Opinion: Camden School Takeover Brings With It a City’s Worth of Problems

Carl Golden | April 8, 2013 | Opinion
Violence, poverty, and unemployment all take their toll on educational quality

carl golden
A state assumption of local school districts is no longer uncharted territory, but the decision by the Christie Administration to take control of the chronically underperforming Camden school district presents challenges that extend beyond the classroom and the quality of teachers and administrators.

That the district has been in crisis for years is indisputable, and Gov. Chris Christie’s action has won broad support, even among the local political establishment. This is in stark contrast with the fierce opposition that erupted when the state took control of the Jersey City district in 1989, Paterson in 1991, and Newark in 1995.

The woes of the Camden school district, however, are inextricably tied to the deep-seated problems of the city itself, perennially listed as the nation’s most impoverished and most violent.

By taking on the task of managing the school district, the state will inevitably confront the challenges of poverty and crime, both of which weigh heavily on school-age youngsters and the learning environment.

In 2012, for example, a homicide occurred in Camden every five-and-one-half days — 67 murders in a city of 70,000. If the same ratio were applied to New York City, a city with 100 times the population, it would have racked up nearly 7,000 murders.

Virtually all other measures of community viability are equally grim: 43 percent of residents fall below the poverty level, annual household average income is $22,000, and the unemployment rate is 19 percent.

While these issues are not addressed directly by the state takeover, separating them from attempts to improve educational quality will be a difficult task.

There exists an unmistakable correlation between social dysfunction and the poor performance of the school district. By taking control, the state has tacitly assumed a level of responsibility for addressing the city’s issues as well.

There should be no misunderstanding, though: the governor’s intervention was necessary. The school district had exceeded any reasonable definition of the word “crisis,” and further delay was no longer an option.

For example, the district’s four-year graduation rate is 49 percent, 37 percent below the state average, and 90 percent of its schools are in the bottom five percent in standardized test scores. Of its 13,700 students, 84 percent qualify for the free or reduced-price lunch program. Per-pupil spending is $23,700, compared to the state average of $18,000.

The city has long been a ward of the state, dependent each year on the political will of successive governors and legislatures to provide financial assistance to keep it afloat. The state, for instance, provides 86 percent of the school district’s $327 million budget.

The city’s downward spiral has been propelled by chronic public and political corruption, the flight of middle-class families to the suburbs, the disappearance of commercial activity, a steadily shrinking tax base, and the emergence of a cold-blooded drug and gun culture.

Virtually every ill that afflicts urban America can be found to one extent or another in Camden.

State efforts to stem the decline have met with limited success at best. The city has a minor-league baseball stadium, an aquarium, a 70-year-old battleship, and an entertainment/concert venue — all clustered on the Delaware River waterfront.

While all were designed to bring visitors and their money to the city, they’ve been unable to overcome in any significant way Camden’s reputation as a place to avoid at all costs.

It is not unusual for New Jersey residents to drive across a bridge to Pennsylvania, park at Penns Landing in Philadelphia, take the ferry to a dock at the rear of the aquarium, and return across the river to head home after their visit. All to avoid driving in Camden, terrified of making a wrong turn and becoming lost in the darkness of mean city streets.

Whatever bright spots exist involve Cooper University Medical Center, the Camden campus of Rutgers University, the recent approval of charter and so-called Renaissance schools to provide an alternative to the public schools for a limited number of children, and the creation of a countywide police force designed to put dozens more officers on city streets.

The state’s experience with district takeovers has been mixed at best. With its control over the Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson districts for anywhere from 18 to 24 years, some progress has been achieved, but even the staunchest supporters concede improvements have been marginal.

The governor certainly understands the herculean task he has committed his and successive administrations to, but his willingness to act decisively is commendable.

The nearly 14,000 school-age youngsters and those who will follow need to be rescued from the depths of a system that has cheated them of their right to an education. They will suffer the consequences as they grow to adulthood.

Bringing new management and innovation to the schools is a commendable starting point, but how the state will deal with the massive challenge and equally massive cost of restoring the city itself to some semblance of self-sufficiency in the years ahead remains to be seen.