We may not have made the first cut for Race To The Top,

but yesterday Comm. Bret Schundler announced that the US DOE has given us $66.7 million to turn around some of our schools on the bottom. New Jersey’s 34 worst-performing schools (see here for complete list) are divided into Tier 1 and Tier 2. Each can apply for between $50,000 and $2 million to implement one of four models: Turnaround (replace principal and half of staff, curricular reform, and extended school days and years); Restart (reopen as a charter school); School Closure (close the school down and send the kids elsewhere); and Transformation (replace principal, curricular reform, extended school days and years).

Example: Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, a Tier 1 school, has a 20% mobility rate among its 1081 kids. 58.1% fail the HSPA in language arts and 77.4% fail the HSPA in math. 45% of seniors graduated last year by relying on the Special Review Assessment, which won’t be an option this year in its old finesse-able form. 58 kids at Malcolm X Shabazz High took an Advanced Placement test last year. Not one student got a 3 or higher. For this we pay $18,378 per pupil per year.

Of these 34 chronically failing schools, 8 are in Camden City and 10 are in Newark. Students in these cities are also potential beneficiaries of the Opportunity Scholarship Bill, proposed by Senators Ray Lesniak and Tom Kean Jr., a 5-year pilot program whereby students in failing schools could apply for private scholarships to attend more successful private and public schools. Two hundred and five schools throughout the state meet criteria for these vouchers, including 24 in Camden and 42 in Newark, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There’s plenty of resistance to the bill. Senator Shirley Turner said, "It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck. It's a duck. Instead of trying to help improve the public schools, this is going to help them to deteriorate even further." NJEA spokesman Steve Baker declared, "We're still opposed to vouchers and this is a voucher bill. These are taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for public schools." And Jose Delgado, President of the Camden City School Board complained, "Generally speaking, my question is: How does this help the public schools become better? I think the legislators and all of us should be talking about issues related to enhancing public schools, not providing a lifeline to a small minority of students."

That’s the main gripe: programs like the Opportunity Scholarship Bill and the federal turn-around grant help individual kids, not the NJ public school system. But isn’t that the problem? Programs designed to implement systemic change pay homage to our unwieldy educational infrastructure and are subject to all the usual political infighting, undermined by compromises and concessions to power. Programs that pay homage to the plight of the individual child’s lack of educational achievement are infused with a fierce urgency that decries compromise and concession. What’s potentially beneficial to NJ’s system of public schools is only beneficial to an abstract student body some years down the line. What’s potentially beneficial to a real student in a school like Malcolm X Shabazz has to happen right now.

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