Friday, February 10, 2012

Christie, the NJEA, and Inequities in Education

The drama between the Christie Administration and the NJEA once again took center stage Wednesday as the Governor, along with voucher legislation sponsors Raymond Lesniak and Tom Kean Jr. , “condemned” NJEA executive director Vincent Giordano’s statement that “life’s not always fair” with respect to the blight of inner city families “stuck” in failing schools.

The NJEA’s basic position on vouchers is that “it is not the way to address the challenges faced by urban schools,” while opponents base their argument on the belief that “parents of limited means (should not be) forced into failing schools by virtue of their ZIP code.”

Who’s right in this case? Well, they both are.

Vouchers may turn out to be bad public policy, but by the same token “resource poor” families in the inner city should not be resigned to years of trying to navigate through substandard schools and crime ridden neighborhoods in their struggle to secure the same opportunities for success as kids in the suburbs.

The debate can in effect be reduced to the rights of individual families versus the needs of the community. If in fact “voucher families” can find schools willing to receive them, the impact on the community school may be devastating.

We need a “Marshall Plan” for urban schools. If such a plan were in place, it would be hard to argue against allowing a voucher plan to proceed. This is a State with a progressive history; it needs to experiment with change. Try a voucher plan, try some merit pay plans. Try allowing some inner city schools to form their own charter schools. Try a redesigned HSPA that tests students in all disciplines, not just math and English. Try out a streamlined Core Curriculum that only requires teaching kids what they MUST learn rather than all those things we aspire for them to learn.

Then turn to the neighborhoods. Try a program that incentivizes suburban families to move back into the city. Try out the “elastic cities” concept in one of our urban centers and its surrounding communities. Try creating “urban opportunity zones,” with incentives for businesses to move into the city and create “connections” with urban schools. Try, try, try.

I learned an important lesson in one of my international economics classes at Lehigh. Studying rural populations in the Third World, we learned how risk averse communities would not support agricultural innovations offered by the U.N.; the risk of failure outweighed any “theoretical” gains. It wasn’t until the U.N. used their own land to demonstrate the merits of their technology that these communities would agree to give it a try. My sense is that the same line of reasoning applies here when it comes to education reform.

Children have no say in who their parents are, or what kind of life they were dealt at birth. They are born equal, and they should be thought of as equal when it comes to educational opportunity. As Rawls so rightly declared, inequality can only be justified if there is a societal benefit to be gained by it. Our economy benefits from some measure of inequality. Our education system does not. It cannot be justified. It cannot be tolerated. It cannot continue.

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