JERSEY CITY – When Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop decided to endorse Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka in this May’s municipal election, his decision made waves, but gave pause.
Fulop has been a vocal supporter for the expansion of charter schools. Baraka, a public high school principal currently on leave from his job, has been a staunch defender of public schools.
The issue of the balance between public and charter schools has been particularly incendiary during the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. Cami Anderson, Gov. Chris Christie’s choice to head the state-run Newark school district, introduced the controversial One Newark school reorganization plan in December. The plan includes the expansion of charter schools, which already serve approximately 20 percent of the city’s students, as well as the closure or consolidation of certain public schools. Opposition to the plan, crystallized by an especially hostile reaction to Anderson’s methods in introducing the plan, has been become a rallying point for Baraka supporters.
Fulop enjoyed the support of the political action committee of Better Education for New Jersey Kids (B4NJK), a schools reform group funded by hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper, during his successful campaign last year. Tepper’s support for charter schools is in opposition to many of the education-oriented labor unions that have endorsed Baraka.
In an interview with PolitickerNJ.com, Fulop, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate, explained why he believes his support for Baraka in Newark does not mean he has backed away from his views on education reform in Jersey City.
“Cities like Jersey City and Newark, with their education issues, are very, very complex. But there isn’t one issue in absolute terms that drives the entire city dialogue. On a lot of the issues on education, there are areas that Ras and I agree on, and areas that we don’t agree on,” Fulop said. “You’re never going to find any candidate that you agree with on every issue 100 percent. My track record on charter schools has been very strong – they’re not the answer to everything, but I think that they have a place in urban areas. I don’t think we can alienate them, and I don’t think Ras is looking to alienate them, either.
“I haven’t been involved in the Cami Anderson issue in Newark, but I understand that there was a lack of community involvement, and I agree that there has to be more community involvement. It’s a concern,” Fulop added. “Ras and I both don’t support the use of school vouchers, so there is some overlap between us. But again, it’s not just about the education issue, or crime, or employment, or anything else.”
Baraka’s rival in the Newark mayoral race, former Assistant Attorney General Shavar Jeffries, served as president of both the Newark school advisory board and the board of TEAM Academy Charter School in Newark, bringing solid educational experience to the table in this year’s mayoral campaign.
Jeffries slammed Fulop’s February endorsement of Baraka, telling PolitickerNJ.com in March that he questioned “the true motives of the mayor of Jersey City’s endorsement of my opponent, [South Ward] Councilman Baraka, which is to take Newark backward, and not forward.”
Fulop’s staff rejected Jeffries’ claims at the time, and Fulop himself explained why when it comes to education, he still backs Baraka, despite the fact that the two politicians don’t always see eye-to-eye on education policy issues.
“On getting progress on education issues in Newark, the message is important, but the messenger is equally as important,” Fulop said. “Many of the people who are advocating for all of these extreme changes in Newark don’t have credibility in the city. Who is the messenger who actually has credibility in the community to try to adapt and move this city forward? Who is the one who is actually going to have the trust of the community? I would argue that it’s Ras Baraka.
“In Jersey City, we have some terrific charter schools, and we have some mediocre charter schools. The traditional public schools, it’s the same. But you do have to be open-minded and try different things, and I think Ras understands that, and has the ability to be the better messenger than anybody else,” Fulop added. “President Obama and [U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan, both progressive Democrats, understand the importance of charter schools. Many mayors across the country understand the importance of charter schools. Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that charter schools are not going anywhere. They’re here to stay. But ultimately, the goal is to repair and improve the traditional public schools. Neighborhood public schools are still the backbone of our communities.”