Opinion: New Jersey's Disposable Children

September 6, 2011

I recently read, with great dismay, the summer screed of Gordon MacInnes on the state of education, education reform and school choice in New Jersey. Aside from his continued opposition to school choice, his fatalist view on the ability of teachers as change agents for children utterly depressed me. When assessing his assault on hope for our children, and the power of great teachers, one must begin and end with a simple idea: things can and should be different than they now are.

...And Statistics

MacInnes cites the state's performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), where New Jersey scores well nationally, as proof that "things are fine and nothing needs changing." But only 39 percent of New Jersey students test at or above proficient on eigth grade reading. Is it truly a sign of excellence when 61 percent of our students cannot demonstrate basic proficiency on this national assessment? And only three states have larger achievement gaps between their low income and wealthy students on eigth grade reading and math than New Jersey, despite school spending that dwarfs that of almost all other states.

MacInnes goes on to embrace that old buoy of the status quo, the state's inflated graduation rate, to ballast his sinking point. It is so widely known that there are thousands of children who receive, and have received, diplomas through the state's bankrupt alternate route to graduation, once called the SRA and now the AHSA, which grossly inflates the state’s graduation rate, that his citation only affirms how little there is to defend the current system.

And as for declining enrollment in private schools, private school consumption is decreasing, particularly in urban areas where children are being ruined by failing schools, because of economics, not school quality. Parents are choosing "free" public schools over the heavily subsidized tuition they would pay at private and parochial schools because times are desperate; so desperate parents must make a near life-or-death decision about whether to feed their children or brave the tumult of their locally assigned school. These are day-to-day realities that shape the existence of our lowest income families and their children.

All Kids Matter

MacInnes thumps the public education platitude of "serving all children" loudly when he attacks the bipartisan Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). What is unfortunate is that so many in New Jersey find the destruction of children of color in failing schools a mere rounding error in our education calculus. The OSA identifies 200 chronically failing schools where over 100,000 students real children from real families have and continue to languish academically. And let’s be clear, these are schools no defenders of the status quo would send their own child to, or the child of someone they loved. Many of them have, of course, already practiced the easiest form of the selection bias they decry by moving to the lofty suburbs of privilege, even as they fight to ensure poor black and Hispanic families do not have the same opportunity.

Many have also taken issue with the governor's characterization of these schools as failing. Much like former Gov. Corzine, who called students in the state’s worst schools and districts "notable exceptions," and Sen. Barbara Buono, who believes 100,000 students in failing schools is "not a bad percentage" of all kids, they prove one thing beyond certainty: if the children are of color and not of means they are invisible. The constant failure of them is acceptable. And their dream of helping "all" children through the one system they favor is more important than helping "any" children in the state’s worst schools with all tools at our disposal. This is precisely the sort of exclusive intellectual jousting, performed by the state’s privileged elites, that can only be done from a distance when you have nothing at stake, let alone a child in a failing school whose future is at risk.

Poverty is a Factor, Not an Excuse

Perhaps most sinister of all is what MacInnes, and other status quo-ists, consider the cornerstone of their battle to maintain their entrenched positions of authority: poverty is destiny. This is actually the most destructive argument that can be offered against public education as an institution in our cities. If "poor kids can’t learn" given the lavish resources present in our former Abbott districts, and a teaching force that either cannot or need not be improved, why should the good taxpayers of New Jersey continue to fund this dysfunction? This revelation is truly the lynchpin of an emerging argument to topple what we today call public education in our cities, and it is offered by the very same individuals who believe they are trying to save it.

Despite what this dogma says about students, there is another victim of this reasoning: the great teacher. The teacher who understand the importance of his or her role in all of this; the awesome responsibility and power they have as—unfairly—the last line of defense for a low-income minority child in a battle for future prosperity and equality. Great teaching can and does make a critical difference for our children, which is why we must recruit, reward and retain the best and remove the worst in the profession. Great teachers, wherever they may be, can and do make a universe of difference in the lives of our neediest kids. Great teachers understand that the defeatism peddled by the status quo has tarnished the profession and continues to wreck children in droves. A focus on teaching is not scapegoating; it’s critical to restoring true excellence and opportunity to the lives of these students.

MacInnes, in his role as former Assistant Commissioner of Education for the Abbott Districts, was once asked by the Senate Education Committee why children in the former Abbott Districts were not learning what they needed to know to pass state assessments, to which he responded, "I don’t know. I can’t explain it." Despite all that has changed since then all the heat and light around failure that was swept under the rug during his and other's tenures in the Department of Education one thing remains the same. MacInnes still does not know, and his antiquated position, which rations opportunity to those of means and influence, cannot be explained to the parents of children in the state's chronically failing schools.