Public education system needs reform
New Jersey voters turned out in unprecedented numbers last Tuesday to vote down more than half of the proposed school budgets and send a resounding message to school boards and town policymakers across the state. It seems that the electorate — at least locally — has finally awoken and now sees that the state is truly a financial disaster. Rejecting about 58 percent of school budgets, New Jerseyans have shown they are fed up with property tax hikes and their derivative, out-of-control spending.
Gov. Chris Christie's fiscal year 2011 budget includes cuts in educational aid to municipalities equivalent to 5 percent of each respective city's overall budget. This cut was made without prejudice or favor. Large cities are affected in the same way suburbs and small towns are affected. These cuts have resulted in a mild uproar that comes from some concerned parents, but was mostly conducted by the New Jersey Education Association. This teachers' association — through its highly compensated directors and lobbyists — spent millions of dollars trying to convince the public that Gov. Christie is attacking schools, teachers and, consequently, children. This could not be further from the truth. The governor is clearly fighting back against abusive, wasteful spending and lax educational policies that have grown stubbornly and excessively imprudent. As a general rule, when towns receive aid from the state, they use the capital to create new — or support existing — frivolous and needless projects. If the opposite were true, property taxes would decrease, and that almost never happens. The other option, which local taxpayers might find more sensible, is to use the aid to replace tax revenue and lower property taxes. The continued spending on the municipal level is irresponsible, and I think it is fair to say Gov. Christie is doing what needs to be done for long-term economic health and financial stability. The state's accumulation of debt is simply unsustainable.
The school budget rejections indicate that most New Jersey residents feel the same way. Money needs to come from somewhere, and, unlike the federal government, township budgets must be balanced. Since the governor is cutting revenues for every town, one would think local spending would have to fall. School boards do not want to cut spending, though, and to fill the budgetary gap they suggest raising property taxes — again.
For the life of me, I cannot understand why there is no stopping point for school boards. Logically, there should be a point at which investing more money in the local education system has no marginal value. How many laptop computers does one school really need, after all? There is clear evidence that shows spending on a per student basis has little to no correlation with the "quality" of education or test performance. National spending on education has more than doubled the last 40 years, yet reading scores and graduation rates have remained relatively flat. The achievement gap, despite billions of dollars in federal and state aid, also persists.
For these reasons and more, it is frustrating to witness the NJEA trying to brainwash unsuspecting parents. The teachers' association is a union, and its primary goal is to contractually solidify high wages, good working conditions and long-term employment. It is incredibly misleading and utterly false to suggest the union is concerned about the quality of its workers' output en masse. To analogize, an autoworkers' union cares only about maintaining jobs at inflated wages and benefits, the quality of the automobiles is inconsequential.
So when Gov. Christie announced cuts in state aid, the NJEA scrambled not for students, but for its members. While a decrease in educational spending will not necessarily hurt students, it will hurt teachers.
First, let's make one thing clear: Students of the public education system are not going to be dumber as a whole because 5 percent of teachers are laid off. The argument that cuts in state aid will be reflected in some arbitrary measure of educational quality is a farce. The key to a student's success is not small class size, but personal initiative to learn.
Second, if the teachers' union does genuinely care about the students' education as they claim, there is a way all teachers can remain employed while improving the schooling system, and that is by renegotiating their contracts. Three things must happen: The retirement age must be gradually pushed to 65, teachers must contribute to their benefits, and the seniority system must be de-emphasized and replaced with one that incorporates performance.
One of the biggest financial burdens on New Jersey taxpayers is entitlements to teachers. Teachers are eligible for retirement at 55 while, for most private sectors jobs, the age is 65. As life expectancy grows, so should the duration of employment, yet the state has failed to demand that teachers follow that premise. By asking of teachers what is a standard in private companies — even Social Security and Medicare — and moving retirement eligibility to 65, the state will save billions of dollars in layouts for teacher pensions.
Perhaps the most important reform needed, though, is a merit-based pay and employment system. Currently, a school is obligated to let go a newer teacher before an older one, and this can result in the downsizing of two young, energetic, successful teachers, instead of one veteran coasting his way to retirement because the latter's pay is significantly greater than the former's. This arrangement benefits no one — especially not the students. Just as in private sector jobs, raises should be based on performance, not tenure. Yet tenure does protect older teachers who would have no utility outside a school and who might be vulnerable to senseless administrative actions. Thus, a reformed system needs to stress performance just as much as tenure.
Another seemingly large drain on township funds is huge, inefficient and sometimes redundant administrations whose job is to figure out more efficient ways to run the school. Since the approach to teacher management has not changed in decades, and there is still no clear way to measure teacher performance, it is evident that current administrators have limited tangible use.
Maybe it is time to remove the arrangement of principles, multiple vice principles, directors of guidance, directors of student affairs, et cetera and replace it with one centered on fewer, more qualified individuals who have real, quantifiable solutions to school waste. School boards need to become proactive in finding effective leaders that will prioritize innovative ideas for reaching out and communicating information and methods to students, while rewarding teachers whose students consistently outperform their peers.
The people of this state have clearly spoken out against excessive spending, especially when it comes to public education. The governor has taken the first steps in ensuring financial solvency, but the schooling system needs reform if there is to be a consistently lower tax burden and sustainable improvements in students' educational success.
James Winters is a School of Engineering sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering.