Princeton Packet

Princeton Packet Guest Opinion: Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ripping off city kids -- and us

By Jim Deneen and Carm Catanese

   Urban centers of New Jersey are the sites of the most catastrophic and expensive failure in the history of education. The victims of this failure especially include the children and parents of cities like our neighboring Trenton. In addition, the rest of us are being ripped off in a big, big way through state taxes, much of which are consumed in supporting these failing inner-city schools and the consequences of their failures.

   Schools in Princeton, Montgomery and West Windsor-Plainsboro are supported almost entirely out of local property taxes. By contrast, the State of New Jersey supports nearly all of the much higher spending in Trenton and other major urban centers.

   • Of the $24,800 per pupil spent in Trenton, $1,900 comes from local taxpayers and $21,400 from the state.
   • Montgomery spends $13,400 per pupil, of which $12,500 comes from local taxes and $800 from the state.
   • West Windsor-Plainsboro spends $15,600 per pupil, of which $14,200 comes from local taxes and $1,400 from the state.
   • Princeton spends $16,500 per pupil, of which $15,300 comes from local taxes and $1,000 from the state.

   Not surprisingly, New Jersey has among the highest sales, income, corporate and property tax rates in the U.S.

   What do we get for all of the tax dollars poured into urban districts like Trenton? Failure on a catastrophic scale: more than half the students drop out before finishing high school; of those who do not drop out, most are unable to pass minimum requirements for high school graduation.

   The numbers for the Trenton Central High School graduating class of 2008 illustrate the point. Of the 1,118 who enrolled as freshmen in 2004, 485 graduated four years later. Of the graduates, 184 passed the Language Arts High School Proficiency Assessment exam and 86 passed the Math HSPA.

   The HSPA is an exam that the Education Commissioner has described as a “middle-school level” test. Bottom line: fewer than 10 percent of students who enter Trenton Central High graduate with a “middle school level” of proficiency in both the core subjects. In our local high schools, virtually 100 percent of students pass the HSPA.

   The greatest costs— both human and financial— of failed public schools in cities like Trenton are realized well after school age. Fully 75 percent of inmates in New Jersey state prisons are high school dropouts.

   Similarly, the products of these failing schools disproportionately consume state aid programs like Medicaid, Aid to Children and Aid to Families. Programs that began as social safety nets have necessarily become a way of life for large numbers of people who lack the education needed to support them in our modern society. In New Jersey’s $33 billion state budget for 2008, 32 percent was allocated to education, 11 percent to Medicaid, 5 percent to prisons and justice and 4 percent to Aid to Families and Children.

   For society as a whole, the costs extend further. Our under-educated urban talent pool does not meet its potential as the kind of entrepreneurs, artists and skilled workers that make for a vibrant economy and for safe, attractive inner-cities. High state corporate taxes discourage immigration of industry, especially into urban areas, and worsen the unemployment and poverty among urban citizens. High property taxes make the state financially unattractive for retiring seniors, many of whom are fleeing—along with their taxable pensions—to lower tax states.

   Is there hope?

   Many people argue that performance comparisons between schools in affluent suburbs and those in Trenton are inappropriate because of the educational and economic advantages of suburban families. Not so. Around the country, successful public schools exist in urban areas more financially and socially disadvantaged than Trenton. In these schools students learn and graduate.

   In Newark, we have the Robert Treat Academy, which serves the same disadvantaged youngsters as the failing public schools of Newark and Trenton. But over 95 percent of Treat students were proficient in the language arts and math HSPA — the highest average scores in New Jersey!

   Similarly, Met East in Camden is a public high school committed to retaining potential dropouts. By intensive tutoring, counseling and a two days a week internship program, Met East recently graduated every member of its first entering class.

   It’s being done elsewhere, why not in Trenton?

   Jim Deneen and Carm Catanese are members of Citizens for Successful Schools, a group committed to improving educational performance in the Trenton School System. Jim is the author of the recently published book “Schools that Succeed, Students that Achieve.”