Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard on the “False Dichotomy” of Fixing Education vs. Fixing Poverty

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“There is a tiresome debate in education as far as, ‘Do you fix education to cure poverty or do you cure poverty to cure education?’ And I think that’s a false dichotomy,” Rouhanifard said. “You have to address both.”

That’s  Camden Public School Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard in an NPR interview that aired yesterday. You can see the article or listen to the podcast here.

Those who resist the need for systemic public education reform often engage in a kind of tautological argument that poverty can only be ameliorated with money. Hence, until schools are funded at some yet-to-be-achieved level, children will remain impoverished and schools will fail them. That’s the false dichotomy referred to by Superintendent Rouhanifard.

For example, see New Jersey’s own Bruce Baker at the Shanker Institute:

Baker concludes that, despite recent rhetoric, “on average, aggregate measures of per-pupil spending are positively associated with improved or higher student outcomes,” while “schooling resources which cost money … are positively associated with student outcomes.” Finally, reviewing the high-quality evidence on the effect of school finance reforms, he asserts: “Sustained improvements to the level and distribution of funding across local public school districts can lead to improvements in the level and distribution of student outcomes.”

Here’s the problem with Baker’s (NEA’s, AFT’s) logic: it doesn’t conform with facts on the ground. As the NPR piece notes, for almost twenty years, Camden has spent about 2 and a half times the national average, plus free all-day preschool, with no improvements in student outcomes.This relentless outpouring of cash has continued since the State Supreme Court sided with Education Law Center in its suit Abbott v. Burke twenty-five years ago.

Fourteen years later in 2011, three years before Rouhanifard’s appointment, Camden Public Schools spent $22,698 per pupil. Did, per Baker, sky-high per-pupil spending align with better student outcomes? According to the N.J. Department of Education archives, in 2011 2% of Camden High students scored 1500 or higher on the three-part SAT, an indicator of college and career readiness. (That’s about 4 students.) On the then-qualifying exam for high school graduation called the HSPA, which Jon Corzine’s Education Commissioner Lucille Davy called a “middle school test,” 46% of students failed the language arts section and 84% of students failed the math section.

The high school graduation rate was 42.6%. Only nineteen percent of those graduates scored high enough to use the HSPA to satisfy graduation requirements and 74.7% availed themselves of an easier alternative test called the AHSA. (6.2% of graduates were “exempt.”)

In other words, Camden is the perfect test case of whether money is the remedy for educational inequity. The results of that test were predicted by State Supreme Court Justice Robert Wilentz who wrote in the second Abbott ruling.

“We note the convincing proofs in this record that funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts; that without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing; and that in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success. The proofs compellingly demonstrate that the traditional and prevailing educational programs in these poorer urban schools were not designed to meet and are not sufficiently addressing the pervasive array of problems that inhibit the education of poorer urban children. Unless a new approach is taken, these schools — even if adequately funded –will not provide a thorough and efficient education.

There’s hope in Camden now. N.J.’s Urban Hope Act, which Education Law Center abhors, facilitated the creation of hybrid district/charter schools. Superintendent Rouhanifard’s smart and reform-minded leadership (hey, he learned exactly what not to do from Cami Anderson) is lifting performance at all district schools. Graduation rates are up. Schools are safer. Parents are engaged.

Like Judge Wilentz said back in June 1990, money without reform is a losing proposition. Money plus reform? That’s a different matter entirely.

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  • StateAidGuy, April 26, 2016 @ 4:12 pm Reply

    I was very disappointed by the NPR piece on Abbott.

    It's wrong to evaluate Abbott solely by its effects on Abbott districts. You have to look at the many districts whose state aid is lower than it would be otherwise if it weren't for the tremendous “Parity Plus” funding that Wilentz ordered for the Abbott districts (a doctrine which is technically suspended, and yet embedded in SFRA anyway.)

    So fine if a reporter goes to Camden to learn about Abbott, but go to Woodlynne, go to Guttenberg, go to Freehold Boro, go to East Newark and ask their superintendents what they think of Abbott. I think you will get a different response than what Camden's superintendent gives you.

    And I think Hanuschek is right about how ineffective Abbott spending is. Compare Camden to Woodlynne, a neighboring town that is 93% FRL eligible, with a $2000 per student tax base, and yet, as a non-Abbott only spends $13,779 per student and gets very little Pre-K.

    Woodlynne is at the 83rd percentile in peer performance and the 17th percentile in statewide performance. The 17th percentile, obviously, is low, but Woodlynne is one of NJ's five poorest towns.

    Except for Atlantic City (whose schools are still very high spending), all of Woodlynne's peers are Abbotts.

  • StateAidGuy, April 26, 2016 @ 4:13 pm Reply

    Evaluating Abbott just by asking Abbott districts what they think of it is like evaluating the Carried Interest Deduction just by asking hedge fund managers.

  • NJ Left Behind, April 26, 2016 @ 7:14 pm Reply

    Great line, Jeff. And I was disappointed also that the NPR piece didn't take a deeper dive.

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