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Saturday, May 21, 2011

New Jersey continues to hemorrhage money


The Christie administration has recalculated the amount it says New Jersey public school districts spend per pupil, increasing the state average rate by several thousand dollars to more than $17,800.... In 2009, under the previous administration’s calculation, the state average was $13,200 per student.... The new spending guide shows Newark spending at nearly $23,000 per student, up from about $17,600 under previous estimates.

Spend more, get less is the unofficial New Jersey education motto. This will be redundant for anyone who has seen Bob Bowdon's excellent exposé, 'The Cartel', but the fact of the matter is that higher spending rarely yields better quality in public education. Here was my review of a screening of the film at Cornell:

The most ardent critics of oligopolies, be they on the left or right, find common ground in a distaste for cartels, exclusive organizations of producers who fix prices and production. Since their formation usually yields price increases and a decrease in the quality of services, governments prevent the formation of cartels through competition law.

So why, then, is our nation's school system allowed to function as the sole beneficiary of tax dollars, lobbying for price increases with no ascertainable improvement in production quality? Our spending on education is the second-highest in the world, the US boasts an average of $91,700 per student in the nine years between the ages of 6 and 15. Despite this, the US was recently ranked 14th out of 34 countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. Finland, by comparison, spends one-third less per student but ranks near the top in all categories.

Former Bloomberg television host Bob Bowdon followed the trail of these bloated numbers and shoddy service to find a systemic, political cause. In his film, 'The Cartel', he focused on the state that spent the most per-pupil in the nation ($17,000 at the time), New Jersey, to show that more spending on education cannot aide a system with perverse motives.

Bowdon documents a sinister aspect to the unions in New Jersey. Teacher's union campaign contributions regenerate in the form of large salaries, “cadillac” benefit plans, and a compensation scheme that pays based on time – not merit. Though it is one of the smallest and most densely populated states in the nation, it has over 400 school districts who remain autonomous, each boasting separate sets of administrators with multiple titles and salaries. These are largely the product of school board elections that take place on work days to promote low-turnout and a rich tradition of crying bloody murder if salaries are not increased each year.

It wouldn't be a film worth viewing, though, if it was just union-bashing. Bowdon looks at the absurdity of the public school system and applies it to other facets of the way our government works. If cars were determined by address the same way schools were, would anyone stay with the shoddy brand? Would anyone continue to pay for the production of these cars if it wasn't compulsory? Teachers' unions rail against vouchers, or any other form of increased competition, but 'The Cartel' points out that food stamps are vouchers which are wildly popular. Pell grants also serve as vouchers for the needy and fuel the rich competition between schools at the university level.

The victims of this systemic failure are, of course, the children. Teachers who don't have to compete based on merit have less of an incentive to be innovative and the tenure system yields a 99.97% teacher retention rate in New Jersey. Bowdon filmed accounts of teachers who abused children but, because of their union reps, are rarely fired. If they are, their cases are sealed so they may seek work elsewhere. Recently, James Smith, head of security in the Paterson, NJ public school system, claimed he had orchestrated busts in his career as a lieutenant in the police department that required less rigor than trying to fire a teacher in New Jersey. Paterson recently fired a tenured special education teacher after he punched a handicapped student. It took Paterson officials four years and over $400,000 to successfully fire him.

Through electing officials who are dependent on union money for re-election yield policies that stymie charter schools and other forms of competition. Though some children may thrive in smaller classes, the “one size fits all” public school system condemns many, particularly the urban poor, to large, oftentimes dangerous, high schools. Bowdon profiles students in Camden, NJ who, after twelve years in the public school system, are functionally illiterate. To function in a modern world, some sought an actual education in the Community Educational Resource Network (CERN), located in church basement where the teachers are local volunteers and the tuition is a mere $30/month.

For the past ten years, my mother has been a teacher in urban Paterson, New Jersey. I volunteered at her two schools throughout my adolescence, tutoring and helping her fellow teachers. I have absolutely no doubt that most of these men and women become teachers for the benefit of children, particularly the urban poor. As we've seen in New Jersey, though, years of politicians crying for more spending on education for these kids only goes to increase the numbers in pockets of administrators and unions, not test scores.

Things have to be changed, the cartel needs to be broken.
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  1. I saw quite a few Japanese classrooms and the common characteristic ... they were absolutely bare bones. Individual desks and a chalkboard ... that was about it. None of the expensive bells and whistles that adorn (crowd?) our kids' classrooms here in California, where my wife thinks what is expected of children to learn is ridiculously too easy.

    The secret to Japan's success? "Kyooiku Mamas."

    "Education Mothers." (Same genus as the Chinese "Tiger Mom.")

    My best friend became a third-grade teacher in a tough part of L.A. when he was fresh out of college. An idealistic liberal, he threw in the towell half way through the school year.

    It was bad enough that when he went out of his way, on his own time, to contact the parent (all single mothers) there were two reactions: The nicer reaction was complete disinterest. The other was hostility towards him, blaming him for their child's bad behavior and/or lack of progress.

    But what spelled the end was when he made the mistake of telling the kids he was Jewish. He was then taunted by elementary school kids (from other classes in the school, too), calling him derogatory terms for Jew.

    Culture is the problem. And throwing money at unions and administrators isn't going to help the kids one bit.

  2. Well put, Kathleen.

    It's especially worrisome that Gov. Christie's state is a leader in the bloating despite his high profile efforts to contain costs.

  3. "Pell grants also serve as vouchers for the needy and fuel the rich competition between schools at the university level.

    That's courious... I went to college with a pell grant to a Catholic University... but school vouchers for K-12 education can't be used in religious schools... why..?

  4. A fairer estimate of schooling costs would include capital spending as well as direct expenses. If that is added in, places like the LA Unified School District spend nearly $30,000 a year per student.

    For that kind of money, society should pay parents half that to homeschool their children. Not only would the quality of education go up dramatically, but society would save because homeschooled children generally finish high school 1 to 2 years before their peers stuck in the monopolistic monstrosity that is government education.

  5. For the past ten years, my mother has been a teacher in urban Paterson, New Jersey.

    The teachers could end this tomorrow. They need to withdraw en masse from the unions.

  6. Great post! We may win the next election, but if we don't attend to the education of our children, we are doomed in the long run.

    It is fine to say that the government should provide vouchers, or that the teachers should quit the unions, but we can't wait for somebody else to solve our problem. Parents need to adjust their priorities and pull their children out of the government schools. Churches need to adjust their priorities and provide their less affluent members with funding to do the same.

  7. Let's put the blame squarely on the group that has nurtured and raised this system for it's own political purposes:


    What other party gets the most support from Unions? (particularly the Teacher's Unions.)

    What other party blocks (and in the case of D.C. they stopped an already successful system as soon as they had the power) voucher systems, charter schools and any other attempt an innovation that aims to improve teacher accountability and the pupils education.

    THE DEMOCRAT PARTY is the cause and their defeat is the answer.

    Anyone with children should be able to draw the same conclusion EVEN USING ONLY THE MSM's slanted reporting for data.

    Anyone who votes Democrat is denying their children the opportunity to live their life to their fullest potential.

    I can't find the quote but I remember someone saying once that if the state of our schools were the result of outside action, it would be grounds for war.

    Well we are at war; with the socialist utopians and the unionists and they are represented by


  8. My grandson is going from 8th grade public school to a Catholic school. If he stays there for the next four years, it's going to cost the parents $35,000. I know, it might be a bargain compared to other private schools, but it's a lot of money for them. They would love to have put that money towards their retirement, but they feel it's worth the sacrifice.