Evaluating the Evaluators: New Direction for New Jersey Schools

Sep 26, 2011

Money can't buy happiness, some say, and it also might not be able to buy a good education. Just ask New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, whose state has tried repeatedly to improve the performance of New Jersey's lowest-performing schools by simply spending more money on them. It's a practice that has yielded little or no positive results. Now, some say, it's going to take more drastic efforts to turn these schools around.

by Harrison Howe

new jersey school privatization

Answers Might Lie With the Private Sector

Federal grants and large amounts of state budget money haven't done it (15% of New Jersey's budget is spent on Abbott districts, so named after Abbott vs. Burke, a 1985 Supreme Court decision in which failing schools in specified districts are directed by law to receive state monetary aid). So what might be the answer to getting some New Jersey schools to perform at acceptable levels?

Hold teachers accountable, reward them with merit pay and provide some sense of competition by allowing students in low-performing schools to attend non-public institutions. That's how businesses or corporations would do it, and proponents say that these practices could be applied to certain New Jersey school systems as well.

Proposed reforms by Governor Christie, while not well-met, include basing each teacher's tenure and compensation on performance. The governor also supports a pilot program wherein a scholarship fund, financed by private sector contributions in exchange for tax credits, would allow students of low-income families to go to private schools.

Details about how teacher performance would be evaluated have not been discussed.

Transforming Schools and Restoring Hope

To date, the above reforms have not moved beyond the discussion stage. But more recently, a new change was announced that could benefit the state's worst schools.

In June 2011, Gov. Christie green-lighted a pilot program allowing school management companies to take over some of New Jersey's consistently under-performing schools or to even build new ones. He called it an 'innovative alternative' and said that it would 'restore hope in communities where failing schools deny children hope and opportunity.'

Known as transformation schools, the program has been piloted in more than 30 other states. Results are mixed. Though management companies often make changes such as lengthening school days or years, they must follow both state and U.S. Department of Education standards.

So for New Jersey, it remains to be seen that if an education can't be bought it might at least be able to be managed.

Should teachers be held more accountable for student performance? Read how Illinois has already enacted reform regarding teacher accountability and its impact on tenure.

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