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Essay: Public Education's Dangerous Silence

Gordon MacInnes | August 26, 2011

When educators are silent, the governor's barbs and soundbites are all the more convincing.

Welcome to New Jersey and to the 18-month street fight waged by Gov. Chris Christie against public education. By this time, the governor's attacks against teachers and their unions, superintendents' associations and local school board are almost pro forma. (Christie seems to actively dislike everything and anything to do with public education -- except charter schools.)

If Christie's comments have lost much of their ability to surprise (though not to sting), what is truly shocking is the weak defense against these attacks offered by the very people who've committed their lives to public education. True, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) denounces Christie's attack, but it is dismissed as a predictable opponent by the press and most legislators.

Suffering in silence, especially in this case, is very dangerous. Christie is the master of the soundbite. He is passionate, if almost inevitably wrongheaded in his comments about public schools. And if he is allowed to monopolize the microphone, those passionate misinterpretations will start to sound like the "truth."

Let's take a look at what Christie isn't saying:

There are about 1.53 million students attending K-12 schools in New Jersey. In the past school year 1.35 million attended public schools, an impressive 88.4 percent of kids ages five to eighteen. There may be 986 nonpublic schools registered with the education department, but their "market share" has been declining since the 1960’s.

The takeaway: New Jersey relies on public schools to educate its kids.

But how well do public schools do educating those students? The short answer: "better than any state except Massachusetts."

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the most reliable and widely accepted measure of academic achievement. Called the "Nation’s Report Card," it has conducted random tests of fourth and eighth graders beginning in 1969. On the 2009 tests, New Jersey scored second on the fourth and eighth grade reading test, fifth on the fourth grade math test, and third on the eighth grade math test.

When those results were released in 2010, they were greeted with a disinterest bordering on disdain by the Christie administration.

One more thing: New Jersey has the highest graduation rate in the nation.

Taxation for Education

Something else that gets lost in the soundbite: New Jerseyans put their money where their public schools are.

Taxpayers do not like taxes, but residents of New Jersey have demonstrated their support for public education by devoting most of their annual $25 billion in property taxes to pay for local schools. And public schools are, by far, the largest beneficiary of the state budget and have been for many years -- under governors and legislatures of both parties.

It's not all good news, as Christie is quick to point out in his rallying cry of "failed schools."

Students from poor families, concentrated among blacks and Latinos, do not achieve at acceptable levels. And while research is available to prove just about anything, one thing is certain. The socioeconomic status of a kid's parents and classmates are the most reliable predictors of how that student will perform academically. More particularly, we know for sure that the most difficult educational problem is how to educate children of poor families when they go to school only with other poor children.

Persistent Failure?

Christie uses the performance of schools in poor neighborhoods to attack all public schools. Read the governor’s education "reform" package and you'd think he’s running one of the poorest states in the nation rather than one of the wealthiest.

"The governor's reform plan is critically important to ensure failure no longer runs rampant in public schools across New Jersey” hardly sounds like a plan to deal with the eight percent or so of public schools deemed "persistently failing."

The governor knows better. He has demonstrated this knowledge by his support for high-quality preschool in his first two budgets, for which he deserves credit. Closing the gap in vocabulary and general knowledge before kindergarten is crucial to putting poor kids on the path to literacy in the primary grades. Yet, he exploits the underperformance of schools in the state's poorest neighborhoods to hurt public schools in every neighborhood.

But Christie's attacks on public schools goes far deeper than words. Let's take a look at just three examples:

First, the governor's superintendent salary caps have crippled the ability of the state’s elite districts to attract the strongest possible leadership.

The pool of educators that can lead a district in a high-income community, where most parents seek to see their kids to the nation’s most selective universities, is not deep. New Jersey towns, particularly those in north Jersey, must compete with New York suburbs like Scarsdale, New Canaan, Bronxville and Cold Spring Harbor for leaders who understand pedagogy, politics, the selective college market, budgets and sports. When New York and Connecticut towns pay their superintendents $100,000 or more than towns like Mt. Lakes, Westfield, Princeton, Rumson or Summit, the whole state suffers.

New Jersey's economy relies on attracting smart, highly educated, affluent families who seek comfortable towns with convenient transit to New York and excellent public schools. The reason that the state's best lacrosse and field hockey teams are found in such towns is simple -- selective universities emphasize those sports above football or wrestling.

The fact that elite districts are losing an alarming number of superintendents would not be known by checking the websites of the school boards or superintendents associations. The salary cap and its effects are hardly mentioned. Neither organization seeks to overturn the regulation via legislative nullification. And no legislator has stepped up to lead the charge.

The governor likes a good fight, but public educators apparently do not.

Second, the governor wants to use scarce tax dollars to support nonpublic schools.

In this Great Recession, it is no surprise that Christie cut state school aid by $820 million in his first budget. Since it was largest item in the budget, he had no choice. But that does not excuse his simultaneous embrace of legislation to divert up to $1.2 billion in tax dollars over five years to private schools. If this is not a reflection of the governor's priorities, what is?

In a state where public school parents (voters/taxpayers) outnumber private school parents by almost 10:1, one would expect a voucher bill to be a nonstarter. In years past, it has been.

The advocates of the Opportunity Scholarship Act emphasize only their support for students trapped in "chronically failing schools." Actually, 25 percent of the money off the top of OSA goes to students who are already enrolled in private schools. Then, if any of the remaining funds are not used to help kids in failing schools, or in districts that have at least one failing school, those funds can also be paid to those already enrolled in private schools.

So, if enacted as proposed, it is likely that most OSA funds will go to help kids who are not now in a public school and may never have been in one. Take Camden, where about 86 percent of its 13,000 students attend chronically failing schools. The city has only four parochial K-8 parochial schools and no nonpublic high school. Clearly, OSA cannot rescue very many Camden students. The same is true in Newark and Paterson.

At least, OSA has stimulated some attention from the educational interest groups and some legislators. Assembly Speaker Oliver has indicated that she might not post the bill. Assemblyman Louis Greenwald, chair of the budget committee, has hinted at big cutbacks to the scope of OSA. Educational interest groups have stirred up letter-writing campaigns.

Instead of advertising New Jersey's superior schools to attract new enterprises, the governor attacks teachers, school districts, teacher unions, and urban schools. Endlessly.

Most teachers are good and work hard, Christie says, but he delivers a very different message. There is no acceptance that concentrated poverty is at the foundation of the city schools that are targeted as "chronically failing." To the governor, the problem must be that teachers and principals in those schools are holding back their knowledge and expertise because they are not rewarded for superior performance. Or their unions discourage creative and energetic teaching.

Gov. Christie seeks, understandably, to improve the teacher and principal evaluation and tenure laws. Good. The problem is that such improvements do not respond to the underlying and fully documented problem of schools in the poorest neighborhoods. It's not that easy. In the meantime, the repetition of the charges about lousy teaching suggest widespread failure in all public schools.

Third, the governor exaggerates the effectiveness of charter schools.

Charter schools are public schools that trade full funding for flexibility and independence. Charters were authorized beginning in 1996, so we have enough experience to make some judgments, in New Jersey and nationally. The largest and most reliable study of charter students in 16 states found that only 17 percent of them performed better than students in district schools; 37 percent performed worse, and the balance was about the same. The record in New Jersey is not that different.

Encouraging an increase in charter schools is not, by itself, evidence of hostility to public schools. However, the Christie administration greatly exaggerates the potential benefits of charters based on very thin evidence. High-performing charter schools in Newark offer important lessons about improving student performance: spend 25 percent more time on instruction, make students and their parents commit to intense academic emphasis, collect lots of evidence of student work and adjust instruction accordingly and create a culture of high expectations and hard work.

The fact that these few Newark charters do much better on state tests does not mean that simply adopting their practices will produce similar results in district schools. The high-performing Newark charters enroll relatively few special education students, practically no English learners and discourage black males from enrolling or remaining. The student profile is different enough from the district schools to explain most of the performance differential.

The effort to flood Newark and other cities with additional charters will dilute the presence of students from striving families and concentrate the presence of English learners and special education students in district schools. The argument about public school failure will quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

New Jersey has never had a governor who did not support public schools. Even governors who never spent a day as a student in public schools pushed to support them with dollars -- and in the case of Tom Kean, with a state partnership to improve instruction. The idea that a New Jersey governor would give highest priority to a persistent attack on one of the state’s greatest economic assets was unimaginable.

Until now.

Just as surprising is the lack of pushback from educators and legislators who represent both the most challenged and the most distinguished school districts. Their silence is more than inexplicable. It is dangerous.

Gordon MacInnes is a fellow at The Century Foundation in New York and previously was a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. He served as the assistant commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education and was a member of the New Jersey State Senate and General Assembly.

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