Jackson, the executive director of the New Jersey Black Ministers Council and a Newark community leader, described himself as a Democrat and noted that he endorsed Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009 when Christie first ran.
But Jackson today said state Democratic lawmakers have disappointed him by refusing to pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would give children in low-performing urban schools a publicly funded scholarship to attend a private school or another public school instead.
State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the Democratic candidate for governor this year, opposes the bill. Jackson called Buono a "wonderful, warm and genuine person," then launched a scathing critique on her party.
"A quality education is a civil right, and it is sad for me to see my party, which embraced the Civil Rights movement, now in New Jersey blocking low-income and minority children from escaping the slavery of failing schools," Jackson said at a Statehouse news conference, standing next to Christie and a group of black ministers from across the state.
Democrats who have thwarted the bill so far, including Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex), have said the state's top priority should be improving public education, not using public funds to fund private schools. The state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, says there's no evidence supporting the use of vouchers.
Jackson said he agreed that public schools should be fixed, but that vouchers are crucial in the meantime as an "emergency exit" because hundreds of thousands of mostly minority students in low-performing schools have not received a quality education for more than 30 years and "tens of thousands more have dropped out of school."
"(Buono) does not recognize the basic unfairness of making low-income parents wait without a choice for their children," he said.
Jackson said he waited to see if, in the absence of the full bill, Democrats would approve a $2 million pilot program for school vouchers that Christie proposed in this year's budget. But Democratic leaders removed the program before passing the $33 billion budget last month, which Christie then signed.
The minister said he endorsed Christie despite his veto last year of a minimum-wage increase proposed by Democrats, and despite the high unemployment rate among blacks during the Republican governor's first term. He described it as a "personal endorsement"; the nonprofit Black Ministers Council, a tax-exempt religious group, cannot by law endorse candidates.
Former Republican governors Thomas Kean and Christie Whitman both won Jackson's endorsement while battling Democrats. In later years, Jackson threw his support behind former Democratic Gov. James McGreevey and then Corzine.
"I've heard the cries of those who criticize this governor about unemployment, increasing poverty and the minimum wage," Jackson said. "But I also know that the problems they speak about are exacerbated by thir policies, particularly regarding education."
He added, "While I agree the minimum wage should be increased, a good education to get a good paying job is the best way to live above the minimum wage."
Christie said Democrats won't send him the voucher bill and removed the $2 million pilot program because "they're caving in to the special interests who fund their campaigns and who provide boots on the ground for them in their elections" -- a veiled shot at the teachers' union.
"I absolutely believe it is immoral, an absolutely immoral position to say that children have to wait for us to fix the public schools for them to have an opportunity for a better education and as a result, an opportunity to reach their highest potential," Christie said, adding later, "The fact is I think we need to have a revolution at the polls. Candidly, I think the Democratic Party takes inner-city votes for granted."
The Rev. Kenneth Saunders of Piscataway and the Rev. Ronald Owens of Metuchen responded on behalf of Buono's campaign today in a joint statement, saying Christie was only reaching out with "empty rhetoric" to black and Latino groups this year because he needs their votes.
"Governor Christie has done almost nothing to revitalize our cities, leaving nearly 400,000 people looking for jobs, our schools in desperate need of repairs, and little action to reduce gun violence," they said. "Throughout her career, Senator Buono has stood on the side of helping the people underserved by this administration. She has pushed to ensure that all children, no matter where they were born, have the same chance to receive a quality education and has fought tirelessly to stop the damaging consequences of gun violence."
Jackson was a co-signer, with 42 others, of a letter to Christie last month urging him to speed up the pace of school repairs and construction in Newark. The state's Schools Development Authority, which Christie has control over, has moved too slowly in the last three and a half years, they wrote.
"I'm always for enhancing and improving school facilities," Jackson said today. But in the end, he made his endorsement based on the vouchers, and said he was disheartened by black Democrats whose districts house failing schools.
"My disappointment is that every day, they see children who are not getting a quality education, and that doesn't seem to move them," he said. "There's not a single African-American legislator who has had or who has a child of school age whose child goes to public school."