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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
July, 1994

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.

Nineteen candidates 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 City."

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 1993.

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 programs.

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 system.

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 educational reform.

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.


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Hudson County Facts Winter 2006 by Anthony Olszewski
Hudson County, New Jersey is a place of many firsts - including genocide and slavery.
Political corruption is a tradition here.
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