How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Mission Possible: How You Can Start and Operate a Soup Kitchen

Opinion: Gov. Christie's approach to deplorable conditions at N.J. urban schools has been 'callous, benign neglect'

For more than 25 years, I’ve opposed state takeovers of public schools. I do not believe the state has the ability to improve the quality of education of New Jersey’s urban schools.

In 1989, New Jersey became the first state to intervene in a local school district when it took over the Jersey City schools. Subsequently, the state took over two other districts, Paterson in 1991 and Newark in 1995. None of these districts is completely free of state control yet. Last spring, Gov. Christie announced the state would take over its fourth district, Camden, beginning last June.

The track record for school takeovers in New Jersey has been questionable at best. In April 1995, then-Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz admitted that “academic improvement has not met expectations” in Jersey City and Paterson. When asked whether takeovers have worked in New Jersey, Paul Tractenberg, a highly regarded law professor at Rutgers-Newark, answered: “To, at best, a limited degree.”

In announcing the takeover of Camden’s schools, even Gov. Christie conceded that the state’s history of school takeovers had been mixed. However, he indicated that his approach would be different because of the power of his personality and his unique management style. “I have my own style,” he said. “And that style will permeate the process.”

The takeover of the Camden school district is a reflection of the top-down education reform approach favored by Gov. Christie’s Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. It is based on the notion that better management of a school district will lead to improvement. This centralized approach conflicts in many ways with what effective school literature says works and with my firsthand experience as past business manager of the Jersey City Board of Education.

Commissioner Cerf and Gov. Christie’s approach reminds me a lot of Michelle Rhee’s efforts. She was the passionate but polarizing chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools from 2007-2010, whose controversial tenure produced mixed educational results.

There are many similarities between Michelle Rhee and Gov. Christie. They are both decisive, but divisive, leaders. They are both people about whom others are rarely ambivalent. The Washington Post wrote the following in a review of Michelle Rhee’s recent book: “In a town full of divisive personalities, Rhee polarized opinions more than any public figure I can remember, with the exception of a handful of officials…. Either you admire her do-whatever-it-takes attempt to overhaul a system that had become a national embarrassment, or you loathe her as a power-mad, union-busting, school-closing dictator who trampled over teachers, parents and public servants.”

Just as the income inequality gap has widened in New Jersey during the Christie years, so has the education gap. The administration has had very little success in closing the achievement gap between low-performing and high-achieving students in spite of increased expenditures.

When it comes to addressing the deplorable physical condition of New Jersey’s urban schools, the governor’s approach has been largely that of callous, benign neglect. Likewise, when it comes to addressing the underlying causes of why too many children of our cities are performing poorly, the administration’s answer has been charter schools, which rarely improve performance; “vouchers” for the chosen few; and unrelenting attacks on teachers.

If we want to improve urban education, we have to address the poverty that is devouring the will of far too many of our cities’ children. Considerable research points to a strong relationship between emotional experience as a child and subsequent physical, mental and neurological development. If a child is exposed day-in and day-out to stress and trauma in childhood, he or she is affected by it in a multitude of dramatic and negative ways.

As Gov. Christie takes his first steps on the path toward seeking the Republican presidential nomination, he should squeeze in a stop in Oklahoma, where high-quality kindergarten is available to all 4-year-olds. According to columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, Oklahoma recognizes that “mountains of research suggest that early childhood initiatives are the best way … to reduce the toll of crime, drugs and education failure. Repeated studies suggest that these programs pay for themselves: build preschools now, or prisons later.”

It looks like the upswing in the economy will produce better-than-expected corporate tax revenues for New Jersey. If that is the case, Gov. Christie should earmark a portion of it for a year-round, high-quality public-private, nonprofit child care initiative.

National polls show that Republicans and Democrats favor early-child education programs. Gov. Christie could be hurt in the primaries if a moderate Republican, like John Huntsman Jr., enters the race, because Christie has, with rare exception, governed from the right – he has increased taxes on working class families to provide for tax cuts for the wealthy, vetoed the Earned Income Tax Credit for the working poor, opposed increasing the minimum wage, etc.

Gov. Christie will need to point to more than just his support of expanded funding for his drug court initiative and his participation in the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare as evidence of his commitment to break the soul-destroying cycle of poverty in New Jersey. Embracing high-quality day care as a means of reducing income inequality makes sense from both a public policy and political perspective.