Sunday, June 10, 2012

Busing and Regionalization for Mercer County's schools

West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North and High School South are both highly successful centers of learning. The students score high on tests, they graduate and move on to a variety of colleges, many of them highly elite institutions like MIT, Harvard, and Princeton. The kids receive honors and awards, they oftentimes win highly competitive academic competitions, and the classrooms are by and large filled with curious, perspicacious, determined young men and women preparing for professional careers.

Now the reason I bring up West Windsor is by way of comparison. We spend a lot of time discussing what it would take to bring Trenton High up from the basement, to make them a high functioning school. Well let’s see if we can gain some insight into that question by looking at it in reverse: What would it take for West Windsor-Plainsboro North and South to sink to the level of Trenton Central and Trenton West? Could that ever happen, and if so, how?

From my time in the WW-P school district, I can tell you emphatically that the number one fear of the community was an increase in the local population, specifically the increase in low income housing. As far as parents were concerned, that demographic change constituted the single greatest determinant of the schools’ quality. Not the teachers, not the administrators, not funding. It was socioeconomics, plain and simple. You might say that this is just an unwarranted, slightly racist view, but it was nonetheless a fairly widely held view. Now personally, I feel that teachers play an invaluable role in sustaining a vigorous culture of learning at school, ideally with the support of an active, engaged administration that recognizes, rewards, and encourages student achievement. Teachers set expectations, they are responsible for designing creative curriculum and assessments, and in many situations they act as de facto parents. They must be considered an important determinant in  the equation.

So here’s the hard part; since the demographics and faculty are unlikely to change in any significant way, how do we “do right” for the kids in Trenton. I’ve thought a lot about it, and here is what I see as the only solution ‘with teeth,” the only solution that will result in a more equitable system of education: busing and regionalization.

New Jersey has the largest number of school districts in the country; some districts have no more than one K-3 school. Regionalization is a hot topic in the State right now, with many communities now seeing it as a solution to escalating public sector costs. I would like to refer you all to David Rusk’s book “Elastic Cities,” where he developed the hypothesis and concluded that “metropolitan areas in which central cities have been able to expand (annex) have experienced more favorable social and economic results.” I agree with Rusk’s conclusions, but realize that an expansion of Trenton through the power to annex is highly unlikely. However, there is widespread sentiment in government, especially with the current governor, that regionalization of school districts is a necessary step in controlling costs by reducing redundancies and improving efficiency.

I firmly believe that regionalization of Mercer County’s school systems, with a concomitant policy of busing ,,,,,within the County, is the only way we are going to improve the quality of Trenton’s schools. It is the only way to truly affirm our supposed commitment to equity in education. It is the only true salvation for the students in Trenton. Will busing and regionalization meet with resistance? No doubt. But I challenge anyone out there to give me an alternative. I’d love to hear another solution to solving the horrible inequities in our State. We have the highest test scores in the nation, yet also have the greatest variance in outcomes in the nation. It is an embarrassment and an egregious example of our State turning its back on the families in our inner cities.

Honestly, I’d prefer simply finding a way to incentivize having middle class families move back into the city and attend Trenton schools, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. It’s time for our leaders to take bold steps to make things right. It’s time for a dialogue on regionalization, and it’s time to revisit the use of busing to affect positive change in our low functioning schools.                     

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