Republicans Taken To School
Originally appeared in the Star-Ledger on Tuesday, January 9th, 2001
By Paul Mulshine
If the Republicans in Trenton were capable of embarrassment, they would have been embarrassed by what happened in Room 109 of the Statehouse yesterday.
What happened was that Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler was unkind enough to point out that the Trenton crowd had violated every core principle of the Republican Party in its rush to approve the humongous school construction program.
Fiscal responsibility. Adherence to the state constitution. Responsible government. Throw in truth, justice and the American way and you’ve got a summary of the principles violated when the Trenton Republicans jammed their snouts into that $8.6 billion pork barrel of a bond issue.
The purpose of Schundler’s news conference was to point out that the New Jersey Constitution clearly and unequivocally calls for a public vote before the state takes on new debt.
“It’s your debt and you have the right to vote on it,” Schundler said. He then handed a $1,000 check to Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, who is spearheading a lawsuit to force the Whitman administration to adhere to its prior promise to put all such bonding schemes to the voters.
Schundler aired a lot of criticisms of his fellow Republicans, chief among them the unpleasant fact that they had put the interests of the teachers’ union and the construction lobby above those of the humble taxpayers. But he was polite enough to avoid pointing out their biggest flaw. They are not real bright.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Jim McGreevey, the Democrat who is running for governor this November. McGreevey has already said in as many words that he’s going to make the Republicans’ bond-and-spend policies the centerpiece of his campaign. He is going to point out that Christie Whitman may have cut taxes, but she didn’t cut spending. By the time you add up the bonds approved during the Whitman years, state debt will have more than tripled.
But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that the Republicans are committing political suicide for the sake of a spending program that will go mostly to Democrats. About three-quarters of the money will go to the so-called “special-needs” districts. And for the reason most of these districts have special needs is that for years they were run according to the Democratic philosophy of education. The Democratic philosophy in the area of education is like the Democratic philosophy in every other area: Throw money at the problem.
The Republican philosophy is to get the best results for the least money. Schundler spent most of his news conference pointing
out creative ways to improve our schools without increasing spending.
He used his own town as an example. Instead of building 14 new schools there, as is planned under the bond issue, the state could simply fund more charter schools. The charter school administrators could pay the costs of construction out of their operating budgets. There would be no capital costs to the state.
Schools would be cheaper. And they’d be better, too. They’d have to be. Any charter school that fails to attract students will go out of business.
“If they can’t run a better school, they won’t get a single public dollar,” Schundler said.
Schundler is also an advocate of vouchers, another way of getting better education at a lower cost to the taxpayer. Among most Republicans, these are mainstream ideas. It’s only in Trenton that Republicans cringe in fear at the idea of introducing freedom into the educational system. But they don’t flinch at all at the idea of throwing billions more into an educational bureaucracy that resists all attempts at reform.
Back in the 1970’s, when this farce began, the excuse for the failure of New Jersey’s urban schools was that they are underfunded. They are now funded at a level equal to the most expensive schools in America. They are still awful. But the Trenton Republicans want to pour even more money into them.
Schundler pointed out that giant school-construction schemes almost never result in higher test scores. They just result in higher taxes. This one could cost each taxpayer as much as $1,000 a year for the next 25 years, Schundler said.
Even though the Trenton Republicans are opposing the lawsuit, many are no doubt secretly hoping it succeeds. If the state Supreme Court were to uphold the constitution and order a referendum, no one would be hurt more than McGreevey. The Democratic front-runner would have to make a choice. Either he’d have to oppose the referendum and risk angering all of those Democratic mayors who stand to gain billions from it. Or he’d have to support the spending and give up his major line of attack on the GOP.
But as it now stands, McGreevey can watch the money flow to his fellow Democrats while also slamming the Republicans for spending the same money.
This is not a winning strategy. But it’s the strategy of the Republicans in power in Trenton. Until November, anyway.
Paul Mulshine is a Star-Ledger Columnist.