Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Jersey Schools Need To Face Reality

The following is a letter I wrote to my local paper in an effort to convince folks to vote down the upcoming school budget. It was published in the Examiner.

[Note: I just saw a documentary, "The Cartel: Education + Politics = $", that more eloquently makes the same points I was trying to make in this blog].  The documentary has an informative web site that provides some ideas on how parents can help make things better.]

According to the Examiner, Millstone’s proposed 2010-11 budget puts perpupil spending at around $13,000. That’s just a number. To understand whether we’re paying too much, that number needs to be put into context. According to the Census Bureau, the average spending per student in the U.S. in 2006 was around $9,138 and for New Jersey a whopping $14,630. Considering that the 2006 figures are higher than Millstone’s 2010-11 budget, and New Jersey ranks pretty high among the 50 states, it appears that we’re almost getting our money’s worth. Unfortunately, when our students graduate, they don’t just have to compete with other Americans. They have to compete with workers from other countries.
So let us compare that $13,000 spending to another highly developed country — Germany. This country spends about $7,700 per student in 2006 dollars. That’s nearly half of what New Jersey spent the same year and about $1,500 less than the average U.S. spending. Given that Germany outscores the U.S. in literacy, math, and science, things don’t look very favorable. Developing countries like China and India whose students score much higher than the U.S. in math and science spend a fraction per student of what the U.S. does.

So where does the money go? Looking at average teacher salaries for both Germany and the U.S. reveals that starting salaries in Germany are higher than in the U.S. So clearly the teachers in Germany aren’t being shortchanged. Having attended both German and U.S. schools, I suspect the money is wasted in “administration.” Germany, a country of 80 million people, doesn’t have 600 individual school districts as New Jersey does and, thus, it doesn’t have the expense of redundantly paying for the same administrative tasks 600 times. (Incidentally, if you look at another U.S. state, North Carolina, with the same number of students as N.J., you will find that that state only has 100 districts. Not surprisingly, their perstudent spending is much less than N.J.’s.)

Given the above, it is clear to me that the solution to New Jersey’s educational budget woes is not to keep firing teachers, laying off custodians, or firing bus drivers. The solution is to consolidate administrative functions across the school districts. Think about it. We have 600 superintendents making $200,000 each and they all do pretty much the same job. On top of that, thanks to Gov. [Jon] Corzine, we have another 21 county superintendents, which, ostensibly, were supposed to replace those 600 superintendents. If the 600 district superintendents were eliminated and we let the county superintendents do the job, it would save N.J. $120 million dollars per year. Many of these superintendents have their own personal secretaries. Eliminating those positions will probably save another $50 million. Those secretaries often have their own secretaries (also known as clerk typists) — more millions saved. Many, if not all the districts, develop their own curricula. Why? Can’t N.J. come up with a single curriculum for all its schools? Does every district need its own director of curriculum ($140,000)? Does every district need multiple curriculum advisers? There are probably another several hundred million dollars in savings to be had by consolidating curricula across the state. And all these savings can be had without firing a single teacher, without cutting a single academic program, without negatively affecting our children’s education.

I don’t know why school districts do not consider this alternative way of saving huge sums of money. I do know that I will not vote for tax increases until those obvious savings are taken. Tax increase proponents’ cries that a no vote is a vote against the children is a hollow one when those same individuals cut teachers and academic programs rather than redundant administrative functions.