Quote of the DayNovember 30, 2009
How Does N. J.’s Lack of School Choice Affect Kids?December 1, 2009
Today’s Trenton Times features an editorial by Dr. James Deneen, an ETS program director, and Dr. Carmen Cantanese, a former VP at Sarnoff, who highlight the failure of N.J.’s urban school districts (specifically Trenton) and their role in driving tax rates that, according to the Tax Foundation, “make New Jerseyans the most heavily taxed citizens in the nation.”
Here’s some stats from the piece that display the dismal state of Trenton Public Schools:60% of students drop out of Trenton Central High School between the ninth and 12th grades; 55% percent of the remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in reading; 78% of those remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in mathematics; and only 36% of seniors pass the High School Proficiency Assessment for graduation.
The writers propose a solution: charter schools modeled on successful programs in poor urban districts like North Star Academy and Robert Treat Academy in Newark. Certainly, that’s part of the answer: Christie needs to quickly overturn a DOE and Legislative culture that views charters as a drain on traditional public schools instead of partners in rescuing the kids stuck in chronically failing schools like those in Trenton. Okay. We’re dreaming. At the least, he needs to act with fortitude and commitment by shifting the sole authority to approve new charters from the Commissioner of Education so that applications don’t just sit in her inbox. We need to expedite the process (Corzine’s new procedures don’t go far enough), provide full funding (right now charters receive anywhere from 70%-90% of the cost per pupil), eliminate the cap (though right now we’re nowhere near it) and offer financial help with facilities.
But that’s only part of the solution to achieving a “thorough and efficient system of education” for all our kids. While critics of charters are quick to point to charters that fail after a few years, they’re loathe to aim their fingers at traditional public schools that have failed for decades. If we can’t stomach a few years of a charter’s failure (right now charters have to be renewed every 4 years), why do we stomach non-charter failure?
The only way out is to break down the district barriers that imprison kids in Trenton (and Camden and Jersey City and Willingboro) when successful school districts reside within a 10-minute bus ride. Traditional wisdom says that N.J. proclivity towards home rule prevents such an option. However, the recent Quinnipiac Poll shows that “New Jersey voters overwhelmingly support merging their school districts and local governments with neighboring ones.” (In 2006 the number in support of mergers was 61%. Now it’s 73%.) No doubt this support is at least in part driven by our economic morass, so Christie needs to act immediately to suppress the opposition of politicians – freeholders, council members, school board members, state officers – who are more invested in their own power than in the needs of schoolchildren and taxpayers. He’s got a very small window of opportunity in January to make some decisive moves. Use it or lose it.
(The current regulations on school district consolidation, supposedly the bailiwick of our Executive County Superintendents, are flaccid at best. In March ECS’s march forth with their proposals for merging districts, at which time every single one will be voted down – if it even gets to a vote – because one “nay” from one district shutters close the proposition. Waste of time, waste of money.)
This doesn’t mean that ritzy Princeton needs to take in all the kids in Trenton (a ten-minute bus ride away). But we can use our newly-revived Interdistrict Public School Choice program (assuming it gets through the Assembly and the Senate) to break down the ethnic and economic barriers that make N.J.’s school system the most segregated one in the nation. This tiny interdistrict program, serving only about 1000 kids, should be expanded so that more than one school per county can participate and incentives need to be offered to schools that receive students from out-of-district. District participation should be mandatory, based on space available. (Case in point: Trenton kids can’t use the program because district participation is voluntary and no district in Mercer County has raised its hand.) For further reading, here’s a comprehensive report from Rutgers. (And here’s a contrarian view, also from today’s Trenton Times.)
So, Mr. Christie, here’s a way to demonstrate your commitment to poor urban kids: stand up to local politicians and expand charter schools, mandate some level of district consolidation, and give our interdistrict programs some teeth. It’s not the whole answer by any stretch, but it’s a start.