Education Reform Now, Not Later

President and CEO of Newark Now
9/9/11 10:43 AM ET
Huffingont Post

In the midst of the vindictive, partisan rhetoric now filling out airwaves — from the economy and health care, to the upcoming presidential election — I wonder: what about education? As we speak, millions of children across the country return to schools that rank below average on the global stage.

In the simplest terms, our schools are failing at an alarming rate, particularly in our nation’s most impoverished and needy areas. The U.S. ranks 15th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, according to the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment, behind South Korea, Finland and Singapore.

While some are fortunate enough to be able to move to a good school district to ensure that their children receive the best education possible, most are not. Is it okay that a quality public education, is not a given right in this country, and is available only to those who can afford it?

It’s not just access to funding that makes some school districts better than others. In Newark, for example, the school system is considered an “Abbot district,” a term which comes from the 1981 lawsuit Abbot v. Burke in which the NJ Supreme Court ordered that poor school districts be funded on par with wealthier districts. For some time now, the 40,000-student district has had access to more money than many of its wealthier counterparts, spending around $22,000 per pupil.

Yet, despite the enormous sums of money being spent, the district continues to fail — only 54 percent of high school seniors graduated in 2010, about the same number that graduated before the state take over in 1996. And 98 percent of Newark students who go on to attend local community colleges require extra help in math, while 87 percent need it in English and reading.

So why are these heavily funded schools failing? 35 percent of Newark children live below the poverty line, compared with 12 percent for New Jersey as a whole. And the median income of families with children is$32,165 in Newark, compared with $86,612 in New Jersey. With such poverty comes single parent households, joblessness, high levels of incarceration, drug abuse and more — leading to a needier student body and less support within the family and community.

In order to be effective, Newark schools not only have to teach children, they must redress the effects of widespread, epidemic poverty as well — no easy task.

Newark mayor Cory Booker and President Barak Obama are both strong advocates of charter schools as a response to our nations education problem. Republican governor Chris Christie agrees, supporting Booker’s goal of increasing access to charter schools from 10 percent to 25 percent of Newark students over the next five years.

But charter schools have been and will continue to be the subject of much debate — while some laud them for their perceived innovativeness, others feel that funding such schools drains resources from public schools while only educating a select few. In Newark, which has some of the best charter schools in the country, 90 percent of students still attend public schools.

Still others insist that many charter schools are not all the award-winning, beacons of hope they’ve been sold as. And sadly, the research supports them.

But the lucky few that are chosen (often via lottery) to attend these schools may very well be offered an incredible education — for free. The Robert Treat Academy in Newark, for example, is an award winning charter school and the number one urban school in New Jersey. It is 96 percent black and Hispanic and sends graduates to some of the country’s most prestigious high schools, including the Lawrenceville School, Phillips Academy Exeter, and Deerfield.

Along with supporting charter schools such as this one, President Obama has proposed revisions to the outdated No Child Left Behind bill that raises expectations on students and schools, changes the measurement for success to one which focuses on college or career-readiness, and offers schools credit for improving individual students progress. It also encourages states to compete for federal education funding, based on his $4 billion Race to the Top competition. Unfortunately he lacks support and a shared sense of urgency.

Governor Chris Christie may be right about one thing; throwing money at failing schools alone won’t fix the problem. But neither will taking money away from them, as he recently attempted, and failed to do. Charter schools are certainly no panacea, but then again, no panacea exists. Regardless, education is equally as important as the other, sexier issues currently vying for our nation’s attention — it’s time that we treat it that way.

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