Christie’s First Stop After Reelection: Abbott School in Union City

Governor's mixed message -- support for an urban school success story while opposing court decision that funds it

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Four years ago, the day after his election to his first term as governor, Chris Christie made his opening stop Newark’s Robert Treat Academy Charter School.

It was a clear message that he was going to be a cheerleader for charters and school choice, as well as an obvious plug for the school’s leader, Newark power broker Steve Adubato.

Yesterday, Christie was again back in school for his first public visit after his reelection, this time to a Union City high school, the Jose Marti Freshman Academy.

The plug for state Sen. Brian Stack, Union City’s Democratic mayor and unabashed Christie supporter, was unmistakable. But it was also an interesting choice for a governor who has been openly critical of Abbott v. Burke, the court-ordered policies — and money — that have helped Union City become one of the superstars of urban education nationwide.

“[Stack] was bragging about the school for a long time, and I hadn’t had opportunity to visit,” Christie said.

He added that education will remain a priority in his second term, going on to say he recognized that Union City has been a leader in raising student performance despite poverty and other disadvantages.

‘“I contest the claim that we can’t have great schools in our urban centers,” he said. “All you have to do is walk around Union City and see.”

“They do it because everyone comes together,” Christie said. “The municipal government and the schools, the faculty and staff, the parents and students all come together to say education is a priority.”

Make no mistake, Christie was hardly backing down from his continued rhetoric that New Jersey remains plagued by too many low-performing schools in its cities, ones he has repeatedly and famously called “failure factories.”

There is also little doubt that Christie remains intent on remaking the state Supreme Court that led to rulings like Abbott v. Burke, the long-running school equity case that drives hundreds of millions of additional dollars into urban schools each year.

And he is hardly backing off his push for charters or for a private school voucher program, an initiative that remains unfinished business for the governor. He has previously said that he is not giving up on the voucher proposal, maybe seeing an opportunity in the coming lame-duck session of the Legislature.

But for backers of the Abbott rulings, Union City is often Exhibit A in their case that Abbott is a success story in school equity and Christie hasn’t done enough to fully fund these schools.

Jose Marti Freshman Academy, Union City.

The Hudson County district is especially held up as a national model of achievement due to the kinds of programs that the Abbott rulings have been responsible for funding. Union City has seen an additional $22 million in state aid under Christie’s tenure, a 14 percent increase. It spends about $17,000 per student.

Just the gleaming brick and concrete school Christie visited yesterday was a testament to Abbott, built eight years ago under former Gov. Jim McGreevey as one of the first school projects completed by order of the court.

The principal of the school, Joseph Polinik, said it has made a tremendous difference for the students who attend the school and the teachers who work there.

“This is my 40th year in the district, an I have worked in a number of buildings,” he said. “Some of them are 100 years old. But when you come into a building like this, it’s just outstanding. It’s a whole different mindset.”

The other programs made possible by Abbott are notable, too, including a health clinic in the school that provides physicals for every student.

“I am not a defender or opponent of [the governor’s],” Polinik said. “I just believe that in Union City, we took the money and we knew what to do with it.

“There are places where they have blown it, and they are not reaching the kids,” he said. “I think our kids get the money, they get the benefit of it. I think that’s the difference.”