Educational Lemons

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It’s a bad press day for our beleaguered Abbott districts. In Camden, an elementary school principal pleaded guilty yesterday to billing the district for more than $25,000 for meetings that never took place. Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer unveiled a “paperwork snafu” in which Camden has to give back almost $400,000 in Title 1 money intended for educational services for poor kids. And in Trenton, the Times reports today that the district’s general fund balance, $5.1 million last year, is now a paltry $100,000, mainly due to using the balance to pay off debt for food service. They are looking at laying off staff, cutting programs, reducing supplies. Translation: their fiscal incompetence is hurting kids.

Now, there are plenty of other Abbott districts that manage their finances just fine. But Camden and Trenton, with annual budgets of, respectively, $341 million + and $271 million + and annual costs per child between $16,000 and $17,000, sub-basement test scores and skyscraper high dropout rates, seem to struggle with the most basic sort of educational and fiscal accountability. With all due respect to the many devoted and talented teachers and administrators in these impoverished towns, this level of failure begs for an analogy with the auto industry’s current debacle. Now, let’s state the obvious: children are not cars. But stay with me here: we have a multi-million dollar industry with profligate waste, untenable labor agreements, huge government subsidies, and an inability to compete with other manufacturers. Today the New York Times reported that Nancy Pelosi said that Congress needs clear benchmarks and structural changes in order to approve a bailout:

We want to see a commitment to the future. We want to see a restructuring of the approach, that they have a new business model, a new business plan. There has to be compensation reform.

Couldn’t we say the same thing for Trenton and Camden, both (mis)managed by our troubled overseers, the New Jersey Department of Education? How about compensation and tenure reform for the NJEA? Shouldn’t New Jersey taxpayers, especially parents and children in Camden and Trenton, have a right to demand the same “commitment to the future” as we continue our decades-long experiment in educational bailout?

Update: Robert Reich gets the auto industry/public school connection here.

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