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Opinion: N.J. public officials involved in education must aggressively transform failing school districts

The Times of Trenton Newapaper
By John P. Zerillo

The New Jersey and United States constitutions require public officials to assure a thorough and efficient system of education and equal protection, respectively. If officials honored their oath of office, there would be significantly less unemployment, crime and segregation. If New Jersey is to prevent the continued growth of a racial caste system, public officials involved in education must aggressively transform failing school districts. Instead, failing urban schools are feeding dropouts into economically stagnating communities, where 18 percent of minorities are below the poverty line, and into prisons, where 77 percent of inmates are minorities.

Almost 50 percent of students drop out of failing schools; many of them end up in prison, where 75 percent of inmates are dropouts. About half of these inmates are functionally illiterate. When dropouts leave school or prison, 60 percent of them remain unemployed. Once labeled a dropout or an inmate, it is difficult to find employment. What’s more, paroled inmates are often disqualified from public housing, benefits and voting.

Befuddled students attending classes beyond their grade level overwhelm school districts composed primarily of minorities; the course content is over their heads due to social promotion. Nevertheless, urban school boards blame the state for insufficient funds. Most urban populations produce little wealth and can only contribute about 10 percent of the school funding they need. Even when the state provides more funding for urban than suburban students, school administrators are still unsuccessful in turning around their districts.

Money is not the answer.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) warned government that equal funding for segregated white and black schools does not assure a quality education or equal protection. Nevertheless, the New Jersey Supreme Court has frequently ordered funding of urban schools so that they receive funding equal to wealthier districts, but there has been little or no benefit: The quality of urban schools and communities is not nearly equal to those of the suburbs.

In the last 25 years, failing urban schools in the state produced hundreds of thousands of underserved students, causing them irreparable harm. The chance for a dropout’s recovery is not good. Many dropouts will try to support themselves with minimum-wage jobs, welfare, theft and drug dealing. Sometimes, they live in communities within abandoned factories. They may be unable to lead law-abiding lives or to contribute to making stable and healthy families.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has not succeeded in fixing failing school districts. Schools are still a pipeline to ghettos and prisons. Students become parents that are poor, absent from the family or unengaged in their children’s schooling. Perhaps the Court does not see that it tolerates a society of minorities in a new racial caste system composed of failing schools, poverty-stricken ghettos and prisons. Each one of these worsens conditions in the other.

The Trenton School District has been an example of a failing school system. The Trenton school board and superintendent should resolve problems, report results and stand accountable.

Parents have complained of: insufficient textbooks; excessive teacher absenteeism and reliance on substitute teachers; inadequate curricula; insufficient vocational training; foreign teachers who speak unclearly; inadequate busing; and failure to hold administrators accountable.

Teachers have complained of: unengaged parents; too-long, 80-minute classes; too many students who are performing below grade level; ineffective supervisors/administrators; demoted employees who are kept at their higher salary; and inadequate policies and practices to properly deal with disruptive students (e.g., cell-phone use, troublemakers, chronic lateness and absenteeism) to assure a good learning environment.

Activists have complained of: social promotion; too-short school day and year; careless spending of school funds; phone calls and record requests that go ignored; graduates who need remedial courses before taking college courses; failure to teach state-mandated evolutionary biology; and some ineffective affirmative-action hiring as well as questionable promotions.

If school boards do not like sharing their budgets with more successfully performing charter schools, they can collectively bargain with the teachers’ union to copy their best practices. The boards can negotiate pilot projects. If students indeed come first, school boards make this happen and the state is proactive in getting it done.

The governor and Legislature should partner with school boards and teachers’ unions to be sure that students “learn to read” before they are required to “read to learn.” In addition, schools should: encourage students to postpone pregnancy until adulthood, when they are emotionally, socially and financially ready; seek incentives to motivate parental engagement with teachers; teach courses that enhance employment opportunities; encourage groups that develop alternatives to continually failing schools; and expand the use of self-paced and online learning technology during and after school.

All branches of government should acknowledge that urban schools, ghettos, probation/parole and jails/prisons form the new racial caste system. A properly administered school district reduces its dropout and failure rates, thus alleviating poverty, unemployment and crime. Only then can New Jersey offer a thorough and efficient system of education, remedy segregation and thereby assure equal protection for its minorities.