Hard-Fought Election Raises Hopes for Jersey City Public Schools

Heather Haddon and Jennifer Weiss | The Wall Street Journal
06/09/13

JERSEY CITY, N.J.—A bitterly fought mayoral election has helped renew attention on the troubled public-school system here, an institution that has tempered this city's surging growth over the past decade.

Even as a crush of newcomers has brought upscale restaurants, high-rise apartments and trendy boutiques to Jersey City's downtown, many of its public schools have remained mired in its grittier past, an unattractive option for young families settling here.

The mayor-elect, Steven Fulop, counted on a devoted group of parents and outside donors unhappy with the school system to help him defeat the incumbent, Jerramiah Healy, on May 14. The former Wall Street analyst has promised to raise private money for public schools, divert more local tax money to education and lobby Trenton to provide more money for the city's charter schools by changing the funding equation.

"I think Steve's election almost symbolizes a change in Jersey City," said Jedd Ehrmann, a 37-year-old video editor whose oldest child attends Jersey City's public schools.

Mr. Fulop's ability to make even small changes to the school system is limited. The 36-year-old doesn't have mayoral control like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the state—which took control in 1989—remains in charge of many decisions.

But Mr. Fulop's victory followed the election last year of a slate of school-board candidates that he supported, and the installation of a schools superintendent that he backed. He pledged to act like another mayor with little control over his city's state-controlled school system, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has attracted wealthy donors, including $100 million from Facebook Inc. FB +4.70% founder Mark Zuckerberg.

When Mr. Fulop takes office on July 1, Jersey City could join New York City, Newark and Bridgeport, Conn., as another local laboratory for a national movement known as education reform that emphasizes tougher standards for teachers, uses test scores to grade schools and educators and promotes alternatives such as charter schools.

"My goal is to demonstrate in my first term as mayor that we are competent, progressive and thinking outside the box," Mr. Fulop said.

Jersey City's schools have posted poor results for years. Last year, the district's high school graduation rate was 67%, slightly below Newark's 69% and far from the statewide average of 86%, according to the most recent state data. The State Department of Education said 16 of the city's 39 schools need significant improvement.

Young professionals have flooded Jersey City in recent years. The state's second-largest city had 254,400 residents in 2012, the third fastest-growing city in New Jersey since 2010, according to new U.S. Census data. But some parents end up like Kat and Kevin Kelly, who moved their 6-year-old daughter to Jersey City Global Charter School—set to open in September—after disappointment with her first year of public school.

"My husband and I have had that discussion: Eventually we'll have to get her out of the public school system, before she hits high school," said Ms. Kelly, 35, who works at a nonprofit group. "This is a little sooner than we anticipated, but hopefully it'll work out for the best for her."

Mr. Healy didn't make education a focus of his administration or of his campaign for a second full term. Mr. Fulop, a two-term City Council member, decisively defeated Mr. Healy, 53% to 38%, in a race closely watched by education advocates outside of Jersey City.

Better Education for Kids, a state group backed by hedge-fund manager David Tepper, spent $211,000 through its political action committee on ads supporting Mr. Fulop, campaign filings show. The group has advocated for the end of teacher seniority and changes to tenure laws, and now has begun funding programs in underperforming districts in New Jersey.

"We are excited," Michael Lilley, the executive director of Mr. Tepper's PAC, said of Mr. Fulop.

Mr. Fulop said he supports wresting control of city schools from the state eventually, but his initial plans include diverting a portion of local revenues collected from tax-abated properties to city-school recreational programs and finding space for more charter schools (the city has about 10 charters now, with one slated to close.)

Mr. Fulop also plans to lobby Trenton lawmakers and the Christie administration for more aid to charter schools.

State Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf didn't respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Fulop's plans could face a rocky road. The city's teachers union, the Jersey City Education Association, has publicly opposed many of his education priorities. "Fulop is going to have real trouble in pushing through that agenda. He really is," said Lois Weiner, a teacher-union supporter and education professor at New Jersey City University in Jersey City.

Mr. Fulop has backed eight of the nine members of the current school board, but he doesn't have universal support there. Sterling Waterman, the board's vice president, originally endorsed by Mr. Fulop but has since become a critic. "I'm hoping we are not going to see an influx of charter schools" under Mr. Fulop, Mr. Waterman said.

Mr. Fulop may have an important ally in the district's superintendent, Marcia Lyles, a former New York City educator who was a top aide to former chancellor Joel Klein, a nationally known advocate of education-reform measures. Mr. Klein now works forNews Corp NWSA +0.53% ., which owns The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Lyles said she hoped Mr. Fulop's "advocacy will help open doors and tap resources."

Mr. Fulop's Rolodex might be his biggest asset. The former Goldman SachsGS +0.53% analyst—who raised nearly $1 million for his campaign—intends to draw on his connections to raise money for the city's schools, which have a $676 million budget.

"If he could in any way find mechanisms for us to get more money, that would be great," said Sue Mack, the Jersey City school board president. 

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