Opinion: Market Rules Trump School Regulations

Gordon MacInnes | July 27, 2011 | Opinion
In capping superintendent salaries, the Christie administration seems to have forgotten the basic rule of supply and demand

Two things can be said for certain about New Jersey’s school regulations. They make good reading if you can’t sleep. And there are too many of them.

Gov. Chris Christie has the right idea. His Task Force on Education Transformation is directed to streamline the regulations that strangle enterprise in districts and schools.

But his seven-member task force is operating on a schedule that suggests its report is already written.

Let’s hope not.

The task force has a chance to invigorate the debate about what districts and schools need to do to improve student performance. The governor rightly suspects that too many petty, dated and contradictory regulations don’t help.

If the task force acts with commonsense and independence — and puts ideology aside — it could have a major impact.

Here’s one place it could do just that. The task force should urge the reversal of the recent regulation imposing a ceiling on superintendent salaries, which puts local school boards in an impossible situation. They’re charged with providing a world-class education but they can’t afford world-class leadership.

Location, Location, Location

New Jersey’s greatest economic advantage is its location in one of the world’s richest consumer markets, between Philadelphia and New York. Many talented, affluent, well-educated people want to be close enough to those cities to work in them and take advantage of the embarrassment of riches they have to offer.

New Jersey also offers families vibrant, verdant towns with excellent public schools. For the price of their property taxes, these families can prepare their kids for admission to highly selective colleges and universities.

If it sounds too good to be true that’s because it may be, at least for school superintendents and highly placed administrators in towns that are magnets for high-earning families — like Princeton, Westfield, Mendham, Ridgewood, and Haddonfield

Mt. Lakes recently replaced a superintendent driven out by the new salary cap, but could pay no more than $155,000. That’s the salary of a middle school principal in Westport, CT, and $50,000 less than the principal of Bronxville High School.

The point is that high-earning families can also live in Westchester, Nassau, or Fairfield counties, or in Bucks at the other end. The towns are just as verdant and vibrant. The school systems are first rate. Transit to the city is fast and efficient. But these towns pay their school superintendents, on average, about $250,000 a year. Like it or not, this is what it costs to attract the most able educational leadership in the New York area.

What the governor has forgotten is one of the basic rules of the market: talent follows money.

Critical Competition

The Christie administration loves the marketplace when the subject is failed city schools. Competition is seen as critical when it comes to jarring complacent urban educators. The more charters are approved, the more students use vouchers to go to parochial schools, the more for-profit companies that are brought in to take over the management of failed schools, the more city educators will act creatively, nimbly and energetically to solve the apparently intractable issues of poverty and education.

But when it comes to the best districts in the state, the administration forgets another basic rule of the marketplace: when the supply of educational leaders is short, their price goes up.

The effects of the superintendent cap have been swift and negative. Some of the state’s most highly respected superintendents in some of North Jersey’s most highly regarded districts have retired or announced their intention to do so. Or they’ve taken jobs in New York.

This brain drain needs to be stopped.

The Governor’s argument that the cap reduces property taxes would be laughable were the consequences not so serious. When fully implemented the administration estimates that the new regulation will save about $9 million. New Jersey’s public schools spend about $22 billion. The saving to the average property taxpayer would be invisible, about $3.18 a year.

The state should give local school boards a fighting chance to attract strong leaders. No one argues that leadership can make a crucial difference to the quality of any enterprise. The Governor himself sets a powerful example of what a focused, clear-thinking and clear-speaking leader can accomplish. Why should he kill the opportunities of local school districts to do the same?

Of course, the task force might conclude that creative, well-educated, job-creating folks can be drawn to New Jersey by saving them three bucks on their property taxes. In the meantime, the state’s best schools will suffer until it’s too late. If just one regulation is recommended for revision or deletion, it should be this one.