Students sentenced to life of poverty in N.J.

June 29, 2011

As a product of New Jersey's public schools, I am forever grateful to the teachers who provided me the foundation for a successful career. Members of my family have also reaped the rewards of a superior public-school education. It's wrong, however, that children in Camden City's public schools do not enjoy the same opportunity.

That is the unfortunate reality for far too many of the young people in New Jersey's urban areas. They are trapped in chronically dysfunctional schools, shortchanged of the quality education that most of their suburban peers are receiving. They deserve much better. So do New Jersey's taxpayers.

As chairman of Cooper Health System/Cooper University Hospital in Camden, I have seen firsthand the effects of this disparity. Broken schools mean broken dreams for countless students with high ambitions. Thrust into schools with low standards and high crime rates, students are given neither the incentive nor the tools to graduate and go on to successful careers. They are being sentenced to a life of poverty.

Adding insult to injury, New Jersey's taxpayers are paying a steep price - an estimated $20,000-per-student in urban schools - for this deplorable classroom experience. We continue to pour billions of dollars into a chasm of bad ideas. The lack of high-quality schools also works against the development of a strong, vibrant community.

We all share responsibility - elected officials, administrators, teacher unions, and parents - in creating a system of poorly performing schools, higher taxes, and an unprepared workforce.

It's time to start over.

As countless other states have done, we must institute far-reaching reforms that raise the quality of urban schools, while offering families and their children options as to where and what kind of schools they choose to attend. All ideas should be on the table, and everyone should have a voice in the process.

The issue is too important to get bogged down by those seeking to maintain the status quo: Elected officials pandering to one side or the other for political gain; special interests trying to protect their own turf; or school officials whose chief concern is preserving their job security and power.

There are several things we can do immediately:

More charter schools should be opened, offering students a learning environment of discipline, high academic standards, and accountability for everyone.