Last year, Governor Christie cut aid to school budgets by 820 million dollars, yet he promised that he would not touch the money allotted to charter schools. He also promised that there would be more charter schools in New Jersey in 2011. This is illogical on many counts. Diverting money from already strained school budgets in order to open more charter schools, especially in towns with successful schools, will not solve any of New Jersey’s economic problems. It will also weaken the schools we have.
I teach English at East Brunswick High School, and I live in Highland Park. Both school systems are very successful. Both have a high graduation rate, high SAT scores, and a high percentage of students that attend four-year colleges. Neither is a "failing school." These kinds of schools are never mentioned in Governor Christie’s rhetoric. Both schools now succeed despite the fact that budgets were cut because of Governor Christie’s “tool-kit.” My honors English classes at East Brunswick High School are packed with students this year. Children are not getting the attention they deserve. Highland Park has been reduced to a skeleton crew of supervisors. Any extra money in either town's school budget would go to excellent use, but in East Brunswick, Hatikvah, a Hebrew Language Charter school, is further draining the budget. Highland Park's tiny school budget is in similar danger. Tikun Olam, another Hebrew language charter school, has been "fast tracked" for state approval. Trenton has instructed Highland Park to reserve money in its school budget to fund the charter school.
Why are charter schools being opened in successful districts? The citizens of Highland Park and East Brunswick pay high property taxes to live towns with good school systems. Now this money is being siphoned into an experiment in free market education. These districts do not need charter schools. This does not benefit the majority of the students. The “fast-tracking” of these schools is a political maneuver against public school teachers and unions. Governor Christie has effectively pointed the finger at the educational system for the State's economic woes, and he is supposedly using charter schools as a tool to balance the budget. This makes no sense. The cause of the recession is not competitive teacher salaries, and the solution is not more State funded schools. New Jersey already gives people a wide variety of choices in schools. That is why plenty of people with children want to live in East Brunswick and Highland Park.
Governor Christie never mentions this when he attacks New Jersey schools and their budgets. He also never mentions that New Jersey has the highest high school graduation rate in the nation. New Jersey sends an extremely high percentage of students to four-year colleges. Could certain schools use reform? Certainly. But to condemn the entire system-- when it is one of the most successful school systems in the nation-- is egregious. Christie's solution to the public school "crisis" is the free market. He believes choice and competition will solve the problem. Charter schools will offer this choice. And charter schools will do it on the cheap. Charter schools, though funded by the public, do not have to meet as many standards as public schools. Also, like private schools, charter schools have the ability to reject students with special needs, and counsel out students that are not performing well. Yet they still do not perform better than public schools. It seems the Governor bases his pro-charter school philosophy on one-sided, anecdotal documentaries like The Cartel, which he heartily endorses. The Cartel cherry picks a few stories of corruption in public schools and then makes a generalization, but making schools more like a business is perilous. A free market, while fine for non-essential items, is volatile and takes time to react to market needs. A free market in mortgage products resulted in our current recession. A free market in electricity resulted in rolling blackouts in California and the Enron scandal. Some things should not be subjected to the caprices of a free market, and our children's education is one of them.
All I ask is that the Governor put down his remote and do more reading. I suggest that he reads Diane Ravitch's recent analysis of charter schools, The Death and Life of the Great American School System. Ravitch, a former Secretary of Education, is as bi-partisan as they come. George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton appointed her, and she has been critical of both conservative and liberal views on education. Her book provides comprehensive data that charter schools generally do not produce better test scores-- more often than not, they produce worse scores-- and she details the logistical nightmare of making students and parents consumers of education, instead of citizens vested in their town’s school. Years ago, Ravitch believed charter schools would improve the educational system. Then she analyzed the data and looked at the consequences. She changed her philosophy. Is our Governor capable of such reflection?
The public school is one of the last places where the local community can participate in democracy: vote on the budget, influence the curriculum, collaborate with the school board. Places with the best educational systems-- from Massachusetts to Finland to Japan-- have a strong respect for public schools. They have community involvement in the curriculum; well paid, well educated, unionized teachers; and ample funding.
We do not need more schools in New Jersey. We need to become involved in the schools we have. We need impassioned participation in our educational system from parents, students, teachers, administrators and politicians. Teaching needs to be an attractive job for our best and brightest. We need to ask tough questions about what we want our children to know. And our public school budgets should not suffer because of our governor’s political agenda. Please do what you can to ensure that your town's public school is properly funded. All of our children deserve it.