OPINION: Norcross Says Choice Key to NJ Fixing Urban Schools

From George E. Norcross III writing in The Times of Trenton:

In just a few short weeks, students across New Jersey will begin a new school year. For most, there will be a sense of anticipation and promise as they enter schools that have high standards and highly motivated teachers and classmates. But thousands of others will wear a knowing look of despair; through no fault of their own, they face a grim environment plagued by poor academic standards, low morale and unruly, often violent behavior.

Those young people are trapped in the growing number of failing schools in urban New Jersey. From Camden to Newark, chronically dysfunctional schools are denying students the quality education offered to their suburban peers. As other states pass major school reforms, New Jersey refuses to confront its education crisis – denying parents and children the choice to attend better schools. This failure of leadership is unfair to the students and their families. It’s unfair to taxpayers. And it’s unfair to the institutions, businesses and residents who want to live and work in a safe, thriving community.

As chairman of an urban health-care system, I see the effects of this crisis. Broken schools mean broken dreams for countless students with high ambitions. Confined to schools with low standards and high crime rates, students are given neither the incentive nor the tools to graduate and go on to successful careers. They are being sentenced to a life of poverty.

Adding insult to injury, New Jersey’s taxpayers are paying a steep price — an estimated $20,000 per student in urban schools. In short, we are pouring billions of dollars into a spectacularly failing system we refuse to fix.

Even though many states are embracing school reform, New Jersey resists change. Even with compelling evidence that the status quo won’t work, special interests rise up against any new ideas. And despite claims by politicians and educators that they want what’s best for our children, they refuse to support their words with action.

Lip service is unacceptable when the stakes are so high.

The only way to meet the challenge of our failing schools is to encourage and embrace ideas that help create a new culture in those schools. That culture would be infused by high performance standards, strict discipline, a demanding but nurturing learning environment, a system that rewards teachers and students for quality work and increased parental involvement.

Every option should be on the table. Doing nothing, however, is not an option.
Here are a few things we can do quickly:

• Open more charter schools, which would offer students a learning environment of discipline, high academic standards and accountability.

• Open “transformation schools,” which, with the local school board’s approval, could assume the management and educational responsibilities at a failing public school.

• Pass the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a pilot program that would give children in the state’s poorest-performing schools a chance to attend better ones — public or private — that agree to participate. The testing standards and core curriculum would be identical to those for all other students in the state.

Read more here: http://www.nj.com/times-opinion/index.ssf/2011/07/opinion_nj_must_address_proble.html