Lessons from the Garden State

Having spent four years working in New Jersey, I was happy to hear the announcement this week that New Jersey Governor-elect Christie selected a school choice advocate (Bret Schundler) to serve as state education commissioner.

I am no expert on New Jersey education or politics. My limited perception of Garden State education is shaped largely by my experience as a TFA teacher in Camden City elementary classrooms and in various tutoring sessions with high schoolers in Trenton. But one doesn't need expertise to realize that children in cities like Camden, Trenton, and Newark are grossly underserved by the public school system, or that spending more money (without more accountability, and major systemic changes to the way schools and districts run) won't necessarily improve outcomes.

New Jersey spends more than any other state on education per pupil yet has little to show for it in the way of student achievement. (To get a sense of the crisis, check out the trailer for The Cartel, a documentary by journalist Bob Bowden exposing the corruption and wasteful spending that makes New Jersey a poster child for what is wrong with public education [mismanagement, strong unions preventing reform, inexcusable achievement gaps despite constant spending increases]).

Bret Schundler is a supporter of charter schools, differentiated teacher pay, and tax credits to fund scholarships for K-12 private schools, reforms that the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) is sure to continue fighting tooth and nail. But Christie is apparently ready for the battle, according to The Star Ledger:

???I'm on the side of kids and parents in this state who want better education, especially in our urban areas,??? ???I'm tired of people who are protecting only their parochial interests. This is a fight I will not shy away from.???

Despite the inevitably tough battle ahead with the NJEA, this is good news for students in the Garden State. Ohio should pay attention so as to steer away from the kind of mistakes that inspire film exposes and foster nasty partisan battles.?? As Emmy pointed out yesterday, Ohio has reason to be proud of the improvements to Buckeye State public education over the last decade or so and, for what it's worth, ranks pretty well on measures like Education Week's ???Quality Counts.??? However, Gov. Strickland's ???evidence-based??? funding model, which focuses on costly inputs that don't translate into improvements to student performance ??? has put Ohio on a dangerous path. And Strickland's strong alliance with teachers unions, along with Ohio Democrats' unwillingness to stand up to unions like many leading Democrats elsewhere have done (President Obama, Sec. Duncan, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Democrats for Education Reform) doesn't inspire much hope; especially for those children languishing in our most troubled schools (e.g. Cleveland, Dayton, Youngstown, et al).

-Jamie Davies O'Leary

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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