In a June 14, 1998 cover story, the New York Times magazine declared Jersey City ground zero in the national battle for education reform. On November 22, 1999, Jersey City unveiled the face of education reform in America.
That was the date I cut the ribbon on Jersey City’s new $8.75 million Community Education and Recreation Center. During school hours, the center will serve as the leased home of the Golden Door Charter School, and during non-school hours it will be open to all members of the Jersey City community for diverse public purposes.
Three years ago, the State of New Jersey passed charter school legislation that I had proposed. However, the state’s powerful teachers’ union grafted a restriction onto the legislation that barred charter schools from incurring long-term, facilities-related construction debt. This created a problem for larger charter schools, which found it difficult to find suitable rental space.
The city had another problem. If children are not at home during non-school hours, they are on the streets, because homes do not have spacious backyards. Citizens have been clamoring for the city to build community centers where children can engage in constructive after-school activities, and where adults can recreate later in the evening. Until now, financial constraints have prevented the city from building any such centers.
Jersey City’s new Community Education and Recreation Center provides an innovative solution to both of these problems. Before construction, prospective tenants bid for day-time space, and the city secured a lease commitment from the Golden Door Charter School. The city then completed final architectural plans and issued construction bonds that will be paid off by the Center’s rental income.
As a result, the charter school now has a beautiful facility that is perfect for its purpose, while the city has a new community center that is being totally financed by the school’s lease, i.e., costing city taxpayers nothing. In fact, once the construction bonds are paid off, the continuing lease income will provide additional revenue to fund recreation programs throughout Jersey City at no cost to local taxpayers. Clearly, the city has hit a home run, and so have Jersey City’s children and taxpayers.
There’s more. The Golden Door Charter School educates children for approximately $8,000 per child per year, including operating costs, space rental costs, and staff pensions. By contrast, the Jersey City School District will spend between $13,000 to $15,000 per child per year, including capital and pension costs, for children attending any of the new school facilities being planned by the district to decrease class over-crowding.
Approximately 90 percent of the charter school’s students are from low-income families and are eligible for the federal school lunch program. Most are considered “at risk” by the state. Yet 100 percent of the students who have attended Golden Door for a full year have progressed at least a full year in learning, and many have progressed by almost two full years in learning. Kindergartners who on average performed at the 24th percentile nationally on their Iowa Reading Tests in September of 1998, tested at the 39th percentile nationally this past spring–a remarkable 15 percentile point increase in just one year.
This is the face of educational innovation in Jersey City. We have found a way to offer children high-quality learning at lower cost to taxpayers, and at the same time to bless all of our citizens with a beautiful new community center.
Bret Schundler is mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey. He founded the Golden Door Charter School but stepped down from the board when the school became a prospective bidder for city-owned space.