Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Christie's Bewildering Race Card

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is renewing his fight for the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA), a corporate tax credit-based school voucher plan for poor kids in urban school districts where the failure of government schools is most prominent. As columnist Tom Moran notes in his op-ed In Battle Between Christie and Oliver, Poor School kids Are the Losers, the bill has been stalled for more than two years by Democrat Assembly speaker Sheila Oliver, despite the fact that the act is believed to have enough support from her own party to pass.

This act is a big deal to Christie, because his education agenda is very ambitious, as noted below. But in a town hall meeting in the city of Paterson, Christie mysteriously took the moral low road. Paterson is predominantly black, and so was his audience. That wouldn't even be worth mentioning, except that Christie brought up the issue of race. As Moran notes:

It all started Tuesday at a town hall meeting at a black church. The governor was pointing to a grand irony in the fight over education reform in New Jersey. He is the one trying to fix failing urban schools, he said, and he’s a white guy from the suburbs. 
"We have an African-American female speaker of the Assembly [Oliver], who represents communities like East Orange and Orange where there are failing schools all over," he said. "And she refuses to let people vote on this bill."

As Moran notes, "There was no malice in what he said. 

In fact, his core point was undeniably true, and was embraced by the Rev. Reginald Jackson, a hero in the fight against racism in New Jersey. 
But none of that mattered. By the end of the day, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, the state’s highest-ranking African-American, was beyond furious. A NAACP leader was demanding an apology. And Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) was comparing the governor to Bull Connor, as if Christie had unleashed the dogs on peaceful demonstrators.

There undoubtedly is a double here, because Jackson, who supports the Opportunity Scholarship Act, always gets a pass. 

But, that's beside the point. As I said in my comment:

Why Christie would play the "race card" is really bewildering, since the Opportunity Scholarship Act, and the issue of education generally, has nothing to do with race. Christie himself views the act as only a first step toward the goal of ensuring school choice for every child and every parent statewide, as he told the American Federation for Children in 2010.

Rather than get bogged down in inflammatory political posturing, he should be laying the groundwork for his ambitious goal of universal school choice, the moral imperative of our time.

Very disappointing.

Very disappointing, indeed. Christie went from having the momentum in his fight for school choice to handing the moral high ground to his opponent. Oliver said, "I have never, nor will I ever, reference the governor’s ethnicity, or make a veiled reference to the color of his skin, yet that’s exactly what Gov. Christie did today when discussing me, as if it was the 19th century."

So now, "It sets us backward," Assemblyman Troy Singleton, an African-American supporter of the voucher bill, said.  "There was some movement from the Speaker, and now the governor has interjected race and gender, and that clouds it. It makes it difficult to have an earnest conversation."

Christie is viewed as a savvy politician, and a leading contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. Though a very mixed bag from an individual rights perspective, his bold school choice agenda, even though a long shot, had the potential to put the whole government school establishment on trial. Now, he may not even get his OSA off the launch pad.

A sad, inexplicable spectacle indeed, considering that the moral high road is the natural property of school choice advocates, and education free market  proponents generally.

Related Reading:

The comment thread following my above remarks, where I had more to say.

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