New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was one of the featured guests, along with Rev. Al Sharpton, Howard Dean, Michelle Rhee and many others on a show with a special focus on education reform.
Fort Lee Interim Superintendent of Schools Steven Engravalle was the main subject of a pre-recorded piece that aired on both shows, and he also joined Christie, Newark Superintendent of Schools Cami Anderson and Morning Joe hosts Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Willie Geist, in a live segment.
Sporting his now trademark Superman socks, which he proudly showed off when asked to do so, Engravalle talked about how Fort Lee schools have improved in the past couple of years.
“I’ve got a tremendous staff,” Engravalle said. “The majority of teachers are tremendous; we’re very, very lucky.”
Attributing Fort Lee’s recent successes in education to “a change of culture,” Engravalle said, “It’s a change of supporting only the superstars and the rock star teachers.”
“Instead of spending the majority of our time on that 5 percent that are the problems, spend your time supporting that 95 percent,” he said. “That’s really what we did.”
Asked by Geist how his experiences as a teacher have informed the way he approaches his role as a superintendent, Engravalle said, “I’m still a teacher.”
“I never wanted to be a superintendent of schools,” he said. “I wanted to be a teacher, and I wanted to be a coach. I stayed late. I came in early. I worked hard for kids.”
Also making a cameo appearance on the morning show in a brief interview with Geist was Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, who talked about how the high school has “grown” since he graduated in 1981.
“[Engravalle’s] got tremendous energy,” Sokolich said. “We have a very energetic board as well. And I’m on the record as saying, look, if you want to guarantee a good, strong community, you need good, strong schools. The reverse of that is if you don’t have a good district, you’re going to have a weak community, and we want to set the pace here in Bergen County.”
Sokolich said the “biggest change” in local education over the last few years is that “teachers have become a lot more unified.”
“Working together, communicating to the district, communicating with the board, communicating with the students, and it’s been a unified effort, which is important,” Sokolich said.
Other guests on Morning Joe included Mike Barnicle, Harold Ford Jr., Jon Meacham, Randi Weingarten, Gov. Jack Markell, D-Del. and Gov. Dannel Malloy, D-Conn.
But it was the governor of New Jersey who stole the show in the high school gym, railing against teachers’ unions but praising teachers, and touting the increased state aid to schools in his recently unveiled budget.
Christie said teachers deserve a union that is “as good as” they are, and said he’d like to be able to pay top-performing teachers more for “excellence.”
“I’d like to make sure that we don’t guarantee somebody a job after three years and one day even if they’re not performing,” the governor said. “I want you to be held accountable.”
Noting that New Jersey spends more per pupil “than any state in America,” averaging $17,700 per student statewide and in excess of $24,000 in schools in some of the state’s bigger cities, Christie said, “We want accountability in return for that.”
“I want to pay the better teacher more,” he said. “But I also want the liberty to have superintendents like the one you met [Engravalle] and principals to be able to say when a teacher’s not performing we have an objective review process to go through that. And if they don’t improve, and they’re not performing, then they need to go.”
He added, “We shouldn’t be paying people just to occupy space, which in some schools in New Jersey we’re doing.”
The governor also said that teachers’ performance should be evaluated based on improvement and “not a raw score.”
“That’s a fair measure, no matter what child you’re dealing with,” he said. “What every parent wants every year, even for kids who have developmental disabilities [or] other challenges, all they want to see is that their kid reached their maximum potential—improve.”
Asked where he “found the money” to ramp-up education funding for the state, Christie said, “By cutting spending in other places.”
He highlighted his budget, which he said would increase K-12 spending by $213 million.
“It’s now at an all-time high in New Jersey history—$8.8 billion in state aid to K-12 education,” Christie said.
On the subject of successes in education reform, the governor said he hopes the best is yet to come.
“I pray I haven’t had my greatest success yet because we haven’t done enough—nearly enough—yet,” he said. “And I’ve had a lot of resistance. The last two years have been about fights—about fights to try to get people in New Jersey awake to the idea that it is immoral to spend $24,000 per pupil per year in Newark and have kids graduating at a stunningly low rate.”
He also said people in Fort Lee should care about what’s going on in Newark because their tax dollars help pay for education there.
“Ninety-plus percent of the funding that goes to Newark comes from the state income tax,” Christie said.
The show, which producers previously touted as a “special town hall meeting,” did include a roughly 15-minute segment during which Christie, Rhee and Sharpton fielded a total of five questions from members of the by-invitation-only audience.
A 15-year-old girl named Adrienne went off topic, asking the governor why he recently vetoed a bill on gay marriage that was approved by both the state Assembly and Senate.
Christie acknowledged that people in New Jersey have “very different opinions about that,” but said he believes marriage should be “between one man and one woman.”
“So what I’ve said to folks is, after vetoing the bill, let’s put it on the ballot,” Christie said. “If the majority of people in New Jersey want to have same-sex marriage, then vote for it, and I’ll be governed by it. But I don’t think that’s a decision that should be made by 121 people in Trenton alone. It’s a major change in the way we’ve governed our society.”
To view video clips from Friday morning’s broadcast from Fort Lee High School, visit the Morning Joe website.