By William Maxwell
Years ago there was the running gag among communist workers in the old Soviet Union: “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” With the recent release of the dismal New Jersey public school results by the Pacific Research Institute, a contemporary narrative about the government-run public school system, goes like this: “We pretend to teach and they pretend to learn.”
All levity aside, it would only be a matter of time before the failure of the public education system would rival that of the failed Soviet socialist system. Both systems are a lot alike. Both are government run. Both employ cronyism, not merit, to fill positions and promote. Both espouse the noble rhetoric of the individual (Workers of the world unite! “We are working in the best interests of the children”), but like all socialist systems, the individual is disposable if they are not serving the interests of the system. Both operate under a rigid orthodoxy and demand total loyalty. Those who dissent, either internally or externally will be met with intimidation, harassment or retaliation. Finally, both systems expend great effort to hide their failings and rely on propaganda to promote themselves as altruistic entities. The public school system, like all socialist systems, so often results in misery for those not in the privileged elite.
The Pacific Research Institute has done a great service by providing the citizens of New Jersey with an alternative set of data regarding the performance of public schools. Most conspicuously, they dispelled the myth that public school failure only happens in the urban schools, but rather is also common in the non-low-income suburban schools as well. Consider the following instructive research outcomes involving student proficiency measures as determined for non-low-income schools by the National Assessment for Education Progress (aka “The Nation’s Report Card”):
1. At nearly 3 in 10 non-low-income New Jersey High schools, more than half of the students failed to meet the college readiness benchmark score of 1550.
2. On the 2015 NAEP fourth-grade reading test, 43 percent of non-low-income New Jersey test-takers failed to score at proficient level.
3. On the NAEP fourth-grade math test, 38 percent of non-low-income New Jersey students failed to score at the proficient level.
4. On the 2015 NAEP eighth-grade reading exam, 49 percent of non-low-income New Jersey test-takers, roughly half failed to score at the proficient level.
5. On the NAEP eighth-grade math exam, 42 percent of non-low-income New Jersey test-takers failed to score at the proficient level
Note: Only New York State has a higher per student annual spend than New Jersey – over 150% of the national average!
No one should be surprised at these outcomes. The public schools, with their centralized curriculums and teaching methods are not in a position to adequately educate a student population that presents an ever increasing array of educational challenges. As student populations and needs become more diverse, the public school systems become more rigid. Today’s student population is increasingly ethnically, culturally, emotionally, developmentally, and psychologically diverse. As such, they require appropriate specialized education services of sufficient quality to adequately educate students with such diverse backgrounds and needs. Such a task is simply too difficult for any one institution, even if well-intentioned, to provide. Consider that 90% of all students attend public school. With that overwhelming workload, it is impossible to expect a consistently high performance across all types of student cohorts – particularly when the public school system, so similar to socialist systems, inherently discourages any type of creativity, innovation, initiative and risk taking. Instead, like all bureaucracies and socialistic systems, it fosters mind-numbing conformity, procedural box-checking, and apathy. Such a system has no chance to meet the educational needs of today’s student.
Tragically, the default setting for all parents is public school enrollment. To obtain even a modestly priced private education setting is out of the financial reach of the great majority of parents. For parents of special needs children, to obtain a private school education is even more daunting. The tuition for a special needs private school in New Jersey generally runs from $50,000 – $75,000. Out of desperation many parents of special needs children seek a “Unilateral Placement” where the parents pay up front and proceed with a legal due process to attempt to have the school district reimburse the parents for the tuition costs. However, this requires tens of thousands of dollars to be spent on legal fees for an uncertain outcome. Once again, this avenue of redress is only open to the well-off.
The public school default setting needs to change. Instead of a powerful active transport force pulling students into the public school system and keeping them there, there needs to be a system of dynamic equilibrium at work whereby parents of all economic strata can easily place their children in an appropriate private school educational setting. At issue is the level of freedom that should be afforded all families with respect to education choice. Currently many public schools, by virtue of denying school choice to those not economically able to pay the private school, are literally holding children hostage to serve the needs of the state.
The Center for Garden State Families (GSF) recognizes that the government-run school system is failing students, and by extension, their families. With the data showing poor performance, not only in urban schools, but now in suburban schools, the public school system no longer has the moral authority to be the default student placement. A new paradigm is needed where by school choice is available for all families. As one of its key objectives to serve the family, GSF will be developing and promoting innovative school choice legislation. The legislation will be ordered towards changing the education environment in a way that will break the public school monopoly on education. In its place we envision a bold new 21st century model that is in line with the times. Our vision is an education environment that respects the inherent dignity of each child and the families that produce and nurture them. It allows their families the freedom to choose appropriate alternative educational offerings that will treat each student as the unique, precious and unrepeatable individual that they are.
William Maxwell is a member of the Board of the Center for Garden State Families. For more information, please visit their website at www.gardenstatefamilies.org .