Just a few days after his State of the State, Governor Chris Christie took his case for increased accountability for the state's failing inner city schools and tenure reform to an overwhelmingly African American community where he got less than 5 percent of the vote in 2009.
"There are probably more people in this church than voted for me in 2009," Christie said to the laughing African-American audience in Irvington, N.J.
Governor Christie recounted his own personal experience as a former native of Newark himself. He told the crowd at the Christian Love Baptist Church that when he was five his parents borrowed money to leave Newark and buy a home in nearby suburban Livingston expressly so that Christie could benefit from that suburban town's well respected public schools.
Christie said he doubted he would have become governor if he had stayed in the Newark public schools, which governor said are failing the city's children despite taxpayers spending more than $20,000 a student per year.
"How many children are sitting in the Newark school system today that have both the brains and the heart to be governor but will never be because we did not have the guts to stand up and say the system needs to be changed,” he asked the audience. “It needs to be fixed and we need to worry more about the future of our children and less about the comfort of the adults running the school system.”
Christie's reprise of his State of the State pledge to require all of the state's non-violent drug offenders get treatment for their addiction rather than incarceration prompted both amens and applause from the audience.
But the Governor did get tough questions and counter arguments.
Tamara Cunningham, an administrator and teacher at New Jersey City University, said she works with students coming out of the state's inner city public schools who have to work extra hard to catch-up.
Cunningham asked Christie why the state had cut higher education funding for several years. Christie conceded he had been part of that trend but did say that in his budget address next month he was hoping to actually increase state support for higher ed construction.
Donna Jackson, a Newark community activist said any meaningful improvement plan for inner city schools had to also deal with the impact of increasing gun violence on children.
"If there is a homicide in Newark those kids in that family that are affected, when those kids go to school the next day there is a problem," said Jackson "If we don't have, and we don't have it: the clinicians, if we don't have the people inside the school to make sure these things turn around these kids continue to carry that."
She and other activists have started a dialogue directly with Christie. Jackson said she supported some of Christie's agenda including his plan to require that non-violent drug offenders get treatment for their addiction instead of incarceration. But she says she does not support the governor's push for more charter schools and vouchers because Jackson believes that will just take money away from existing public schools.