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Bret Schundler Media Archives

The Battle For American Schools

Originally appeared in the Rush Limbaugh Letter, September, 1993

GREETINGS ONCE MORE, fellow bomb-throwers, and welcome to the twelfth highly penetrating, incisive and insightful issue of The Limbaugh Letter, the country's fastest-growing political newsletter. A recent U.S. News & World Report cover story about me describes the nearly 350,000 of you who subscribe as "patriotic." And so you no doubt are... though the writer employs the term tongue-in-cheek, as liberals are wont to do. He does not mention that you are also engaged, thinking individuals in pursuit of excellence -- while enjoying life. A truly dangerous mix.

Though school is never out at the Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies, I have put together a back-to-school issue in honor of the fall season. This issue, I introduce you to Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler, who won a stunning electoral victory in a Democratic stronghold after campaigning on a school choice platform. Education is one of the fiercest cultural skirmishes currently being waged, and each of you needs to be informed about what is at stake. So sharpen your pencils, friends and fellow scholars, and get ready to join...

Last November, when Republican Bret Schundler was elected Mayor of Jersey City, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial titled "Earthquake!" Schundler is someone to watch, my friends, especially as a key player in the battle for school choice.

Rush: One of the things that fascinates me is you ran Gary Hart's New Jersey campaign in 1984, and then seven years later became a Republican. I always love to ask former Democrats who've become Republicans: Why? What was the catalyst?

Schundler: I saw Hart as trying to change the Democratic Party, make it more responsive to people rather than special interests. Over time, I became less hopeful that this Democratic Party had any interest in becoming more responsive. But what I saw happening in the Republican Party attracted me --

Rush: -- In 1991! This was supposedly when the Republican Party was down and out, having sacrificed the legacy of Reagan. And that's when you found it attractive.

Schundler: People like Jack Kemp and Newt Gingrich were talking about the need for a pro-active Republican Party, a Party that commits itself to addressing problems, for instance, in the cities. Other Republicans have always cared about the problems in the cities. But some have advised that we should just stop doing what the Democrats have been doing.

Which may not be a bad recommendation when it comes to the welfare programs that breed dependence. Simply stopping those programs might be a good thing. But it's important to have a positive alternative. When you talk about something like school vouchers, you are accepting the responsibility to marshal public resources so that poor children can have the opportunity to get a good education. You're saying the money won't be controlled by politicians, who may want to spend it on themselves and in the best interests of their friends.

Rush: Now that's the salient point: poor children. The school voucher idea, parental choice, is aimed at seeing to it that poor children have as much access to quality education as the children of the elite. Most opponents characterize vouchers as something that leaves the poor out. Why do you think it accomplishes the opposite?

Schundler: It's funny that Clinton -- and others who call vouchers elitist because they allow children to go to private school -- sends his daughter to private school. Ted Kennedy and many in the vanguard of the anti-voucher effort send their children to private school.

Rush: Judy Woodruff and Al Hunt's kids go to school with Chelsea.

Schundler: The public schools today are under a strangle hold. The many good teachers in the public schools are not allowed to exert real authority in their classrooms because all sorts of rules have been imposed by politicians. Teachers should have authority to run their classrooms to the best of their ability, and parents should be able to evaluate the job the teacher and school are doing and decide whether they're cutting the mustard. School choice creates national accountability and a national orientation toward performance -- because if the school is not doing the job, the parent can go somewhere else.

That kind of competition is inherent in everything else we do. The belief in people having power over their lives is fundamental to America. Suppose a politician told you: "A lot of people are uneducated. A lot of people are poor. A lot of people use drugs. These people don't know what's good for them. So we're going to get rid of elections. We're just going to have honest, good politicians decide what's good for you." We'd never accept that. Yet that's exactly what we let them tell us with regard to the education of our children.

Rush: I agree with you on the self-determinism and self-reliance of individuals with regard to the education system. If you had to stake out a position, would you argue this approach economically as well?

Schundler: There are rights and responsibilities we want to ensure for all Americans. I think we do want to create a climate of opportunity for every child -- even a child born to a crack-addicted, homeless woman. Providing an education through vouchers for that child will cost taxpayers dollars.

But there has to be a balance as you provide economic benefits such as housing, food stamps, and the like. That balance should be workfare, as opposed to welfare. It doesn't help someone to let him just be a taker. Workfare helps people realize they can be productive, that they can contribute. By instituting a workfare requirement, I think we elevate the spirits of those who need help. And if someone's able, but not willing to work, in my book we shouldn't give him any benefits.

Rush: Amen. Now, you were elected with 68 percent of the vote in a city of 230,000 with a 65 percent minority population -- 55 percent Hispanic and African American. You're 34, a Harvard graduate, a former Wall Street investment counselor. Jersey City has only 6 percent registered Republicans, and you are the first Republican Mayor since 1917. You have cut 270 municipal jobs through attrition. You've cut taxes. You've put 100 deskbound cops on the beat. This is not supposed to be able to happen anywhere -- least right across the river from Manhattan. How in the world did you win? And did you campaign on this school voucher reform?

Schundler: Yes. We did campaign on all these things.

Rush: You know why this is important? Because our institutions and the media are controlled by people who put forth the notion that what you've done is not possible. So your achievement should inspire a whole lot of other people not to give up.

Schundler: That's precisely right. This city is a very ethnic, immigrant city here on the footsteps of Ellis Island. It's also a very Democratic city, with 70 percent Democratic registration. Per capita income is $10,000, which also suggests it's a very poor city. This means Jersey City is a place where a lot of people are struggling. And when you talk to people who are struggling, you find they are more jaded and more skeptical about the benevolence of politicians than just about anybody. If you go to a lot of housing projects in America, you will be scandalized by the conditions. You'll see grafitti on the walls. Broken fixtures. You'll see drug dealing going on all day long in the open, as if it's not even illegal. You'll see glass in the children's play area, where they should be able to play free of danger.

This is the reality of life. So when a politician comes in and says: "I'm going to take care of ail your problems," people will not believe him, because they've heard these promises before. You get a different response, though, if you say: "You're right. Politicians don't really care about our concerns; they're concerned with Number One. I think the solution is to put the power your own hands."

We're spending $9,000 per child now in our public schools, and two-thirds of our children in Jersey City aren't graduating from public high school.

Rush: Nine thousand dollars a year?

Schundler: Per student.

Rush: How many in a classroom?

Schundler: As many as 37 kids. So we're spending $340,000 for some classrooms.

Rush: Gee whiz, you could limo these kids to school! You could take them to lunch at '21 .' You could buy them all Macintosh computers and still have money left over.

Schundler: Exactly. So when l speak to parents in a public housing project, they don't need to be convinced they're being ripped off. They already know it. So I say to them: "How about if you decided which school your child should go to? How about if you decided where you wanted to live? And instead of building this expensive housing project, where the quality of life is not good, how about if a housing voucher put you in control? You are seeing so little benefit from all this money we're spending on you. The politicians are getting benefits. We've got control of an enormous number of patronage jobs, and our friends are really happy. We're getting re-elected. All the vested interests are doing great. But you aren't getting any help, and taxpayer money is being lost." I'm not after them to trust me or any politician. Money is power, and I'm explaining a way to put control over resources, through vouchers, in their hands.

Rush: You know what's amazing about this to me? What you're really saying -- which is why some politicians don't have the guts to do it -- when you make a speech like this is: "The responsibility for taking the right action is yours. We're going to voucher you the money. But you must make the right decisions with it." How do they respond to the need to demonstrate this responsibility?

Schundler: Fact is, people who live in a housing project are like everybody else. But that's not the way politicians closeted in the halls of Congress necessarily think of America's underclass. A lot of politicians think of the underclass as fundamentally different from themselves. So they would never even think about going to a housing project and talking to people, one person respecting another person. They speak to their "leaders." They expect these leaders to be intermediaries, because they suspect those in the underclass can't talk rationally; an underclass person doesn't have a mind, doesn't have a soul.

Rush: Jack Kemp, who you've referenced, has gone into these places himself, as you have.

Schundler: Yes. And that's why I went to the Republican Party. I saw people who weren't just saying, "We on the top will work through representatives." There are incredible numbers of very powerful, organized interest groups saying they're speaking for everybody. The head of these organizations are all living fine. But for all the money we're spending, we keep on seeing more misery and distress among the people they say they're helping. I don't have to go through an intermediary to talk to somebody. He's not going to perceive me as some foreign person from another planet. I figure I'm going to talk to him, and he's going to relate to me as a human being with some ideas. I say, "I think for the money we're spending, you should be able to find better housing yourself. I think for the money we're spending on your children's education, you should be able to choose the best schools available." And they respond: "You're the first guy who sees my situation instead of wanting to use me for your own purposes." In exchange for these benefits I'm very direct in saying we have to implement workfare instead of welfare. And that's fine. Because people are looking for jobs. They're not looking for welfare.

Rush: Absolutely true.

Schundler: One of the things we're trying to implement here is America Works, a for-profit private employment agency. They work with mothers on welfare, hooking them up with jobs with private companies. After six months, if the woman is still at work, America Works gets paid a $5,000 commission by the state. No one pays the company to "take" these women. The company has no incentive to hire the woman other than the fact she is right for them and is a good worker. She has no incentive to take the job, except for the fact that she wants it. We spend three times that $5,000 in total welfare support over the course of a year. So if we pay this for-profit company to find these women jobs, and they're successful, we will save $10,000 in welfare costs that first year, and in the future we'll save all $15,000. There's no ongoing cost once the woman has found a job.

Rush: Do you believe poverty causes crime?

Schundler: No. I think we have an obligation to give people opportunities so poverty need not be a static condition of their lives. But I don't think poverty causes crime. It's the lack of values.

Rush: You know, you have really carved out a dangerous place for yourself. You're empowering dependents of the political class in America. You are doing it, in some cases, with the private sector being involved and profiting. You are lessening the need in people's lives for government services. I would think the National Education Association would be after you, hook, line and sinker, and hell-bent on stopping you.

Schundler: They certainly are. They come into Jersey City saying: "Mayor Schundler is going to destroy the public school system." But they're talking about a system in which, though we spend a lot of money, two-thirds of our children don't graduate high school.

Rush: So what's to destroy?

Schundler: Exactly. And people respond: "You're saying Mayor Schundler is bad because he wants to give me control over resources? Who the heck are you? What's so bad about that?" The NEA's arguments do not resonate. What does resonate is that for the first time someone wants to give them control over their lives. Nobody's arguing with me on that.

Rush: There's a big school choice initiative on the ballot this November in California; Bill Bennett is spending a lot of time out there stumping for it. Have you been contacted for advice?

Schundler: The California Republican party has asked me to be a keynote speaker at one of their events in September. I'll be discussing what I think is the historic opportunity they have to vote for a voucher program. There's no doubt the NEA will be pouring resources into California to misrepresent the impact of vouchers and to defeat the referendum. The NEA is going to fight the idea because it represents a fundamental shift in power.

Rush: Exactly. But what can parents do? If they like what they hear about school choice and vouchers, what would you advise them to do to overcome the opposition in their districts?

Schundler: I honestly think parents should view opposition to vouchers as tantamount to opposition to the vote. I would never vote for a candidate who said: "I don't think people are very smart; they shouldn't have the vote. I think we should get a really good group in charge, and we should just eliminate voting." Who would support that? Parents should look at education the same way. I don't think they should vote for someone who believes the politicians should control all our tax dollars, and we, the people, shouldn't have any say over how our children are educated.

Rush: Bill Buckley recently told me: "I will never understand, as long as I live, why parents think Congress is better able to raise their children than they are." This parallels what you're saying. That's a great argument you have, to compare it to the vote. Because Buckley's right. There are a lot of people who think some bureaucrat is far better able to decide what to teach their kids than they themselves are.

Schundler: Not everyone knows the answer to every problem. But every-one knows that things aren't going well. So sometimes things have to get real bad before people finally say: Hey! We're willing to stand up and demand a change.

Rush: Are we at that point?

Schundler: Jersey City was. And Jersey City is about the most unlikely place for a Republican like me ever to be elected. So, my experience demonstrates that when things get really bad, people will support very significant change.

Rush: Do you have enough faith in the American people that if given control over what happens to them in many areas that are now controlled by government, most people are going to respond favorably?

Schundler: I think it is a fundamental aspect of human nature that people look out for their own self-interest. If you want to prove this, just look at what politicians do all the time. We should think to ourselves: if I had the opportunity to look out for the best for my child, I definitely would. o will someone in a housing project. You put power in people's hands, and they will be able to find better opportunities for themselves.

Rush: You're 34. You have the wisdom of far more years. Do you have any aspirations beyond Mayor of Jersey City?

Schundler. I honestly think a Congressman has less ability to shape history than a mayor of a city like Jersey City does. I am an executive branch official, not just a representative. I can actually get things done -- particularly if I have a Governor who wants to work with me, and I anticipate that being the case.

Jersey City has lots of problems. I think those problems are solvable. I think we can implement changes that will clearly better people's lives. Jersey City can therefore become a true light to urban America. I think we can achieve history here. For example, I think within the next year we will have school vouchers. T here is a proposal I've drafted for a pilot project. It's not as ambitious as some efforts, which propose school vouchers statewide. It's just targeting Jersey City. It wouldn't cost a dollar beyond what is being spent today.

If we get school vouchers here, and I think we will, I believe it will be the most significant legislation passed since the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act enfranchised people with political power. This will enfranchise people with educational opportunity -which today is a requirement for economic opportunity. So I see the chance to make history. Here in this one location, we can punch a hole in the dike that is holding back opportunity for Americans. As the water begins to pour through, it will break the whole wall.

And that's why the NEA is fighting me so viciously on this issue. It's not because they feel that this one small experiment in this one small city is a problem. They don't fear an experiment that will fail. They fear that the experiment will work, and that everyone else will then want school vouchers, and they will lose their dictatorial control over America's schools.

Rush: Precisely. And if the NEA had focused itself on educating children properly and well and having performance standards for teachers, so they couldn't hide behind incompetence by lack of testing, then what you want to do wouldn't be a threat.

Schundler: True. But of course, that's like saying that if King George really cared about the colonists, it would have been better to stay a monarchy. King George III protected his own interests, not those of the colonists. The NEA's job is to fight for the best package they can get for the teachers, not to worry about accountability. They are a union and their job is to fight for their union members' interests. It's the politician's job to fight for the people, and we are the ones who should be held accountable for the problems. I have no problem with the NEA. I have a problem with the politicians who give in to them instead of looking out for the interests of the people who elected them.

Rush: An important point to make. And with that, I'm not going to press you on your aspirations. But Mayor, when you succeed in making history in Jersey City, there are going to be national pressures for you to expand your horizons. And I may be among the loudest voices you hear.

One of the things I enjoy most about my newsletter is introducing readers to those on the political cutting edge. My friends, consider yourselves introduced to Mayor Bret Schundler... whose ideas, I am convinced, will help define the way this country confronts urban problems in the years to come.


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