Follow Us:


  • Article
  • Comments

Gov. Chris Christie's Loud, Expensive, and Very Controversial Urban Agenda

Investigating the governor's record on transportation, jobs, housing, and schools

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie

This article was produced in collaboration with Next City.

In New Jersey’s State of the State address this January, Gov. Chris Christie -- an unannounced presidential candidate who’s been focused on getting the nation’s top political job for more than a year now -- laid out what he now sees as his major accomplishments in office. Overcoming partisan politics, his administration succeeded in “growing our economy, creating jobs, reforming our criminal justice system, and improving some of our most challenged cities,” Christie said.

To illustrate his point, the Newark-born governor turned to Camden, still the nation’s poorest large city. “There is no better example of what we can achieve if we put aside party and pettiness than the results we are seeing in Camden,” Christie said. He described a new, enlarged county police force that cut the city’s murder rate in half and reduced violent crime by 22 percent. He heralded a reformed school system that has brought new leadership and more accountability to troubled city classrooms and new schools to long-neglected neighborhoods. A medical school has opened downtown and fresh investment by Rutgers University is bringing “bright new citizens” to Camden’s neighborhoods, the governor said.

“Hope and optimism are up -- fear of failure is down,” Christie said.

A studied politician who has long had his eye on Washington, Christie knows that his Camden story makes for great national newspaper stories and even better television. But how true is his rendition and how much does it reflect his larger policy priorities and governing approach? Has Chris Christie actually been good for New Jersey’s cities? That’s what Next City and NJ Spotlight have come together to find out in this collaborative exploration of the governor’s record on job creation and economic development, transportation infrastructure, housing, education, and crime in the state’s urban centers. While we have focused on five of New Jersey’s oldest and most notable cities -- Camden, Newark, Jersey City, Trenton, and Paterson -- our findings are relevant across the state and region, not only as indicators of Christie’s leadership but also as indicators of what should be considered in the next gubernatorial election. With 1,195.5 people per square mile in 2010, New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country. Given the density, it’s not all that surprising that 94 percent of the population lives in urban areas, making it one of the two most citified states in the nation, tied with California, according to the U.S. Census. New Jersey will never prosper until its cities do. And when those cities finally thrive, the state as a whole will see benefits that until now have been out of reach.

Christie's record on jobs, aid and economic development

When Chris Christie took office in 2010, he inherited a $1.3 billion budget deficit as well as the ugly hangover of the 2008 financial crisis. The state was stuck in one of the worst recessions since the Great Depression and Christie, a Republican, had been elected on a platform of lower taxes. Without the option of collecting more money from taxpayers, he was left to balance the budget on the back of existing programs -- especially those that aided cities, a constituency that had never been part of his suburban base. In all of the state’s cities, including Camden, aid levels have dropped by 20 percent to 52 percent since 2007, according to data from the Division of Local Government Services and Rutgers’ Bloustein Local Government Research Center.

Trenton, for instance, went from a high of $91.8 million in 2007 to $44.1 million in 2014, a 52 percent drop. In Camden, Christie slashed support to a low of $46.6 million in 2011, but has steadily ratcheted up aid in the years since, though still not reaching the levels of aid the city received prior to 2010. Statewide, aid to municipalities dropped from a high of $1.9 billion in 2007 to $1.5 billion last year and $1.4 billion this year.

At the same time, the Governor has repeatedly rejected federal grant dollars that could have offset some of the cuts, waving away aid including education grants, $170 million in food stamp benefits, and $7.6 million in money that could have educated residents on how to access healthcare provided through the Affordable Care Act. As a consequence of the cuts, cities like Newark, Paterson, and Trenton have slashed services and reduced their police and fire departments.

“Making discretionary aid harder to get is not necessarily a bad thing. It makes cities do better on their own. On the other hand, it can hurt them as well,” says Marc Pfeiffer, assistant director of the Bloustein Local Government Research and former deputy director of New Jersey’s Division of Local Government Services. “The aid reductions made it harder for cities because they were the ones who were getting the biggest chunk of the discretionary aid.”

There are others, though, who say Christie’s hard-nosed attitude about public spending has helped cities. William Dressel is the executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. He says the governor has kept aid levels constant at a time when municipalities have seen their pension, health benefit insurance, and energy costs rise. He credits state officials with coming up with a cap on arbitration awards, a move that’s definitely helped cut municipal costs, particularly in cities, he says.

“That was significant,” Dressel says. “It had a profound impact on urban communities, because they have larger fire and police staffs than in other communities.”

Christie is a polarizing figure. Even before his now infamous traffic slowdown in Fort Lee, the voluble politician was known for getting fired up -- and getting others fired up as well. But one thing both critics and allies agree on is Christie’s commitment to business and job creation illustrated by the fact that despite the state’s fiscal constraints, the governor has managed to expand its business tax-incentive programs. In the five years since he took office, he has issued billions of dollars worth of corporate tax breaks. These breaks run the gamut from a $251 million deal to help Prudential Insurance create 400 new jobs and build a new 20-story office tower in Newark, to an $82 million tax credit for Goya Foods to build a warehouse and offices in Jersey City a few miles from its older complex. Another $250 million went to Revel Atlantic City, a hotel and casino that Christie championed as the ailing resort town’s savior before it went bankrupt in 2014, less than two years after opening. Panasonic meanwhile received $102.4 million in tax credits to move its headquarters a couple of train stations, from Secaucus to Newark.

Last July, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority approved its third-largest tax break in state history: $260 million for Holtec International, a new manufacturing plant on the Camden waterfront. Another $82 million tax break went to the Philadelphia 76ers so they could open a practice gym in Camden.

Economic development grants

But to critics, these corporate subsidies appear to be the lone tool in his urban economic development toolbox, and not a particularly effective one at that. “They have been the only weapon in his arsenal to help New Jersey come out of the great recession,” says Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that researches and analyzes economic issues.

Though today they are ubiquitous nationwide, tax-incentive programs are relatively new to New Jersey, with the first incentives issued in the state only in 1996. After a relatively slow and steady growth in allocation between 1996 and 2009, the pace of giving sped up when Christie took office, with $4 billion of that total $5.4 billion in state incentives -- a whopping 80 percent -- issued in the past five years, according to a report by New Jersey Policy Perspective.

Not only was the total amount of subsidies higher under Christie’s administration, the deals were larger too, with many exceeding $100 million, including a $390 million tax break for the developers of a massive retail and entertainment complex called American Dream Meadowlands, a $225 million package for JPMorgan Chase in 2014, and a $105.6 million tax break for a hotel and office project being developed in Paterson by a nonprofit group working with a close friend and financial backer of the governor, Jon Hanson. When news of the deal broke, Paterson’s mayor, Jeffery Jones, voiced concerns that Hanson’s firm, The Hampshire Companies, may have received a “special sweetheart deal,” according to The Guardian.

In total, $4 billion in Christie-era subsidies was shared among 252 companies for a gain of an estimated 83,960 permanent jobs, according to New Jersey Policy Perspective. Each job cost the state an estimated $47,916. In previous decades, the per-job costs were much lower: $16,430 in the 2000s and $8,612 in the 1990s.

“In other words, about 1 percent of New Jersey’s businesses have benefited from the tax shift that the subsidy programs create, while the other 99 percent are left to make up for the revenue the state will lose,” wrote the authors of the New Jersey Policy Perspective report.

The fact that Christie’s subsidies haven’t significantly improved Trenton’s working-class neighborhoods and couldn’t spare Atlantic City from losing its biggest gamble in decades points to a failure of vision, says Rev. Toby Sanders, a former president of Trenton’s Board of Education.

“Christie hasn’t been good for cities in New Jersey, generally, because he doesn’t have an urban policy. And in a state like New Jersey, you need an urban policy because the realities that urban people live are different than what suburban people face,” he says. “If you look at places like Pittsburgh or New Haven, the state is a partner with the city and strategically investing in redevelopment. I don’t think Christie has been good at that.”

Indeed, New Jersey's poverty is largely concentrated along the urban corridor running northeast to southwest connecting Paterson, Newark, Trenton, and Camden. Between 2009 and 2013, the state's poverty rate increased from 9 percent to 11 percent, with the percentage of children living in poverty rising from 13 percent to 17 percent. During the same period, the nation's poverty rate fell. Despite Christie's investments in Camden, the city's poverty rate has nudged upward since 2009, with roughly 42 percent of the population living at or below the federal poverty line in 2014, according to U.S. Census data. The poverty rate has also inched upward in Paterson and Jersey City, while Newark and Trenton saw their poverty rates remain essentially stagnant.

A potentially more hopeful sign is urban unemployment rates that have begun to take baby steps down from record highs in 2010 and 2011.

In the meantime, advocates for working families point to the list of programs that have been reduced or eliminated altogether, such as the Homestead Rebate, a property-tax rebate for elderly and disabled citizens, and funding for Urban Enterprise Zones, which are economically depressed census tracts where sales tax exemptions have been granted to businesses and customers. Christie cut the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2010, a tax credit for low- and moderate-income working people, from 25 percent of the federal tax credit to 20 percent. The legislature has tried to restore the credit to its former level in almost every budget since, and each time, the governor has vetoed the line item. And he’s been a staunch opponent of raising the minimum wage, vetoing legislation in January 2013 that would have increased the minimum wage in New Jersey from $7.25 to $8.50 an hour. It took a voter referendum last November to raise the wage, to $8.25 an hour, with 60 percent of New Jersey voters passing the ballot measure.

Christie also vetoed legislation that would have expanded the Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit from $10 million to $15 million. The NRTC was a popular program for 10 years that helped inner cities by enabling companies with tax liabilities to invest in approved neighborhoods to provide them with housing and community development. Likewise, a number of neighborhood revitalization programs funded by the state’s realty transfer tax were also cut under Christie. Critics blame the cuts on the administration’s trickle-down approach, in which instead of handing out small grants to local businesses, large tax credits are doled out to large enterprises like Revel in Atlantic City, with the hopes that they will create jobs and help the neighborhoods around it.

“You can give [businesses] all the incentives in the world, but if their employees don’t feel safe, or there’s nowhere for their employees to live, that’s a problem if your goal is rejuvenating cities,” Pfeiffer says. “Creating jobs in cities is important, but what cities really need are jobs for people who live there, jobs for their residents.”

In other words, you can’t fix what ails New Jersey’s cities if you don’t address what’s making them sick. “You can build a hospital, or a new school, or have some charter initiative, but if you’re not working with the guys that are getting out of prison, it’s not a coherent policy,” says Sanders.

Christie's record on transportation

One of the largest and most pressing questions facing the state right now is how to pay for the infrastructure needed to keep the region moving and growing. At this point, the Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for bridge and road repairs, is essentially bankrupt and raising the state’s low gas tax is a political no-go for Christie.

“He needs to be a leader on this issue,” says MacInnes of New Jersey Policy Perspective. “He should already have had a plan, he should already have been convening sessions with key leadership in the Legislature, making proposals of how to dig us out of this mess, and he’s been absolutely silent.”

With the trust fund in limbo, the state may have to put several needed transportation projects on hold, among them projects that run right through New Jersey’s urban areas. Two of them involve the Hudson-Bergen light-rail line. One project, the Northern extension, would take the line into Englewood, Leonia, and Ridgefield Park. A second project would extend that same line from its West Side Avenue terminus in Jersey City out to Route 440 near Newark Bay. It’s only about two-thirds of a mile of track, but it would open up development to a very large swath of land that's partly owned by Jersey City and partly owned by Honeywell.

On the other side of the state, there is the South Jersey light-rail line, also known as the River Line, which currently runs from Trenton to Camden. There are blueprints for extending the line from Camden out to Glassboro.

"He hasn’t stopped the planning, but he hasn’t come up with the money,” says Martin E. Robins, director emeritus of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University, referring to Christie. “With a passage of the Transportation Trust Fund legislation, either one could be born. Without that passage, it’s unlikely they’ll come into being.”

New Jersey Transit has also been trying to tackle transportation within cities like Newark for several years, investigating various bus and trolley schemes that would either run on the road along with cars or would have dedicated lanes on the roadway. But that, too, has received little commitment from the governor’s office, transit experts say.

“There’s been some effort on the part of New Jersey Transit to have an urban transit investment policy. And it has managed to take form in a few ways … but it’s having a hard time getting oxygen, to continue to advance,” Robins says.

Meanwhile, Christie canceled the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) project, a high-speed rail tunnel under the Hudson River planned in collaboration with New York. The move was strategic in that it allowed him to reclaim some $3 billion in toll revenue from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New Jersey Turnpike Authority that had been earmarked for the project, and redirect it into the ailing trust fund. Taking the ARC tunnel off the table was seen as particularly undermining to cities, because urban residents are less likely to have cars and more likely to rely on public transit.

“Newark, Elizabeth, Camden, Trenton, in order to succeed and compete with places like New York City need to be walkable, they need safe bridges, reliable transit,” says Chris Sturm, senior director of state policy at New Jersey Future. “It’s not that we’re not spending money on transportation. It’s that we’re not spending enough, and we’re not raising the funds to continue to do so, which is making the business community nervous.”

Christie's record on housing

One out of every 553 homes in New Jersey is in foreclosure. That’s more than double the national rate of foreclosure of one in every 1,126 homes and 172 percent higher than the rate just a few highway exits away in Pennsylvania, where one of every 1,504 homes is in foreclosure. It’s a grim picture that has not improved much even as other states make progress in their recoveries. While foreclosure rates nationally are on the decline, New Jersey was one of only nine states in which the overall foreclosure rate increased in the first half of 2014, according to RealtyTrac, a real estate database.

And cities are bearing the brunt of it. Trenton, Newark, Toms River, Paterson, and Jersey City had the highest number of foreclosures in the state. Meanwhile, Newark, Elizabeth, and Paterson were among the top five worst cities in the country in terms of the number of homes underwater, according to a 2013 report by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and the University of California, Berkeley. In 2013, 54 percent of Newark homes were underwater, while 53 percent were underwater in Elizabeth and 49 percent in Paterson.

“The foreclosure crisis in New Jersey is disproportionately harming urban areas, people of lower income, and people of color,” says Staci Berger of Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey.

Despite the metastasizing problem, the state has repeatedly refused federal aid intended to help states buy and right-size mortgages. Even the money it has received explicitly to help with the crisis has gone elsewhere, according to Enterprise, an affordable housing advocacy group. In 2011, for instance, the state received $75 million as a result of a federal settlement with five major mortgage brokers, but instead of putting the money toward foreclosure assistance, it went into the general treasury to fill a budget gap, Enterprise reported. Around the same time, another federal program, the $300 million HomeKeeper program flailed under state management. The program was supposed to provide $48,000 over a two-year period to people who were unable to pay their mortgages. But by late 2012, just 10 percent of the grants had been dispersed. While federal officials expected 250 grants to be issued a month, New Jersey was only handing out an average of eight. If the funds aren’t spent by 2017, they revert back to the U.S. Treasury.

State officials blamed the slow pace on anti-fraud efforts that went too far and inadvertently prevented homeowners from benefitting from the program. They vowed to disburse more funds, and indeed they have. As of December 2014, $206 million had been handed out, and the program has been closed to new applications. But it took legislative pressure and bad press to get the program moving.

“There was a big deal made out of it publicly, and that’s when they started to release funds from the HomeKeeper program,” says Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, executive director of New Jersey Citizen Action.

Housing for the poor and lower middleclass has never been a priority for Christie. During the 2009 campaign that got him to Trenton, he wasn’t shy about his ambitions to gut the state’s Council on Affordable Housing, the agency that is responsible for ensuring that all 566 New Jersey municipalities, including affluent suburbs, provide their fair share of low- to moderate-income housing whether in their areas or elsewhere in the state through contributions to a housing fund. Christie proposed abolishing the agency in 2010 and its future remains unclear, as affordable housing advocates and the state continue to battle in court over how affordable housing development should be regulated. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled that judges will take over the regulation of affordable housing in response to a lawsuit filed by affordable-housing advocates charging that the Christie administration had failed to implement the law. The decision strikes a blow against Christie, who has in the past blasted the courts for being too liberal on housing issues. While COAH is not an urban agency per se, the funding that sprang from it largely went to the state’s urban areas, says Adam Gordon, a staff attorney with the Fair Share Housing Center in Cherry Hill, the group that headed the lawsuit. When the governor, in his effort to weaken the council, changed its financing method, he left it with less money for urban housing, Gordon says.

“Under previous governors, there was money in the budget to build new homes or renovate existing homes. That source of funding has been cut, because it was diverted to another program,” Gordon says. “It’s now going to fund housing vouchers instead of going predominantly toward building and renovating homes.”

The numbers support Gordon. In 2009, the last year of Jon Corzine’s term, 260 homes were produced using Balanced Housing funds. In 2013, that figure was 96.

Other affordable housing programs have also seen cuts. In 2009, 482 homes were produced using a special-needs trust fund, according to the state’s Department of Community Affairs. Last year, that figure was 126. In 2009, 733 homebuyers were assisted by the first-time homebuyer program. In 2012, that figure was 487, and last year, it was 521. Taken together, the cuts have delivered a strong blow to cities already reeling from decades of disinvestment and crisis.

“In the past,” says Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who focuses on housing and community development, “I think governors either made more of an effort to either invest in cities or focus on development there.”

Christie's record on criminal justice

Crime is one area in which Christie has taken a personal -- and some say unconventional -- interest. A former federal prosecutor, he has advocated new approaches to issues such as incarceration rates for drug crimes, crime-related youth programs, and bail reform. In both Camden and Atlantic City, he has helped support police costs in the expectation of bringing the crime rate down.

Indeed, the number of murders in New Jersey fell to its lowest level in five years during 2014, following national trends. The record lows in New Jersey are tied to reductions in Camden and Newark, the state’s two most violent cities. Newark reported 93 homicides in 2014, compared to 111 in 2013. Camden reported just 33 homicides in 2014, a far cry from the 59 it totaled a year earlier and its lowest since 2006. From 2013 to 2014, through November, violent crime in Newark fell from 3,220 to 2,764. In Camden, that number fell 1,950 to 1,441.

But law enforcement officials warn that crime, particularly violent crime, can ebb and flow from year to year. A gang war, or double and triple homicides can push up the numbers one year and show a reduction the next, and have little to do with a fundamental change in the way a department was operating. Reporting differences on the police side can also lead to lower numbers without necessarily less violence. And with extra state funding and a larger county police department having replaced its smaller force, Camden is an anomaly.

In fact, crime experts say the fundamental change going on in urban police departments outside of Camden is that deep cuts in state aid have resulted in police layoffs and may be causing a bump in violent crime on a local level.

Newark, for instance, laid off more than 160 police officers several years ago, and with attrition, the department is much smaller than it was, meaning there are fewer patrol officers on the street preventing crime and responding to calls, and fewer detectives available to investigate crimes that already happened.

According to the New Jersey State Police’s Uniform Crime Report, violent crime in Newark rose 31 percent from the time the governor took office until the end of 2013. Homicides in Newark rose 40 percent for the same period. In Paterson, violent crime was up 18 percent for the same period, while homicides were up 20 percent. In Trenton, violent crime actually fell 3 percent but the number of homicides more than doubled, from 18 to 37. Jersey City was one of the few large cities to see a reduction in violent crime since Christie took office: Violent crime fell 9 percent while the number of homicides fell 29 percent.

State cuts have deeply affected the ability of cities like Trenton to fight crime, says Sanders, the former president of Trenton’s Board of Education who has also been involved with crime reduction efforts in that city. Programs like community policing and data-based policing require personnel, and the cuts in state aid, and the subsequent layoffs, have left departments without the necessary manpower, says Sanders, who is also a pastor at Beloved Community in Trenton and teaches courses to incarcerated students.

It’s not just about boots on the ground, he says. When you cut a budget to the bone, the innovative programs are often on the chopping block first. Sacrificial lambs, he says, have included youth programs that local police departments ran in conjunction with the Department of Justice and efforts by former Trenton Police Commissioner Herb Bradley, who was using statistics on things like truancy and petty crime -- even domestic violence -- to watch particular people and neighborhoods because those crimes can escalate into worse crime.

The state cuts “hurt cities’ ability to not just fight crime but to prevent it,” Sanders says.

Over in Jersey City, Mayor Steven Fulop isn’t as convinced that there’s a direct connection between aid cuts and rising crime.

“But it is a fair assessment to say that the cuts in municipal aid have certainly made life more challenging,” he says.

Rather than wait for the state to help out, Fulop announced a partnership in July with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Paterson Mayor Jose Torres in which the three share intelligence, police officers, and purchasing agreements. Their police departments share information and combine their purchasing power to buy items in bulk, like road salt, in order to achieve economies of scale resulting in reduced costs. They also plan to share resources for employment training and prisoner reentry programs, and also hope to start up some sports leagues, such as midnight basketball, to give inner-city youth something to do.

“I think most of the innovation today is happening at the local level,” Fulop says.

Yet there are certain areas in which the state has shown its commitment. The attorney general’s office has given $500,000 to support Jersey City’s prisoner re-entry center, Martin’s Place, which will streamline the process for ex-convicts to obtain addiction, housing, and employment support in the city.

“The state has been supportive on something that’s been really, really important to me, and it’s a model that works,” Fulop says.

Another initiative is the Trenton Violence Reduction Program, a $1.1 million program announced last September and run by the attorney general’s office, in partnership with the College of New Jersey, Rutgers University-Camden, and the Trenton Police Department. It targets those most at risk to be involved in gun violence -- or those at a crossroads of committing another crime or getting out of crime altogether. With information from law enforcement, drug addiction and mental health authorities, a team of coordinators connects high-risk individuals to representatives from local and state law enforcement and social services agencies. They meet in churches and community centers. The hope is that by guiding individuals to custom-tailored support, such as job placement and addiction treatment, they will walk away from a life of crime. The program is not offered only to the at-risk individual but also to their entire family.

“The whole idea is you identify the people most at risk of acts of violence, particularly gun crimes, and you offer them a hammer and a carrot. The hammer is, we know who you are, and we are watching you, and if you act violent we’ll come down on you. The carrot is, we’ll offer you a way out,” says Bruce Stout, chair of the criminology department at The College of New Jersey.

The governor has also maintained the YouthBuild programs in many of the state’s major cities, like Newark and Camden. The programs help low-income young people ages 16 to 24 work fulltime for six to 24 months toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing in their communities. He’s maintained Municipal Safe Streets Initiatives, a comprehensive approach to dealing with gangs, youth violence, and illegal guns, by improving the supports and services that keep children from becoming delinquent, targeting law enforcement’s focus on gang and street-level violence, and working to keep those released from prison from falling back into a life of crime.

Christie has also pushed a few pivotal crime reforms that some say may have a positive impact on recidivism. Last July, the state unrolled mandatory drug court in three counties, wherein drug-addicted offenders were not just advised but required to enroll in drug treatment rather than serve a sentence in jail. Until then, non-violent offenders could volunteer for the therapeutic programs. Now, judges can sentence certain offenders to drug court on a mandatory basis, whether they are willing to face their addiction or not. The program is now up and running in nine counties and beginning in July, will be operating in three more.

“Mandatory drug court has the potential to really dramatically improve the quality of life in cities, by getting addicted offenders into program,” Stout says. “We’re just beginning to roll it out, county by county, but I think it will be a very substantive change.”

The governor also signed legislation requiring companies to wait until they have interviewed job applicants before asking if they have ever been convicted of a crime. The same month, he signed legislation reforming the bail system so that poor defendants charged with low-level offenses aren’t languishing in prison simply because they can’t post bail. A recent report by the Drug Policy Alliance found that as many as 40 percent of those awaiting trial are held because they cannot afford bail. The result was that defendants, many of whom are minority, wait for trial in jail for more than a year on what are sometimes petty charges, putting a burden on their families because they can’t work and costing taxpayers money.

But criminal justice experts warn that while bail reform and drug court help, community policing can have an even bigger impact.

It doesn’t make sense to “spend upwards of $40,000 incarcerating drug offenders while we allow our urban police departments to shrink,” says Stout.

Christie’s record on schools

Few of Christie’s actions as governor have been more controversial than his approach to urban education.

At the heart of the approach is Christie’s belief that urban schools need a vast remaking after decades of dysfunction, despite 40 years of court orders demanding expensive reforms and state takeovers under prior administrations that brought only scattered improvements.

Today, the school districts in Paterson, Newark, Camden, and part of Jersey City are under state control. Christie hasn’t been afraid to use his authority, appointing new superintendents to Newark and Camden schools and keeping a close watch over Paterson and Jersey City.

Paul Tractenberg, a Rutgers Law School professor and founding director of the Newark-based Education Law Center says the governor has imposed a set of reforms that have brought more charter schools and fewer resources for the district schools.

“What I think is happening is that these racially, ethnically, and socioeconomically isolated urban districts are being used as laboratories to experiment with education-reform approaches that have little or no evidence of success,” Tractenberg says. “It’s kind of a win-win for Christie, because he advances his ideological agenda in a way that enhances his national and presidential aspirations.”

The fight over state control has been a fierce one under Christie, with parent and community groups in Newark, where there are now more than 18 charter schools, filing a lawsuit against the state in 2012. They ultimately lost in state appellate court, but there was an irony to the state’s defense that intervention was needed when it was the state’s oversight that arguably contributed to the district’s problems.

“They’re blaming the locals for having terrible schools when in fact the locals have not had control over the schools for years,” Tractenberg says.

The charter school battles have not just been in the cities, either. Christie initially tried to expand the schools across the state, approving more than 20 new ones in his first year in office. Ultimately, the pushback came from the suburbs, where families maintained their district schools were already strong.

“The suburbs understood very quickly that if you have charter schools, you’re going to hurt the public schools system, and they just revolted,” says Julia Sass Rubin, a Rutgers professor and leader of Save Our Schools NJ, a pro-public schools organization. “The cities are not powerful enough to control their own fate.”

But pushing a charter-school agenda is not the only education battle under Christie, critics say. Since elected, the governor has also underfunded state school coffers and in turn, local districts by about $6 billion, despite state law requiring him to put up more cash. In 2008, the New Jersey Legislature enacted a statewide school funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act, which calculated the amount of money per pupil that was needed to support the core curriculum program for every student, regardless of need. State officials then determine how much money the district can pony up itself, and the state must come up with the rest.

While he says the state can’t afford the full funding of the formula, Christie still maintains that overall state aid to education is now the highest in New Jersey history -- an accurate claim. But it is hardly consistent across the state, and three-quarters of districts are receiving less than they did six years ago. Most are still recovering from deep cuts in the first year of Christie’s tenure, when he reduced aid by $1 billion upon the loss of federal stimulus funds.

Between fiscal 2010 and 2011, for instance, funding in Atlantic City fell from $21 million to $14 million. In Camden, it dropped from $282 million to $267 million. In Paterson, it went from $389 million to $366 million. In Elizabeth, from $288 million to $271 million. In Jersey City, it went from $418 million to $391 million, and in Newark, $715 million to $673 million. He wound up significantly restoring the aid to urban schools the following year, by more than $500 million, but only under order of the state Supreme Court, and little new aid has flowed to them since.

“He’s been able to use the economic crisis as an excuse not to fund schools,” says Tractenberg, of the Education Law Center. “And we’ve been back in court multiple times over the issue of whether the economic crisis justified the state’s failure to fully fund its own education formula.”

Funding cuts have had a devastating impact on urban districts around the state, says David Sciarra, the director of the Education Law Center. Districts that made substantial progress prior to Christie coming in are now in a holding pattern, he says.

“In 2011, the court ordered that money be restored, but only for the 31 Abbott districts. But urban districts like Bayonne, Rahway, Carteret, and Pennsauken did not get their cuts restored, and they’ve essentially been flat funded since Christie took office,” Sciarra says.

Sciarra had one word for the governor’s urban educational policy: “disinvestment.”

“He has done everything within his power to make sure that not another nickel went to any of these schools. And I’m not talking about Newark or Camden. I’m talking about the 80, 90, 100 urban communities across the state that no one talks about,” Sciarra says. “The challenge facing the next governor and legislature is how to get the formula back on track and start chipping away on this big IOU Gov. Christie has caused.”

In places like Newark, residents have taken to the streets in protest. Mayor Ras Baraka, a former city council member and principal of Newark’s Central High School, was swept into office this past May largely by campaigning against state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson and her controversial "One Newark" school reorganization plan -- which calls for a district-wide enrollment system that permits parents to choose their schools but has also seen the relocation and consolidation of one-quarter of the city’s schools, including some being transferred to charter operators.

In a letter to legislators and the media released last fall, Anderson defended her record, saying Newark Public Schools were chronically underperforming, families were leaving the system for charter schools, facilities were crumbling, and the district’s deficit was mushrooming as a result of charter growth and antiquated labor practices. In her three-and-a-half-year tenure, the district has experienced significant improvements in graduation rates and ACT scores, and has shown early signs of improvement in the lowest performing schools, she wrote.

Anderson, who declined to be interviewed for this article, wrote that the number of eligible families enrolling in pre-K has risen from 70 percent to 90 percent. While state assessments have gotten harder, third-grade reading proficiency increased by nearly 25 percent, from 38.7 percent in 2010 to 47.5 percent in 2013 (an increase of more than 350 students), according to the latest figures available. And the graduation rate has increased by 10 percent, from 55 percent in 2010 to 68 percent in 2013. Moreover, the percentage of students passing the graduation test has increased by 11 percent, and 500 fewer students have dropped out, she wrote.

On the educator front, the district replaced at least 50 percent of its principals, and negotiated a historic contract with teachers that more closely tied their pay to performance, including merit bonuses to the highest performing and those working in the toughest schools. Anderson’s office filed over 100 tenure charges -- compared to 20 filed in the previous 10 years -- and paid $2.8 million to its highest performers.

The strategy is working," Anderson wrote. “From 2013-14 to 2014-15, the district retained about 95 percent of our good teachers while nearly 40 percent of our ineffective teachers left.”

Chris Cerf, Christie’s former education commissioner and arguably the chief architect of his reform approach, says great things are happening in Newark, but people don’t see it because the politics of education are so interest-group driven, they often ignore the objective facts. In 2009, 54.7 percent of students had a “proficient or advanced” test score in language arts. In 2014, that figure was nearly 80 percent. In mathematics, the number rose from 42.6 percent in 2009 to 53 percent in 2014.

“There’s been a level of lying and propaganda that has been fed into the communications stream from the union that are like nothing I’ve seen before, and I was deputy chancellor in New York City, and I’ve seen a lot,” Cerf says.

He points to a 2012 study by CREDO, an independent research group out of Stanford University, that found that charter students in New Jersey, on average, gain an additional two months of learning in reading over their public school counterparts. In math, the advantage for charter students is about three months of additional learning in one school year. In Newark, in particular, charter students gained an additional seven and a half months in reading and nine months in math, the study found.

And while Newark gets the attention -- and the open protests -- a more peaceful story is playing out for Christie in Camden, where in 2013 he announced the takeover of the district and installed Paymon Rouhanifard as its superintendent

“One of the most important things Governor Christie did in the realm of urban education was to take over the Camden school system, which by any moral measure was catastrophically failing kids. It was mind-boggling," Cerf says.

When the state took over Camden’s school system, it had one of the highest per-student costs in New Jersey -- Camden paid about $28,000 a year per student while nearby Cherry Hill paid about $15,000 -- and yet had some of the lowest test scores and a $75 million deficit on a $393 million budget.

With no direct experience running a school system, the 33-year-old Rouhanifard started by going on a 100-day listening tour and building a five-part strategic plan. The plan includes improving safety, upgrading facilities, improving the quality of instruction as well as student service, becoming more family-friendly, and streamlining the bureaucracy of the central office.

“Our aim is to have a system of great schools and hold ourselves accountable through progress reports every three months,” Rouhanifard says. “We researched other districts and saw that most plans are seven to eight years and go beyond that superintendent’s [tenure]. We wanted our plan to be immediate and tangible and one the community could hold us accountable to.”

While it’s still early days, there are small signs of progress in Camden. There’s a new initiative called safe corridors, in which there isn’t just a police presence in the school in the mornings and evenings but parents and community leaders help patrol the hallways. Police also patrol the routes children walk to school. There’s also been a 16 percent increase in pre-K enrollment.

“We went door to door, handing out fliers, going to bodegas. A lot of families weren’t aware that there is pre-K for three- and four-year-olds, for free,” Rouhanifard says.

But the state takeover isn’t without fallout; some parents and activists see it as an attempt to privatize or at least downsize the Camden school system, and some of their fears were confirmed last May, when deep budget cuts resulted in the layoffs of 206 teachers, 35 guidance counselors, nurses and other school employees, and 94 central administration employees. In late July and August, an additional 100 teachers resigned, leaving a district that already suffered from a high teacher absentee rate down 88 teachers in the first few weeks of school. One mother said her son had substitute teachers the first several weeks of school. One day, they didn’t even have a substitute teacher for his class so a school security guard filled in.

Rouhanifard acknowledges the challenges he faces in Camden are difficult to find in even the towns just next door.

“They had a teacher who literally didn’t show up this year, and we’re trying to track her down,” Rouhanifard says. “You just don’t see those type of situations in places like Cherry Hill.”

This article was produced in collaboration with Next City.

Caren Chesler is a freelance writer, based in Ocean Grove, whose work has appeared in various general-interest and business publications, including The New York Times. She also served as Statehouse reporter for the Asbury Park Press.

Read more in Politics
Corporate Supporters
Most Popular Stories