Thanks for nothing: State control failed urban public schools

The State Board of Education recently adopted a recommendation by Commissioner of Education David Hespe to move Jersey City’s public schools, which have been under state control for 26 years, one step closer to local control.

Nothing in Jersey City and the other state-operated districts, Camden, Paterson and Newark, suggests that putting Trenton in charge has any appreciable impact on improving the quality of education.

There are a few problems in public education that stand out.

First, the way kids are taught today is not much different than classrooms in the mid-1800s, when free public education was a relatively new idea. All the computers and other high tech gadgetry have not led to a fundamentally changed environment. Education is a labor intensive industry, so it is always going to be expensive but in a democracy, that is far less costly than the price of public ignorance.

Second, everyone agrees that the place a person lives at should not be the primary arbiter of how well he or she succeeds in life but getting that notion into practice has certain obstacles. Among the biggest hurdles for reform is the vast amount of political patronage associated with schools. Consequently, allocating money and jobs and contracts takes more attention from policy makers than things like curriculum and the kids. Instead of hundreds of districts ranging in size significantly, New Jersey should administer schools on the state level and do away with the ill-conceived notion of ‘home rule.’

There are no quick fixes. Solutions to problems associated with learning are not likely to be ‘no brainers’ because really smart people would have already come up with those had there been any.

At its heart, education reform since the 1980s has always been about saving money rather than doing a better job teaching children. That is why Governor Thomas H. Kean pushed through a law allowing state officials to take over local districts when things got bad enough. As we see now, it did not make anything better for the students but governors have been able to spread around patronage instead of local elected officials in those four critically poor communities.

Using that standard, you could kill the patient to cure the disease but shutting down public schools would look downright racist, even though the millionaires and billionaires interested in skipping out on the bill for public tuition might not particularly dislike black or Latino children. They have no use for any poor kids, regardless of race and ethnicity.

Making schools work involves taking a broader view of the lives of students, many of whom come from impoverished families and live in violent neighborhoods. It is hard to learn when you are hungry or ducking punches. Where hindrances to education exist outside the school building, almost nothing has been done to remedy the problem.

 

 

 


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