Let’s Fix What’s Wrong With Public Schools, Not Attack Them

Our traditional public school education is under attack by current proposals to abolish tenure, enact vouchers and expand charter schools as rapidly as possible.

Yes, I am a public school teacher and a member of the New Jersey Education Association. I do not always agree with some of the NJEA’s positions, as evidenced by past picketing of my office when I supported pension and benefits reform. But ending due process for the firing of teachers? No.

Gov. Chris Christie has framed this issue so that you might think that teachers are the only public employees who have a process for reviewing an individual’s case before dismissing them. Police officers, firefighters, and most other public employees have similar protection, under civil service rules. In education, that protection is called tenure.

Agreed, some teachers should not be teaching. But Christie’s proposal of hiring teachers by a five-year contract is not the answer. How many cops could you recruit if you hired them on a five-year basis, and their renewal was based on whether the crime rate went down?

The solution is to change the hearing process from one that takes too long and costs too much to one that is more streamlined. I applaud the NJEA’s proposal of a 90-day arbitration process as opposed to our current system that can take more than a year, with costs that run more than $100,000, and take an inordinate amount of administrative time with principals attending meeting after meeting on one tenure case.

There is a problem with tenure. Let’s fix what’s wrong, not abandon the system that gives teachers the right to a fair hearing before they lose their jobs.

More broadly, we should fix what’s wrong in our traditional district public schools, rather than create a rush to exit to schools of unproven quality.

I know I’m bucking the tide of popular opinion here, but an analysis of charter schools shows that some do well, some do about the same as the corresponding district schools, and some do worse.

If you look at Atlantic County, in particular, none of the three charter schools reached the New Jersey Department of Education benchmarks for math or language arts. Meanwhile, one-third of the public schools achieved the benchmarks for language arts and more than half achieved the benchmarks for math. Atlantic County’s only charter high school achieved proficiency in language arts, but failed in math, trailing every public school in Atlantic County,except Pleasantville.

Charter schools have their place in public education. The ChARTer Tech High School in Somers Point is a case in point. A school for the arts is a luxury that no single district in the county can afford, so providing that opportunity through a charter makes all the sense in the world.

But more charter schools at the expense of public schools, while not performing any better, makes little sense to me. We’ll be taking public dollars from the district schools and putting them into schools where there is no accountability to an elected board, the state Department of Education or any public body. I also fear that charter schools will lead to the balkanization of public education. We already have an approved Chinese-centric charter school and a Hebrew-centric charter school.

Is that what we want? Public education has long been one of our most democratic institutions (small “d”), where the kids of doctors and lawyers and the kids of immigrants and the kids of public housing residents go to school together. I see a value in that. While advocates may argue that a Chinese-centric school is not limited to Chinese kids, to quote Damon Runyan, “that’s the way to bet.”

The real issue is what is happening in the district schools where the vast majority of our students will be, except the district will have less revenue with money going to charters and vouchers.

There was a buzz phrase back in the ’80s – “time on task,” from the Carnegie Report on education. It has been forgotten; we still have the same 180-day school year, the same six-hour plus school day as forever.

The Robert Treat Charter School, held up as a model by so many, including Christie, goes to school at least 205 days for seven to 10 hours per day.

If we want to fix what’s wrong, that’s the conversation we should be having. How with scarce resources, do we create more time on task? Stripping away money for private school scholarships and for charter schools is not the answer.

State Sen. James Whelan, D-Atlantic, teaches in Atlantic City public schools and is a former mayor of Atlantic City.