‘Public Enemy Number One’ Back in Power

It’s always fun to talk education. Why? Only because there are so many interesting personalities involved and it’s so important for so many people.

In New Jersey, the new governor (Chris Christie) has appointed new commissioner of education (Bret Schundler) who has an old history with the state’s teachers’ union. School choice is the education topic at the forefront, with a heavy dose of politics. CQPolitics tells the story in these excerpts:

In making the appointment, it’s clear, Christie has decided to teach the teachers’ union a thing or two about politics.

Schundler — who was the first Republican elected mayor of Jersey City in 75 years, and who served in that position from 1992-2001 — was, through the course of his two-plus terms in office, a noted proponent of school choice.

His determination to empower parents with more control over their own children’s education was so strong that within a year of his taking power in Jersey City, the National Education Association had labeled him "Public Enemy Number One."

In the gubernatorial campaign of 2001, Schundler made his school choice agenda central to his campaign platform. Eschewing the kind of traditional GOP campaign advice that says it’s a waste of time and resources to campaign in the inner cities, he insisted on taking his education reform message right into the poorest urban areas of the state.

He accepted an invitation to speak to the annual convention of the New Jersey Education Association — at 170,000 strong then (and 200,000 strong now), the most powerful single special interest group in the Garden State. Given the union’s opposition to merit pay, school choice, and other empowerment agenda reforms, it was an interesting exchange.

Schundler told them some uncomfortable truths. Unlike his two opponents at the time — Democrat Jim McGreevey, and Republican Acting Governor Don DiFrancesco — he didn’t try to woo them. Instead, he explained why he thought they were wrong. He wanted to reform New Jersey education by introducing more competition into the system — and to do that, he said, he wanted to reform the state’s tax code to allow for greater deductibility of charitable contributions for scholarship foundations that would use their money to pay for private or parochial school tuition for children in distressed urban areas.

I’ve never forgotten the response from the teachers’ union’s leader, which was something along the lines of, "I congratulate Mayor Schundler for having the courage to come here. And I congratulate our teachers for not throwing their knives and forks at him."

But McGreevey was able to turn the tables on Schundler on the education issue. When Schundler talked about reforms that would allow taxpayers to save $600 million in property taxes, McGreevey said that meant Schundler "wanted to take $600 million out of the public schools." It wasn’t true, but it was loud, and it was repeated endlessly.

That was eight years ago, and nothing has happened to make urban education in New Jersey any better. In fact, by many measures, the problem has gotten worse.

In fact, it’s gotten so bad that key traditional Democratic allies — including urban lawmakers, ministers, and community leaders — have broken with the teachers’ union to join with conservatives to push for a pilot program that will allow vouchers in the eight cities in the state that have the worst schools. The pilot program would allow businesses to direct a portion of their state taxes to scholarships that needy students could use to pay for private or parochial school tuition.

If that pilot program sounds familiar, it should — it’s remarkably similar to what Schundler was proposing as his campaign’s centerpiece back in 2001. But unlike Schundler’s proposal — which would not have diverted a single dime in state funding — by allowing businesses to direct a portion of their state taxes to the scholarships, this pilot program actually would move state taxpayer dollars.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on developments in Jersey. Maybe Schundler will seek input from Indiana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.