The State created this mess and needs to fix it

The elephant in the room when it comes to revitalization is schools.  Everyone knows it but most are hesitant to talk about the real underlying problem.

In the late 60s when most school systems including the ones in New Jersey were going through racial integration, New Jersey dropped the ball.  Sure enough the schools were integrated but at a city level and with predictable results.  With racist fear in their hearts parents began leaving Trenton and stepped across city lines to Ewing, Lawrence and Hamilton.  That drain of stability and capital led to a gradual decline in both school performance and the tax base necessary to fund basic services.  Like it did in many school systems across the state and nation, a vicious cycle of decline set in.

We are where we are.  Now there is no way that an inner city school system like Trenton will reach academic success levels better than the surrounding townships in our lifetime.  Anyone who says it’s possible, hasn’t been paying attention to the failed efforts over the past 30 years.

Meanwhile, in the South, schools were integrated at the county level rather than city.  This made all the difference and it wasn’t because southern governors were enlightened, instead they were forced at gunpoint by the federal government.

In cities like my hometown of Winston-Salem, kids were bussed all over the county to achieve racial balance. It was expensive, messy and uncomfortable.  However, it also helped to avoid “white flight” because there was no where to which to fly.

Today, cities like Winston-Salem and Charlotte have grown in population and have retained much of their economic vibrancy.  Neighborhoods have remained stable and over the years, as the country and the South have become more racially tolerant, neighborhoods have become integrated.

I’ve previously referenced a Harvard study on school segregation that finds the most integrated schools to be in the South.  That same study lists New Jersey as the fourth most segregated in the country.  This shouldn’t be a surprise to the calm and rational social observer.

Had New Jersey’s state leaders been more enlightened they would have followed the Southern model.

Governor Christie is proposing to cut the cord on the very cities that have felt the brunt of New Jersey’s failure as a state to practically integrate schools.  I caution our suburban neighbors not to do that as the results will create vast holes of lawlessness that will spill over at alarming rates into the adjoining suburban sprawl.  It isn’t far-fetched to remember Mario Van Peebles’ 1991 movie, New Jack City as a point of social reference.

There are options for turning the tide in Trenton but none of them involve a dramatic reduction in funding.  Rather the goal should be a gradual reduction in state aid over the next 20 years.

One of the options on the table should be State tax credit investment in urban market rate development.  The current investment climate is a non-starter for private urban development.  The market has simply been made too risky by a combination of city and state policy.  Large, market shaping investment on the order of $100s of millions of dollars is necessary to stimulate any kind of meaningful increase in Trenton’s ratables at this point.

However there are two other less expensive and potentially more socially beneficial options that the Governor and legislature have so far ignored.

  1. Consolidate our schools into 21 county-wide school systems
  2. Offer vouchers in urban districts

Either option fundamentally changes the picture in urban centers like Trenton.

County-wide consolidation is the most straight-forward approach and has the advantage of 40 years of experience.  With a stroke of a pen and a modest investment in transportation, Governor Christie could simultaneously reduce overall school costs in the state through shared service, eliminate the #1 reason for disinvestment in urban centers and improve race relations.

Whenever this topic is mentioned, well meaning people say our suburban neighbors will never go for it and home rule prevents it.  I’ll remind the naysayers that the South didn’t exactly go quietly.  Southern leaders didn’t go for it at all and their main argument (i.e. excuse) was “state’s rights”.  History has proven them wrong.  New Jersey is wrong as a state to simultaneously create dangerous hotbeds of social unrest and spend excessively in the process.

Integration will cause students with non-education focused backgrounds to mix with students who have education as a family priority.  The blending will be uncomfortable for both but students who have the ability to succeed in a positive environment will for the first time have one.  Students who are bused out of their suburbs into the city will find a new appreciation for diversity that will help them live a more meaningful life (the writer speaks from experience).

The transportation necessary for this transition won’t be cheap but will pail in comparison to the cost of the social unrest the Governors current plan will unleash.  And we’ll be a better State for it.

The second option is vouchers. Offering vouchers to families in urban cities will not likely improve overall achievement, rather it will create a stimulus for families to move into the city.  The beauty of an urban voucher program is that a $5000 / child voucher would reduce overall spending on public schools.  Spending $5000 per child and having the parent pay the balance of a private school education is a bargain compared to a $16,000 public education.

Overall spending on education doesn’t go down and neither does the demand for teachers, rather the spending is shifted to parents who are seeking to find more affordable housing options in cities like Trenton and will gladly make up the difference in school tuition over and above a voucher amount.

The exact amount of the voucher is important but whether its $5000, $10,000 or even $15,000 the effect is the same.  We would reduce overall spending per pupil and stimulate new investment in the urban centers where the program is offered.  It’s a nifty, no cost way of revitalizing cities like Trenton.

Of course the education unions have spent decades opposing any new thinking in educational funding.  As a society we can no longer stand for that attitude.  Trenton’s schools are not what we want and its time for the unions to get out of the way.

“Reinvent Trenton” takes and economic view towards revitalization and sometimes that means taking aim at the elephant in the room.  Perhaps this is right time and right Governor to make the most important change in the way our state operates.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks

5 Responses to “The State created this mess and needs to fix it”

  • Stephen:

    Your best post to date…

  • Michael:

    It is simply amazing to me Sen.Turner can take the position she has against school vouchers and not pay a political price
    Not from constitutents,no one…..

  • Tom:

    $5000 for Catholic grade school + parent sweat equity
    $9000 for Catholic High school = parent sweat equity

  • I’m not sure what this is supposed to mean.

  • Monifa:


    Good post. Implementing government across County lines is bound to save tax dollars as well. There would be no need for 10 superintendents- only one, with some support of course.

    While I understand the opposition to vouchers (fear of a mass exodus of those those who can not afford private education- hmmmmm). The issue that must be discussed is that the failing district must begin to compete for students, by providing a viable option. Milwaukee is one district where public schools must compete with magnets, parochial, and private. If a parent/ student is unhappy, they vote with their feet, which ultimately affects the bottom line. At some point, educators must understand that they are providing a service and that if what they are doing isn’t working, they must change it or dismantle it and start over.

Leave a Reply