Our F-Word Schools

The educational bureaucracy cannot bring itself to say the F-word — ‘failing.’So let me say it. These schools are failing the students of our state.
That’s Democratic Senator Ray Lesniak who, along with Republican Tom Kean Jr., is supporting the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would offer tax credits to corporations that donate money for scholarships to private schools for poor kids stuck in failing public schools. According to the Asbury Park Press, students eligible for scholarships would be those whose families make no more than 2.5 times the poverty rate and live in designated districts with those f-word schools; eligibility equates to a school where 40% of the kids there don’t achieve proficiency on state assessments in language arts and math, or 2/3 of kids don’t pass either one. That list includes 176 schools in 34 school districts, including Newark. The bill is supported by both the Black Ministers Council and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, unlikely bedfellows. It is opposed by NJEA.

We move on now to an editorial in the Star-Ledger by Jose Aviles, principal of Barringer High School in Newark, who examines the dearth of options available to children in chronically failing school districts, just like those targeted in the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Aviles (whom we covered yesterday in regards to the unlikely alliance of public and charter school leaders in Newark seeking to share successful practices) examines the “two-tiered system for secondary education comprised of magnet and comprehensive high schools” in our most troubled cities. In Newark specifically, he says, magnet high schools, which compose curricula around subjects like arts, science, technology, humanities, “cream skim” high-performing kids from the top and create non-magnet “dumping grounds” for everyone else. He writes,
Though it is difficult to track which students and how many are lost from the comprehensive high schools to magnet schools, there is a strong perception that cream-skimming has a negative effect on the students that remain at the comprehensive high schools, thus having a major impact on test scores, college acceptance rates and graduation rates.
And it’s not just students who are dumpers or dumpees:
In addition, poor-performing teachers from the best schools are often transferred to comprehensive high schools as punishment and good teachers are often transferred to magnet schools as a reward. Poor-performing teachers at comprehensive high schools often finish out the rest of their careers at these schools, damaging countless students.
In short, students at large comprehensive high schools like those in Newark (or Camden or Paterson or Passaic) are in Aviles’ words, “designed to fail.” Principal Aviles doesn’t propose a concrete solution, but suggests that “creaming” off students – the same argument used by charter school opponents – devastates large comprehensive schools and may not be worth the trade-off (although assigning our best teachers to failing schools -- with appropriate merit pay -- seems like an obvious option).

Might there be some synergy between the Opportunity Scholarship Act and the plight of Newark’s non-magnet school students? Those non-creamed-off students have no other recourse at the moment. Sure, Newark boasts 6 charter schools; all have waiting lists. Team Academy Charter School has 1,800 kids waiting, Lady Liberty Academy has 273, New Horizons has 212, North Star Academy has 1,775, Marion P. Thomas Charter has 180, and Robert Treat Academy has 1,047 kids waiting for an open slot. Will NJ's reluctance to embrace school choice leave these kids on endless waiting lists or leave them with an opportunity?

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