INTERVIEW: NJ Spotlight Sits Down With Democrat George Norcross

From The NJ Spotlight:

George Norcross — part Democratic power broker, part South Jersey businessman and cheerleader — has recently added a third attribute: self-proclaimed school reformer.

He has publicly backed a controversial tax-credit voucher bill called the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). He has talked about opening a network of charter schools in Camden. And he has grown ever more outspoken in criticizing the public sector unions that have lately made him Public Enemy No. 2 behind Gov. Chris Christie — especially the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

On Friday, Norcross sat down with NJ Spotlight to talk about where these education issues have come from and where they’re headed.

Fresh in his mind is the ongoing battles with the public unions, the latest chapter coming in their endorsements — or lack thereof — in the upcoming legislative elections.

But he also discussed charter schools and his own plans for Camden, as well as how and why he suddenly came to endorse the OSA. The following are excerpts from that conversation, held in the tenth floor conference room of Cooper Health Care, where he is board chairman.

….

URBAN SCHOOLS AND HOW (AND WHEN) HE GOT INVOLVED:

Norcross said his conversion to school reform clicked a year or two ago, when he was first touched by a family trying to get out of Camden schools. He said he came to realize that saving Camden would require saving its public schools, or at least the educational options open to its families.

In Camden, you have 1,500 to 2,500 kids who have a mom and/or dad with their hand raised wanting a seat outside the Camden [public schools]. That’s how I got involved, almost by accident. I was at a Cooper community event, three blocks from here, and a mother came up to me, no idea who she was. She said, “Mr. Norcross, I know you are, you are a powerful man, and I need your help. I thought she’d ask about a job. She said I have two children, I can’t get them out of Camden public schools, I can’t get in charter school, and I can’t afford a parochial school. I need you to do something to get them in charter school.” I thought I could do that, but then found out the real deal, and it’s a lottery-driven system, and because of the avoidance of the Democrats over the years in approving alternative education, charters and others, there were no seats available.

PLAN A: THE OPPORTUNITY SCHOLARSHIP ACT

Norcross’s most stunning stance has been in support of the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would open up private school vouchers to low-income students in selected districts. But he said it has gone too far and needs to come back its roots.

I liked [OSA] more when it was the original pilot program, when it was only three or four districts, and much smaller. And then some folks got carried away on a grandiose plan, taking it to 200 [schools] and a $1 billion plan. I’ve been advocate for quite a while to paring it back to a pilot with a sunset clause. Let’s see if it works, maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

I am a big believer in pilot programs, they have beginnings and they have ends, and they have to have measures. One of the things in OSA that I was always a big proponent of was that before they enter, the students have to be tested. And they have to be tested every year. So you can see at the end if it worked.

PLAN B: CHARTER SCHOOL CONVERSION

More recently, Norcross has been talking about charter schools as a key solution, either by opening new ones or allowing existing schools — private and public — to convert to charters.

I’m behind anything that opens seats instantaneously for kids. The Assembly passed a charter conversion for private schools. That will pass [in the Senate] at the end of this month in committee, maybe full Senate, and I am trying to get the Catholic church [on board] in a desperate way. They have four schools in the city that cost $1.5 million to subsidize and 80 percent of the students are not even Catholic. Those schools are going to close, or they will convert them to charter schools that they can operate themselves through a separate nonprofit, and take the $13,000 per student from the state and give world-class education. I don’t get what’s wrong with that picture.

To read the full interview, go to http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/11/0808/0042/