This post was originally published on May 19, 2013 here.
Jersey City took a monumental step forward this past week. We voted in a new mayor, Steven Fulop, who made education reform a central tenet of his promise to the city. But does Jersey City have what it takes to be “the best mid-sized city in the nation” as Mayor-elect Fulop envisions? Only time will tell, but here is a goal we should all strive for: improving our city and schools to such an extent that we can finally be rid of Abbott.
Abbott, as in Abbott vs. Burke, refers to a set of legal decisions about education equality, which is a constitutional mandate in New Jersey. Education is funded primarily by local property taxes. For many wealthier towns, this is not a problem, but most of our cities’ tax bases have been gutted by crime, drugs, and government corruption. The lack of quality education fuels the downward spiral and creates a vicious, socially unjust loop, with kids caught in the crosshairs. The Abbott solution is administratively complex, but the core of it is this: inject state tax dollars into 31 specially designated Abbott districts – places like Newark, Jersey City, Camden, Asbury Park, Pleasantville, and Trenton – to supplement the school board coffers. But simply dumping money on a problem will not fix the problem. Dumping money just fuels government corruption.
To understand how bad the corruption is, you have to understand how big the numbers are. Jersey City’s schools budget in 2013 is $660 million. About 75% of that budget is funded by the state. The incentives here are awful: if you fix the city, the state funding goes away and local officials have greater responsibility for ensuring a healthy, sustainable tax base. But if you let the urban blight persist, the state money keeps flowing in and you can rest up a bit, let the state work for the city. Mayor Healy (who was just voted out) made this exact case at a mayoral debate on May 2nd. He said – on a public dais in front of the media – that Jersey City should aim to retain its Abbott designation so that the state tax dollars keep flowing into the city’s schools coffers. The dysfunction is staggering; Abbott is about remediation, yet the leader of the city is striving to stay stuck in remediation mode indefinitely.
Fortunately, on Tuesday, May 14th, the people of Jersey City elected Steven Fulop by a decisive 53% to 38% margin. Steven Fulop earned my vote for one very simple reason: education reform. Back in 2010, Mr. Fulop was a twice-elected, popular city councilman who decided that Jersey City needed a better school system if it was going to plug the drain of young families fleeing to better school districts fifteen miles away. So he invested his political capital into backing better candidates for the Board of Education (BOE), the 9-person elected body that controls the $660 million schools budget. In three successive years, during the lead-up to the 2013 mayoral election, Mr. Fulop’s team pushed BOE voter turnouts to new levels, and all nine candidates he backed over the three years won by landslides. Those school board elections levered real change in Jersey City. First, there was the ousting of Dr. Charles Epps in late 2011. Dr. Epps had been the Schools Superintendent for 11 years and a district employee for 45 years. His tenure was unremarkable, with a majority of schools still failing per federal and state reporting standards when he left office; this, despite his earning $268,200 plus benefits at the time of his departure. Second, after Dr. Epps was removed the BOE could proceed with a national search and the eventual hiring in the fall of 2012 of Dr. Marcia Lyles, the former #2 in the NYC public school system.
How Steven Fulop will fare in the years ahead is anybody’s guess. If he serves as mayor the way he served as councilman, he may be phenomenal. But if he takes the Cory Booker “Meet the Press” express to some higher office at the expense of boots-on-the-ground leadership, he may be a flop. I have met Mayor-elect Fulop several times over the years, and I think he’s excellent. He has made himself available to me and other parents to discuss schools issues, he has shared his vision for the future of the city, and he has led this city forward on education reform. I have every hope in him, but I also think he needs healthy, continued scrutiny. He deserves it; our government leadership is only as effective as an engaged, proactive electorate.
Getting rid of Abbott should be our shared goal; if the city improves as the mayor-elect has promised, then job opportunities will grow, families will be less financially stressed, our kids will have better after-school support through recreation programs and job training programs, and more of our young adults will be aiming for post-high school education. All of these improvements will attract more long-term family and commercial investment. Our tax base will naturally grow more robust and we will be able to fund our own school system. And that is something we should all be aiming for.