strong opposition from the teachers union, which says the state should instead focus on improving struggling public schools. Daniels and Jindal have both passed sweeping voucher programs in their states; Jindal signed his into law just last month.

"I"ll try as hard as I can not to be partisan, but how ironic is it that when Betsy [DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children] was talking about the people I'm competing with to get up on the stage of school choice, that we're competing with a Republican governor of Louisiana and a Republican governor of Indiana, all of whom are kind of the nephews of the Republican governor in Florida, who got all of this moving in the first place," he said, referring to Jeb Bush. "You know, I don't want to make this partisan, but let's face it—and I say this in urban communities all the time—you continue to vote for these folks, put them in office, and they continue to not address the needs of your families and your children."

Each of the three Republican governors, along with other politicians, has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney on the Republican presidential ticket. If one of them is chosen, the topic of K-12 education might make it into the election spotlight in a cycle that has up to now been dominated by the economy.

One of the most notable education mentions of the primary season was then-candidate Rick Santorum calling Obama a "snob" for saying every child should go to college or get some post-high school training. Christie criticized those remarks at the time, and said in Thursday's speech that "education is the path to redemption" and that he wants every parent to feel the pride of his or her child making it to college.

Up to now, Obama's education agenda has enjoyed bipartisan support.

Last year, Christie called Obama's secretary of education, Arne Duncan, a "great ally," and said he backs Obama's education priorities. In March, he said on MSNBC that Obama "deserves credit" for advancing education reforms. The Obama administration hasn't supported voucher programs, but has pressured states to increase the number of charter schools and to reform their teacher tenure and evaluation systems through the national Race to the Top program.

The teacher evaluation reforms in particular have irked the national teachers unions at times, but the National Education Association has nonetheless endorsed Obama for 2012.

Christie, meanwhile, has been locked in a bitter battle with his state's teachers union. In his speech, he called the union's leaders bullies and said they "beat on their enemies ... who happen to speak out on behalf of children." The union says Christie's voucher program would siphon money away from public schools.

During his speech, Christie rattled off education statistics from his state, including the dismal graduation rates in Camden, Newark and other cities. But he also told several personal stories, including how his financially struggling parents borrowed money to buy a house in Livingston so Christie wouldn't have attend school in Newark. He closed the speech by saying that he wants everyone to have the opportunity to feel the joy he felt when his eldest son got into college in December. He described seeing his wife, Mary Pat, washing dishes at home after hearing the news. "I came up behind her and I grabbed her by the waist from behind and I whispered 'We made it,'" he said. "It was a wonderful evening for the two of us."

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