Union City Schools: A Test Case for Christie Reforms?

As the governor and his reforms pay a visit, Union City's vaunted schools try to make their case

Credit: (Governor Photos/Tim Larsen)
Union City’s public schools have long been held up as the gold standard of New Jersey’s urban districts, with its scores on state tests approaching if not exceeding statewide averages.

Certainly, among the 31 urban districts falling under the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings, the district of nearly 10,000 mostly Hispanic students is always at or near the top of the list in student achievement.

Still, it’s been an insecure time for New Jersey’s public schools of late, with severe aid cuts and tight tax caps on the fiscal side and calls for tenure reform and teacher reform and every other reform on the education side.

So, when Gov. Chris Christie yesterday chose the Hudson County enclave for his 17th town hall meeting — one dominated by the governor’s education reform agenda — Union City school superintendent Stanley Sanger wasn’t going to miss the chance to stand up for his schools.

“We have met the intent of the Supreme Court ruling in Union City,” Sanger said in an interview afterward. “We have evidence that if an urban child is given the opportunity and the resources, they can succeed.”

“We’re just hoping that any type of reform doesn’t diminish those resources,” he said, “because we would like to continue.”

So far, the cuts have been pretty well spread across all school districts, with suburban districts taking arguably the worst hit of the group in last year’s state budget.

The Urban Battleground

But by all indications, the attention could soon shift to urban districts. The Christie administration is hunkering down to battle back the Abbott mandates in a pending court challenge, and Republicans already are looking to make funding cuts in those districts, including their popular preschool programs.

Christie wasn’t showing his full hand just yet yesterday, but he left a few clues and surely wasn’t backing off on his year-long campaign to reign in school spending and bring some accountability to all districts — especially their teachers.

In a lengthy question and answer session where more than half the questions were about education, Christie was asked specifically about the budget fate of the Abbott mandates for all-day preschools. Senate Republicans have reportedly called for sharply reducing that funding, and shifting it to the suburban districts.

Christie smiled briefly to the question, but didn’t bite just yet. As for all-day pre-K, I’ll have some things to say about that in two weeks in the budget address,” Christie said.

That left Sanger cringing a little. His district has roughly 1,800 three- and four-year-olds enrolled in full-time preschool.

“No question, that will have an impact,” he said. “It’s the ground, it gives you the solid foundation. And I think it has shown that with a solid literacy foundation, they have a good chance of making it.”

Necessary Changes

Still, Sanger wasn’t looking to pick a fight with Christie. When asked about Christie’s calls for tenure reforms and changes in how teachers are evaluated, he said some changes were probably necessary.

“Things have to happen, probably a few things need addressing in the long run,” he said. “For Union City, [tenure] hasn’t been an issue, but I don’t know elsewhere. It could be an issue.”

As for last year’s cuts in state aid, amounting to $10 million for the district, Sanger also said the district was able to survive intact. He said the money was mostly found in some staff attrition and outsourcing things like transportation and technology.

“Even losing $10 million, not one person had their job taken a way,” he said. “And the biggest thing is it didn’t have any impact on the kids in the classroom.”

For all the student gains, Union City schools have never been the big spenders among the Abbott districts, either. Last year, it spent about $18,100 per pupil, more than the state average of about $15,500 but far below places like Asbury Park, which have been especially targeted by Christie.

Still, the needs are only mounting, he said. Nearly 90 percent of his students are poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunch, and nearly half have limited English language skills, a population that is growing ever more challenging.

“We are getting more and more kids from outside the United States with no formal education, eighth and ninth graders with first-grade reading skills,” Sanger said.

“Dominicans, Ecuadorans, but what we are finding more and more from the rural parts of those countries. There isn’t a proficiency in their native language, never mind English,” Sanger noted.