What Does Chris Christie Have Planned for Jersey City?
Although locals overwhelmingly voted for Jon Corzine to remain New Jersey’s governor, the incumbent didn’t fare so well in the rest of the state, and Republican challenger Chris Christie will take over as the state’s executive next year. So what can Jersey City expect from the first Republican to be elected the Garden State’s governor in 12 years?
The “Bringing Back Our Cities” plan Christie unveiled on the campaign trail back in July offers some hints. It calls attention to poor student performance on standardized tests, high urban unemployment, widespread poverty and high crime rates, outlining proposals for tackling each of these issues.
The centerpiece of the plan is a program called CityTrak, which is a data-driven set of policies and procedures — modeled on the CompStat program — that seeks to provide measurable goals and standards to which educational, economic development and crime-fighting programs will be held. “If a program is working, it will stay in place,” the plan states. “If a program isn’t working, we’ll get rid of it.” The Christie plan promises that the rollout of CityTrak will mean that “failure is not an option.”
While CompStat has been lauded by many for its success in reducing crime in cities like New York, it has come under criticism from some circles for the potential such a heavy reliance on data creates for the misreporting or under-reporting of crime by police (see The Wire for the dramatized account of this phenomenon).
Christie was an outspoken advocate of charter schools during the election, and his plan on education reflects that. He promises to eliminate the waiting list for charter schools by directing additional resources to new charter school projects, including the appointment of a dedicated commissioner at the Department of Education.
Local education activist Shelley Skinner says she’s “happy” that charters “finally have a friend in the governor’s office.” Skinner, who is the development director at Learning Community Charter School and a board member of the New Jersey Charter School Association, echoes language from the Christie campaign when she points to the thousands of New Jersey students on charter school waiting lists as an indication that “we need to be meeting the demand” for this educational alternative.
Skinner also states that Christie understands the challenges that charter schools face as a result of the contentious School Funding Reform Act that was signed into law last year. According to her, charter schools receive at least 50 percent less state funding per student than conventional public schools under the current formula.
Christie also promises to create a tuition tax credit scholarship program for low-income students in failing schools, following the lead of states like Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Arizona. The program funds private school scholarships through tax-deductible private donations to third-party nonprofit organizations, in order to help financially needy students afford private school educations.
But the programs don’t always work as they are intended to, as a blistering investigation by the East Valley Tribune in Arizona shows. The Tribune‘s reporting revealed that, with little oversight of the program, parents and schools were gaming the system and the primary beneficiaries were the well-to-do children who already attended private school, not low-income children in failing schools. The program created what Columbia Journalism Review called “the biggest open secret in Arizona’s private school world: a cumulative $350 million in taxpayer subsidized private school tuition.” Subsequent work by newspapers in other states, including Georgia, have shown similar problems.
Meanwhile, the constitutionality of the program continues to be fought in the courts. Arizona’s program suffered a setback earlier this month when the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a previous ruling that found the program unconstitutional because some of the participating nonprofits only give scholarships to religious schools.
Versions of this initiative have been introduced in both houses of the state Legislature, with bipartisan support, and Christie promises to push the legislation through. If he succeeds, New Jersey will become only the ninth state in the nation to allow such a program.
Representatives from the Jersey City Education Association, the local branch of the statewide teachers’ union, could not be reached for comment. The union endorsed Corzine in the gubernatorial race, citing his “progressive, pro-public education agenda,” and while it says it doesn’t outright oppose charter schools it has fought against their growth as part of its efforts to make sure the public education system is not dismantled.
The statewide union has also taken an aggressive stance against a tuition tax credit program, saying that it “will strip money from the state treasury — money that could be used for public schools and property tax reduction” and pointing to the lack of accountability for the nonprofits participating in the program.
On the economic development front, Christie’s plan calls for consolidating the variety of special economic zones around the state, such as Jersey City’s Urban Enterprise Zone (UEZ), into a single “super-zone” known as the Garden State Growth Zone. The UEZ in Jersey City provides tax breaks and other incentives to businesses that invest within its borders, and allocates sales taxes collected within the zone to economic development projects there. But Christie claims that “whatever is currently in place is too disjointed, repetitive and simply not working.”
Mayor Healy, who has been an ardent supporter of the UEZ policy and who sits on the UEZ Mayor’s Commission, offers a measured response to the proposed Garden State Growth Zone program. “Any program or assistance that helps create jobs [and] brings new businesses to Jersey City … will be welcomed by my administration,” he says.
Christie has also proposed new policies to foster the development of affordable housing in urban areas, including exempting new residents in Garden State Growth Zones from income taxes.
Christie has indicated that he will rely on changes to bail, parole and sentencing laws as a means to deter violent crime and reduce spending on incarceration. Christie plans to push for an amendment to the state constitution that will make state bail laws mirror those at the federal level by allowing judges to deny bail to certain defendants. He will also make it more difficult for violent offenders to obtain parole.
In contrast to these stricter enforcement measures, Christie has also indicated that he will reduce the reliance on incarceration for non-violent drug offenders, instead “requir[ing] drug rehabilitation and vocational training.”
Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio says he’d particularly like to see changes made to bail laws.
“The bail bond industry is very loosely regulated … [and] really has to be addressed by legislation one way or the other,” he tells JCI. “I just don’t think a constitutional amendment is an expedient way to do it.”
Instead, he suggests expanding the use of an all-cash bail option and “more stringent regulation” of bail bond agents to ensure that sufficient collateral is posted with bail. DeFazio also hopes that “serious consideration” is given to policies seeking to reduce incarceration rates for non-violent drug offenders.
“I think we have to focus on people who are committing violent crime and possess firearms,” he says.
Jon Whiten contributed to this report.