The story behind Chris Christie's reelection win: education reform

November 06, 2013

By Heather Long

If you lean Republican, there was only one story you were watching on election day this year: the re-election of Chris Christie as governor of New Jersey with a whopping 60% in a state that is anything but a conservative stronghold. This looked more like the election results from Alabama than New Jersey.

But there was another story to Christie's re-election – and no, I don't mean just his blossoming chances for the 2016 presidential race. Christie did a lot in his first term, but his signature reforms have been in education. Most of his campaign ads centered on education, including the much talked about one featuring African-American basketball legend Shaquille O'Neal.

The GOP is known for a lot of wacko stances at the moment, but one of the few areas where it's leading the way – and Christie is a particular champion – is education. The reality is America still has failing schools. Years of testing and online reviews have only reinforced what most people already knew about which schools are great, which are good and which are horrible. Unfortunately, most of the worst schools are in poor urban (and occasionally rural) communities.

I have told this story before, but it bears repeating. The Harrisburg School District in the state capital of Pennsylvania was a mess when I was in high school in a neighboring district in the 1990s. Students were failing out at alarming rates and those who stayed were graduating with questionable credentials. On top of that, there were reports of corruption among officials in charge. Roughly 15 years later, despite numerous changes in leadership and "reform" efforts, the situation is much the same. Parents are caught trying to falsify their addresses in order to send their kids to neighboring school districts, anything to get them out of the Harrisburg district. That's how bad it is, and everyone in the region knows it.

This story is repeated in communities across America.

How do you break that cycle? The short answer is you have to get kids out of that system and/or you have to hold teachers and administrators even more accountable (and reward them when they do produce miracles, as many dedicated teachers do).

Christie has done that in New Jersey, and it has won him inroads with minorities who understand exactly how critical it is to have better opportunities for their kids. The "garden state" now has more charter schools and a teacher tenure program that rewards success and makes it harder for mediocre teachers to stay on.

These efforts got a boost in October when independent researchers from Stanford University and the University of Virginia looked at a similar teacher tenure and rating system that's been in place for a few years now in Washington DC. The researchers found that the program was doing exactly what it was supposed to do: weed out the worst teachers and force the next lowest performing ones to improve. It's not a perfect system, but it's starting to get the right results.