By Matt Rooney | The Save Jersey Blog
And it isn’t pretty across the board, particularly in urban centers like Camden, New Jersey. No one disagrees on that point.
Sadly that’s where the agreement stops. For example, last week, my reliably liberal but lovable friend Kevin Riordan of The Philadelphia Inquirer dismissed my criticism of Governor Christie’s plan to sink $50 million into renovations at Camden High School as not constructive.
He took issue with my characterization of this latest spending spree as “money down the toilet.”
Let’s avoid beating around the bush and cut right to the heart of this never-ending debate: money. Specifically, whether the problem vexing our education system is a dearth of funds.
Liberals insist that it is. It’s a central tenant of their ideology. All the same, I don’t know how anyone can make that argument in 2014 with a straight face! Without trying to be insulting, I think it’s a position that’s more reflexive than a product of conscious reevaluation.
The facts as they now stand: as of the 2010-2011 school year, Americans spent $632 billion (or $12,608 per student) on K-12 education. We spent only slightly more – $664.84 billion – on national defense over the same period.
Here in New Jersey, many of our worst-performing school districts happen to receive the most funding (dramatically so) thanks to a wildly illogical, court-imposed school funding formula. 50% of New Jersey state aid is dedicated to 5% of our schools. Contrary to claims that he was financially shorting public education, Gov. Christie recently pushed a record-setting $9 billion in state aid. The current grand total for Camden City’s schools? As of 2014? $25,575 per student. Almost $350 million annually on less than 14,000 students.
What we have here is the same dynamic at play in the minimum wage context. How much is enough? $25 per hour? $100 per hour? I’ve yet to hear a convincing answer! Backed up by, ya know, MATHEMATICS.
Similarly, no one can explain to me exactly HOW much money would make a difference in Camden. We’re already spending roughly twice the national average per child but only 3 of 26 Camden public schools aren’t considered “failing” institutions and, amazingly, last year only three Camden high school students were deemed college-ready based on their SAT scores.
So should we spend $50,000 per kid? $100,000? Forget about the property tax implications for a moment; even if money grew on trees, would any amount of money cure that which ails Camden? Hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed from Trenton’s coffers into Camden City proper over the past couple of decades to no avail.
The liberal answer is stubbornly consistent: let’s keep throwing cash at the wall until something works. If nothing else, it’s a great way to prove how much we care! Right?
Kevin says “Camden kids deserve a high school with facilities on par with those elsewhere.” My compound counter-question: why don’t they already have them given what we’ve spent to date? Far more than most New Jersey students elsewhere? Have politicians suddenly become better stewards of our cash such that this time will somehow be different? I doubt it. In fact, I know they haven’t. I am a New Jersey property taxpayer! For a concrete example, revisit the story of Mark Zuckerberg’s wasted $100 million Newark investment.
Moreover, a failure factory with $50 million in renovations is still a failure factory. A good school is more than the sum of its bricks and mortar. The numbers bear that out; there is absolutely NO correlation between total dollars spent per pupil and the quality of a child’s education. Were that the case, then residents of the nearby affluent suburb of Haddonfield (where taxpayers spent roughly $15,344 per student, more than $10,000 less than Camden) would be pushing to get their kids into Camden schools as non-resident students.
Nope. Something else must to be blame, right??
Yes, there is something to be said for the necessity of certain internal reforms like pension and benefits changes, tenure modifications and combating massive misallocations of resources (e.g. exploding administrative costs), but tinkering around the margins with teaching-to-tests oriented “reforms” is the dominant approach. That approach also happens to be largely cosmetic and therefore utterly useless; clearly most of the issues in a district like Camden have nothing to do with money or anything else within the purview of a bureaucrat.
For starters? In case you haven’t been watching the news, we’re up against a hallowed-out urban culture, one that transcends race, gender and religion, plagued by gang violence, drug crime, fatherless homes, domestic violence, a lack of basic social institutions and, as one black think tank recently observed, a prevalent “anti-education mind-set.”
No one wants to talk about it. Suburban Republican politicians are often all too happy to throw money at the problem rather than risk being accused of racism, and the Democrat Party establishment is all too happy to take the money and redirect it to their union allies, in the private and public sectors, who benefit from indiscriminate government spending. The NJEA and building trades can’t wait to sink their teeth into our $50 million. How much will the kids even see?
Worse still, many Democrat politicians (our President included) deliberately reinforce disrespect for American institutions and the rule of law in order to preserve their electoral coalition.
It’s a pathetically sad state of affairs and it’s the kids who suffer most of all from our politicians’ cowardice (and self-interest).
My solution? One which is admittedly partial?
Let’s at least introduce real school choice into these neighborhoods so that an endangered generation of American can attend schools with, for starters, (1) stricter rules of attendance and (2) a higher percentage of parents who actually give a damn about their kids. The clear benefit of such institutions isn’t better buildings, books or even teachers; it’s a superior academic culture, one which invariably results in a superior learning environment.
The alternative is the unacceptable status quo: subsidizing failure with an endless, unchecked flood of tax dollars, far worse than merely “flushing money down the toilet,” Save Jerseyans. It’s aiding and abetting the greatest civil rights disaster of modern history. To me, THAT is what’s truly “not constructive.” I won’t apologize for saying it. The kids of Camden deserve better. So do the taxpayers who are paying good money to prevent another generation from flushing their futures down the proverbial toilet.