School Choice in the Inner City


February 1, 1998

In the 1960s, the struggle for civil rights focused on political enfranchisement. Today, one of the most important civil rights struggles concerns educational enfranchisement.

A 1940’s high-school dropout who took a union manufacturing job could he expected to earn more over the course of his career than a college professor. But with the Information Age clearly upon us, economic opportunity now equals educational opportunity.

Sadly, the current state of educational enfranchisement depends on your family’s income. Rich parents can consider both public and private schools for their children. In contrast, poor parents must send their children to the public school nearest them, whether or not it is educationally effective—or even safe.

The state of New Jersey took control of Jersey City’s public schools in 1989. It did so because of its belief that the rights of Jersey City’s schoolchildren to an effective education were being abridged. It noted that fewer than half of Jersey City’s public school students were finishing their senior year and passing the basic skills tests necessary to receive a diploma.

In the eight years since that takeover, the state has tripled its financial aid, but local test scores and graduation rates haven’t changed. Hence, the rights of Jersey City’s schoolchildren continue to be abridged, and the problem is even greater in some of New Jersey’s other cities.

New Jersey is not unique in the way it educationally disenfranchises the poor. Such is the norm in America. President Clinton sent his daughter to an excellent private school. But his neighbors in central Washington, lacking his financial wherewithal, do not have this option.

The Golden Rule instructs that you should do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If Bill Clinton had been forced by economic circumstance to send Chelsea to an inner-city public school, he would have become a supporter of vouchers. But he appears to believe not in the Golden Rule, but only in what is politically best for himself.

That is the problem with politicians today. That has always been the problem with politicians. Too few politicians are willing to risk their careers by putting the general interest above the special interests of the politically powerful. Too many politicians happen to be human beings who, like all fallen human beings—that is to say, like each and every one of us—fall short of the glory of God.

Instead of condemning politicians for their fallenness, we should take back the power we have given them. Justice proceeds not from centralizing power, but from dispersing power into the hands of the people, so that every American has the opportunity to do what is necessary to secure his or her own best interests.

During the 1960s, that meant ensuring that every American had the right to vote without relying on the benevolence of a self-believing racial elite. Today, that means ensuring that every American family has the opportunity to search out the very best educational programs—public or private—for its children, and does not have to rely upon the benevolence of a self-believing political elite.

During my 1993 campaign for Mayor, I went door to door in Jersey City’s public housing projects explaining that taxpayers were paying over $9,000 per child per year for our public schools, and asking parents what they would do if they had control of that $9,000 in the form of a school voucher. If they could use it to pay for the education of each of their children at the public or private school of their choice, would they then be able to guarantee a great education for each of their children?

Not one parent said, “I don’t understand that concept.” Rather, these parents said, “Yes, that would work.” And when I said that I wanted to institute such a plan, they said, “Thank God that we won’t have to beg the politicians any more to care about our children; rather we ourselves will be able, finally, to ensure that each of our children can go to an effective and safe school.”

I won a number of those housing projects outright. It was the first time in history that any of them had been won by a Republican. In fact, in a city that is only 6 percent Republican, I got 69 percent of the vote in that mayoral election—the largest winning margin in the city’s history. And just recently I won again, to become the first Mayor to be re-elected in Jersey City in thirty years.

Jersey City’s struggling low-income families know that educational enfranchisement is the key to their children’s futures, and indeed is the key to economic opportunity and social justice in today’s America.


  • Bret Schundler

    Bret D. Schundler (born 1959) is an American politician from New Jersey. He served in the Cabinet of Governor Chris Christie as New Jersey Commissioner of Education until he was dismissed on August 27, 2010. Schundler was the mayor of Jersey City from 1992 until 2001.

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