BY GEORGE NORCROSS III
Across New Jersey, tens of thousands of children are being denied the education they deserve: an education that offers the tools to pursue their hopes and dreams. For them, the path from classroom to job opportunity and career success is blocked.
While taxpayers pour billions of dollars into underperforming schools,too many students and their families are trapped in a vastly inferior learning environment.
It’s time to give families the choice to transfer out of schools that have not made student achievement a priority, and the opportunity to attend quality schools. That’s why I support the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a pilot program that will give children in the state’s poorest-performing schools a chance to attend better ones — public or private — that agree to participate. They would be subject to the identical testing standards that apply to every other student in New Jersey.
This program would give parents who want a better education and future for their children the option to pursue it while, at the same time, saving taxpayer dollars. It is estimated that the recent rash of Catholic school closures is costing the state an additional $800 million a year to accommodate those displaced students in public schools.
The legislation, which has passed an Assembly committee, has won broad, bipartisan support from elected officials, the clergy, business and nonprofit organizations, African-American and Latino leaders and community groups. All of them recognize it as the kind of meaningful reform that New Jersey needs to meet the educational challenges we face.
For decades, too many public schools in Camden and other urban centers in New Jersey have failed to deliver the same results for their students as have their counterparts in the suburbs. I have seen firsthand the frustration and despair of parents who would give anything for the option to send their children to a quality school. It is only right to give parents and their children that choice, not to have their educational options imposed by government or the education bureaucracy.
Underperforming schools are failing not because of a shortage of money. And not for a lack of talented, dedicated teachers who take pride in their work and do their very best in a dispiriting environment. They are failing because public officials, school administrators and others in charge of running the schools have refused to embrace the meaningful change we so desperately need.That change would include eliminating teacher tenure; instituting merit pay for teachers; and offering other performance-based incentives for teachers, such as bonuses and promotions.
Unlike the private sector, the world of public education offers no rewards for superior performance, nor does it impose consequences for poor performance. For school superintendents, administrators and teachers, there is little or no concern about losing their jobs due to unsatisfactory results.
School board elections should be moved to November, when larger numbers of citizens vote, making it more difficult for a small group of special interests to dominate the process.
And our public education system should demand greater accountability and responsibility on the part of parents; schools should require parents to be fully engaged in their children’s education, which, in turn, would increase the motivation of teachers and students to do better.
While the main impetus for reform is giving all of our children the quality education they deserve, the proposed changes also make economic sense. Think about it. If we use a portion of what it costs to educate a child in public school to send a student to private or parochial school, the balance of the money would remain at the public school.
Education reform will be the pre-eminent issue of this decade, in New Jersey and across the nation. Those who embrace it will have performed a valuable service to those families trapped in chronically underperforming schools, as well as to taxpayers paying billions of
dollars for a failed system.
“Our children are the priority” is a common refrain of public officials, political candidates, school administrators and others.
This is our opportunity to show we really mean it, to back up our words with bold and creative actions that will produce concrete, lasting results. All of New Jersey’s children deserve a chance.
Let’s rise to the challenge and give them that chance.