Breaking The Logjam
In New Jersey, an energetic young politician tries an unconventional approach to save decaying schools...
By Philip F. Lawler
The Catholic World Report
Jersey City is not lovely. Located just across the Hudson River from
Manhattan, under the outstretched arm of the Statue of Liberty, the city was
once an inviting new home for the immigrants who came into the United States
through processing centers on nearby Ellis Island. Toward the end of the 19th
century, Jersey City was a busy manufacturing center, providing plenty of jobs
for a population dominated by immigrant families. But decades of mismanagement,
and a remarkable history of political corruption, have produced a classic
example of 20th-century urban blight.
Historians can trace Jersey City's current malaise back to the regime of
Frank Hague, who put together a powerful political machine to ensure his
election as mayor in 1917. Hague -- who scoffed at good-government crusaders
with his unapologetic slogan "I am the law" -- presided over the city's
affairs from behind a desk designed specially to suit his political style. When
Hague pushed a lever on his side of the desk, a drawer would open on the
opposite side; visitors to the office were expected to place envelopes, filled
with cash in that drawer. By the time he relinquished power, Hague -- whose
salary never exceeded $8,000 -- was a millionaire many times over. And Jersey
City was in trouble.
Through his political heirs, Hague left a lasting imprint on Jersey City
politics. Padded payrolls and inflated contracts were the norm, honest public
service and efficient administration the exceptions. Over the years the city's
neighborhoods deteriorated, while the tax rate soared; manufacturers moved their
operations elsewhere, while criminals moved in.
By 1992, two-thirds of the city's 230,600 residents belonged to racial
minority groups; 41 percent spoke a language other than English at home; 41
percent were enrolled in government welfare programs. The per-capita income was
a lowly $10,000; 25 percent of the city's school-age children came from
households living below the federal government's official poverty level. There
were some grand old homes in the city -- relics of happier times -- but a
national realtors' organization described Jersey City as one of the most
expensive sites in the United States for prospective homebuyers.
Then in 1992, Jersey City had another unhappy reminder of its shady political
history. Mayor Gerald McCann was forced to leave office, to begin serving a
prison term after his conviction on corruption charges. The troubled city
scheduled a special election, to select a new leader to serve out the
seven-month remainder of McCann's term.
participated in that unique election, and one emerged from the scramble
victorious, although he won only 16 percent of the popular vote. He was, by most
ordinary standards, the least likely candidate on the ballot.
Bret Schundler was a young (34-year-old) Harvard graduate. A deeply
religious. Presbyterian, he headed evangelization efforts for an undergraduate
Christian fellowship, participated in several ambitious service projects, and
even left school for six months to live on an Israeli kibbutz.
As a youngster Schundler had planned to become a Presbyterian minister.
Eventually his career path turned in a different direction, but he retained his
commitment to helping people, and he came to the belief that American people
need help especially in the troubled inner cities. So he and his young wife
bought a home in Jersey City, and spent most of their evenings and weekends
deeply engaged in community work.
During the week Schundler commuted to Wall Street, where he enjoyed an
extraordinarily successful career in the bond-trading business. As his personal
fortune grew, he felt an even stronger call to public service. By 1992 he was
financially secure, ready and willing to risk a mayoral campaign.
Still, there was a problem. Schundler was not a newcomer to politics. In
addition to his work with neighborhood groups, he had served as the statewide
coordinator for the presidential campaign of Senator Gary Hart in 1984. But
through the years Schundler had lost faith in the liberal Democratic ideals that
Hart embraced; in 1990 he switched his registration, and became a Republican.
In Jersey City, 70 percent of all voters are registered Democrats. Only a
paltry 6 percent are Republicans. Since Frank Hague won in 1917, no Republican
had sat behind the mayor's desk. When Schundler emerged from the crowded field
in the special election of 1992, winning with less than one-fifth of the popular
vote, most observers considered his victory a fluke. Democratic Party chieftains
planned to unite behind a single candidate in 1993, to recapture the seat and
drive Schundler out of office. Then came the second
shock. After a bitterly contested campaign, which saw national Democratic
leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson come to Jersey City to mobilize black
voters against the incumbent, Schundler rang up a resounding electoral victory.
This time he captured a remarkable 68 percent of the popular vote -- in a city
where 70 percent of the voters were, theoretically, inclined toward his
Democratic opponent! The normally sober Wall Street Journal ran a
congratulatory editorial bearing the headline: "Earthquake Hits Jersey
How did he do it? As both an administrator and a candidate, Schundler
embraced some familiar tenets of Republican conservatism. He promised to cut
taxes, trim the public payroll, and crack down on crime in the city's slums. As
a new broom, sweeping clean after 75 years of entrenched Democratic leadership,
he realized some impressive economies in municipal administration. And as a
veteran volunteer worker, he commanded the respect of Jersey City's neighborhood
leaders -- especially in the inner-city neighborhoods that had traditionally
been Democratic strongholds.
But one pivotal belief -- one emphatic campaign promise -- set Schundler
apart from other young Republican conservatives. As he spoke to black and
Hispanic voters living in run-down neighborhoods, the young mayor pounded home
his commitment to reform the city's public schools. Time and again, Schundler
promised impoverished parents that he would give them a real choice in the
education of their children.
If Jersey City in general was an unhealthy patient, the urban public school
system in particular suffered from an apparently terminal illness. In 1990 the
state government had seized control of the city's schools, hoping to curb a
precipitous decline in academic standards. Still, despite an average expenditure
of $9,000 on each student, the urban schools were failing; most students did not
complete their high-school training.
By contrast, the city's private schools spent an average of $3,500 for each
high school student -- much less for elementary schools -- and 90 percent of all
their students earned a high-school diploma. The private schools were not elite
institutions; most of them were Catholic parochial schools, patronized by
families, that had to scrape and save to pay the modest tuition. But no one
denied that in Jersey City, the 25 percent of the student population enrolled in
those private schools were receiving a clearly superior education.
When the state took control of the Jersey City schools, only cockeyed
optimists expected any substantial improvement. Across the state, New Jersey
spends an average of over $10,000 per student, per year, on its public-school
system, and costs are rising faster than those in any other American state. Yet
the students' scores on standardized tests are falling (even faster than those
in most other states), and only 8 percent of the eighth-grade students in New
Jersey's public schools are fully competent in arithmetic.
Offering a choiceThe problem, Schundler concluded,
was not just the failure of Jersey City's public schools; it was the failure of
public schools everywhere. One academic survey after another has shown that
private and parochial schools offer a better educational product, at a fraction
of the price. Schundler insisted the public schools would improve if they were
exposed to competition. On the campaign trail, the new mayor asked inner-city
families whether they would prefer to choose their own children's schools, or
rely on the city government to choose for them. The answer to that question
became clear when Schundler won his overwhelming mandate from the voters in
Armed with that mandate, Schundler set out to offer a real educational choice
for the families of Jersey City. Toward that end, in 1994 Schundler launched the
"School Children First" bill in the state legislature. If approved, the bill
would give the families of Jersey City four options: they could send their
children to existing public schools; they could choose "alternative" schools
within the public system; they could establish their own "charter" schools; or
they could accept a "scholarship" from the government toward tuition at an
accredited private school.
The final proposal is easily the most controversial. Opponents of "school
choice" offer two arguments against it. First, noticing that many of America's
"private" schools are in fact Catholic parochial schools, they insist that a
"school choice" program is an effort to divert public funds toward the Catholic
Church. econd, pointing out that private schools sometimes cater to an elite
clientele, they argue that a "choice" program would offer unnecessary benefits
to affluent families. In the Jersey City case, both of those arguments collapse.
Mayor Schundler is obviously not a Catholic lobbyist; he is an elder in the
Presbyterian church. And his program is obviously not a ploy to benefit wealthy
families; precious few wealthy families can be found in Jersey City.
The "original sin" of public educationProponents of
educational choice have been battling for change in the American public schools
throughout the early 1990s. School-choice legislation, in one form or another,
has been proposed in 34 of the 50 states. Dozens of localities now allow
students to choose from among the local public schools, with the city of
Milwaukee and the state of Michigan currently offering the most ambitious
But Schundler's proposal represents a giant step beyond those experiments; he
would allow families to choose private and parochial schools as well. And his
chances of winning state approval for the plan were markedly improved in 1993
when -- with strong campaign support from Schundler himself -- Christine Todd
Whitman was elected New Jersey's governor. Governor Whitman's stand on school
choice was clear: "Choice within the public-school system, if the entire system
is failing, doesn't do the children any good."
To explain his commitment to non- public schools, Schundler offers a unique
analysis of American educational history. Even in the days before the War of
Independence, he points out, the American colonies had community schools,
supported by state funds. In Puritan Massachusetts, those schools would be
conducted by Puritan schoolmasters; in Catholic Maryland, by Catholics. That
tradition of community schooling continued through the Civil War.
In the latter part of the 19th century, however, as the tide of immigrants
from southern and central Europe threatened to break the Protestant dominance in
American society, a strong political reaction set in. America's current public
school systems, Schundler believes, were constructed "directly as a result of
the Nativism that was predominant in the late 19th century. In particular, they
were the result of Protestants who wanted to 'Protestantize' Catholic immigrants
and Jewish immigrants." He explains, "In these 'public schools' -- which was a
new term that came into being around that time -- you would teach 'American
values,' which in the minds of these people, meant Protestant values."
While the public-school system was born out of anti-Catholic bias, one direct
effect was the explosive growth of America's unique network of parochial
schools. Schundler voices his profound respect for the "flowering of America's
Catholic schools," but regrets the intolerance that fueled that growth. "One of
the great sins of American history," he says, "is that we moved away from
religious freedom and moved toward the establishment of civil religion."
As long as the Protestant majority held its cultural sway, that "civil
religion" provided the structure for a sound educational system, built on
principles that the vast majority of, Americans would accept. But then,
Schundler explains, "the dominant elites moved from being Protestant to being
humanist." And the trend continued, imperiling the soul of the educational
Today, he laments:
We've gone beyond that, where now the dominant philosophy -- in many of
our education schools, at least -- borders on radical skepticism: skepticism
about right and wrong .... when you say there's no such thing as right and
wrong -- that Nature doesn't have a nature.
Political alignmentsToday America's public schools
are dying. Academic standards are plummeting, while many Parents complain that
the schools have begun to undermine fundamental moral principles -- becoming
training-grounds for the moral skepticism Schundler describes. Virtually every
important political leader in the country can agree on the need for profound
To date, however, any bid for radical Reform -- any move toward real school
Choice -- has run into an immovable barrier: the entrenched political power of
the teachers' unions, jealously guarding their effective monopoly on American
education. In states like California, Arizona, and Colorado, when voters were
faced with referenda that would have allowed state educational vouchers to be
redeemed at private and parochial schools, the unions spent millions of dollars
to defeat the measures.
Still, proponents of educational vouchers are confident that as soon as one
state breaks the logjam -- as soon as one school system is opened up to real
educational choice -- the results will be so dramatic, and so positive, that the
other states will quickly follow suit. Schundler wants New Jersey to be that
pioneer state. And in Jersey City, where "the system was bankrupt educationally,
and bankrupt financially," there is nothing to lose.
No one doubts that the state's teachers' union, the New Jersey Education
Association (NJEA) will twist arms -- and twist hard -- to stop the drive toward
choice. In 1993, when Schundler sought to put a non-binding question before the
voters, asking Jersey City residents whether they supported educational choice,
lawyers backed by the NJEA went to court in a successful effort to strike the
question from the ballot. This year, the union has tacked an extra $50 onto the
dues paid by school teacher-members, planning to raise a $10 million war chest
to oppose Schundler's legislative plan.
On the other hand, while the unions will doggedly oppose school choice, New
Jersey's Catholic leadership has begun deploying its forces for a massive
campaign to support the "School Children First" bill. Early in June, New
Jersey's bishops hired three full-time organizers to set up local networks of
Catholic activists. In nearly identical letters that were written to every
pastor in the state, the bishops explained their "hope that these local
representatives will be the basis for generating large numbers of telephone
calls and letters to legislators at key times during the initiative." The
bishops called for the active involvement at the parish level, adding, "Your
role as pastor is crucial to the success of this endeavor."
In May, Schundler received even more encouraging news, in the results of a
statewide opinion poll on his initiative. A solid 62.5 percent of New Jersey
residents told pollsters that they approved of the school-choice plan, with 37
percent saying they would "strongly approve." Breaking down the results, the
pollsters found clear majority support for the measure among every sub-set of
voters, regardless of their racial, ethnic, economic, or educational background.
Boasting especially strong support from blacks (71.6 percent), Hispanics (64.2),
and lowerincome voters (68.2), Schundler was poised to begin his summer-long
drive, hoping for legislative approval of his plan sometime early in the autumn.
If he succeeds, there may be no limits on Schundler's political potential.
Prominent columnists have already begun speculating, about a future White House
campaign. A recent brochure put out by
the national Republican headquarters features four of conservatism's most
glamorous exponents: former President Ronald Reagan, former British Prime
Minister Margaret Thatcher, Senate Republican Leader Bob Dole, and the least
likely candidate, the mayor of unlovely Jersey City.
Philip F. Lawler is editor of Catholic World Report.