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Idea of failing N.J. public schools promoted by politicians, privatizers, celebrities

Ohanian Comment: This on-target piece is accurate far beyond New Jersey. It is filled with quotable insights. Use them in letters to papers where you live.

NEWARK--It's a newly popular idea: New Jersey's public schools
fail. An idea promoted by politicians on the national prowl,
privatizers who'll sell anything for a profit, and clueless
celebrities who live thousands of miles away and believe Tony
Soprano really lives here.

And it's preposterous.

New Jersey has some of the best public schools in the nation. Ask
admissions directors of the most selective colleges -- the Ivies and
Stanford and MIT and liberal arts colleges like Amherst and
Haverford. Check out results from national tests like the National
Assessment of Educational Progress -- New Jersey ranks in the top five.

Some of the best schools -- because it has some of the richest
communities in the nation.

The state also has some of the worst public schools -- because it
also has some of the poorest and most racially segregated
communities in America.

Wealth and achievement are inextricably linked. Give the College
Board, the agency that produces the SAT Reasoning Test, your family
income numbers and your race and educational level of your parents
and it will predict your scores and almost always be right.

"There is far more to this than programs and buildings, obvious
things you can buy with money," says Joseph DePierro, dean of the
Seton Hall College of Education. "There are all the issues related
to living in poverty."

That doesn't mean poor children can't learn. They can and do. What
it means is educating poor kids is expensive. Anyone who believes
poverty doesn't affect learning hasn't read Dickens.

The best analysis of education now isn't strictly about schools,
it's evidence compiled by Princeton's Larry Bartels about the
dangerously widening income gap between rich and poor, the worst
since the Depression. It distorts our institutions -- and our
attitudes. But that -- to steal a phrase -- is an inconvenient truth.
Something many, especially in the midst of a grinding, relentless
recession, don't want to hear. Something tax-cutting politicians
don't want to face.

Like fighting a war, battling failure in the schools is costly -- but
we don't mind going after the Taliban, no matter the cost.

So, because we don't like spending money on schools, we'll change
the subject. Bash teachers, envy their secure jobs and pensions
because, in the nonunion private sector, secure jobs with good
pensions disappeared without a fight. Teachers went to jail to win
those rights.

We'll pretend -- as we saw on Oprah Winfrey -- that millionaires
giving some of their stock away will make up for the lack of public
commitment. Mark Zuckerberg's pledge of stock doesn't even make up
for the state aid cuts imposed this year -- and will never match the
$400 million lost to a "clerical error." Self-congratulatory
cheerleading is cheap.

"This is a very dangerous moment for public education," says Paul
Tractenberg, the Rutgers law professor who knows the link between
money and schooling. "Instead of facing up to our responsibilities
to support the schools, we are tearing them apart. We are destroying
the very values that created the public school system."

Public schooling is a value as well as an institution. Fostering a
democratic, egalitarian America. Reject that value and you change
the country in unknowable, maybe dangerous, ways.

We have lost patience. And confidence. We fear the future ΓΆ€” and
faith in public schools is faith in the future. We ricochet from
policy to policy, never waiting to see what works. Impose a set of
standards, a set of tests, a set of curriculum guides, then change
it all in a few years.

"Every decade or so, a new crisis and we change things around,"
says DePierro.

More than 20 years ago, our leaders decided the state should take
over failing school districts. With no Plan B if it didn't work --
and no formal system established to evaluate whether it did and, if
it didn't, why it didn't. Different governors and different
commissioners expected different things of the schools -- and then
they were gone.

"We have made progress," says Richard DeLisi, dean of the Rutgers
Graduate School of Education. "But it all takes time and patience
and consistency. We don't seem to want to give reform the sustained
commitment it requires."

— Bob Braun
Star Ledger blog





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