New Jersey has become the latest battleground state for school choice. Instead of reviewing all the pros and cons of the school choice proposals in the state legislature, let me propose a cost effective way for students to get a quality education, for parents to see their children grow intellectually and socially and for teachers to be paid well without the need of a union.
The City of Newark has approximately 40,000 students attending 75 public schools, including preschool, at a cost of $940,000,000 ($91,000,000 of which is for preschool instruction and support services) or nearly $25,000 per students. The State of New Jersey provides 72% of the revenue and the federal government kicks in another 15%. Newark’s tax levy provides only 11.1% of total revenue. In short, Newark schools are heavily subsidized.
There are many reasons Newark’s public schools costs so much: high expenses to maintain large brick and mortar schools, substantial number of administrators and support staff, and costly salary and benefits that eat up approximately 64% of the budget.
A restructuring of Newark and other so-called Abbott school districts would reduce total costs, increase teacher salaries to attract the best teachers possible and thus save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. Everyone who claims to want students to improve their skills and give parents a choice about where their children would be educated should embrace the following road map. In fact, in last week’s Wall Street Journal (May 5) economics professor Donald Boudreaux wrote an essay, “If supermarkets were like public schools,” that makes the case for school choice as good as anyone has in recent years.
Professor Boudreaux uses the analogy of a tax supported supermarket system where families could not purchase groceries outside their “districts.” Families would be stuck to consuming groceries based on where they live dependent of the good will of the supermarket management to provide them high quality foodstuffs. Families, of course, could use their own money to purchase groceries anywhere they wanted in addition to paying taxes for the communal—government—supermarket. In short, they would have to pay “twice” to put food on the dinner table.
Does anyone think government supermarkets would be a good idea? Does anyone think only high income families should have “supermarket choice?” Similarly, all families could have school choices if we do the following.
The City of Newark, actually the teachers and parents, should create no more than 200 neighborhood schools for 200 children each that would replace the current brick and mortar schools. In other words, every neighborhood would have at least 3-5 schools for primary, middle and high school aged students. In short, real school choice would be created by decentralizing the schools, thereby eliminating the need for any busing of students.
Vacant office space, churches and other similar institutions, community centers, or newly built facilities would house the new neighborhood schools. An endowment fund would be created from the funds received from auctioning off the current 75 schools and used to rehabilitate existing facilities or help defray the cost of the new schools.
Each school would have 10-15 teachers who would be responsible for teaching and day-to-day administration. One principal could oversee 10 schools in the city, visiting each school once every two weeks. Each teacher would be paid from $60,000 to $100,000 plus benefits. Benefits typically add another 25% of the teacher’s base salary to the cost of employing one teacher. There would be no need to have a union since the teachers, parents and the “district” principal would set the salaries.
The salary and benefits in each school would be approximately $1,500,000 (12 teachers at an average total cost of $125,000). Let us make it an even $2,000,000, if schools hire support staff for a variety of jobs, including security, secretarial and other duties. If there were 200 schools in Newark, the total teacher and staff costs would be $400,000,000. The cost of the district principal would be let us say $175,000 per annum would be spread among 10 schools. The total citywide cost for principals would be $3,500,000.
Add another $50,000,000 for school operations (textbooks, supplies, etc.) and the total cost of Newark schools would be less than $500,000,000, or approximately 50% less than the current budget of the Newark schools.
In addition, Newark and the other Abbott school districts could establish a Volunteer in Education task force that would provide one-on-one tutoring and other services. Retired teachers, retirees from other fields, and other community residents could help give urban children the attention many of them need to improve their skills.
This is the blueprint. State subsidies would continue but at a much lower level. Over time, urban families would pay for their children’s education just as they pay for their other needs. The goal of financial independence must be the guiding principle.
It is time to put teachers and parents in charge of education and give taxpayers some needed relief from the taxes they are paying to subsidize mediocre at best results in urban schools.
Murray Sabrin is professor of finance at Ramapo college and blogs at www.MurraySabrin.com.