Schooled: How public schools can improve on a dime

Former Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Booker is now a U.S. senator from New Jersey. Photo by Olivier Douliery/McClatchy Tribune.

Former Newark, New Jersey Mayor Cory Booker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Booker is now a U.S. senator from New Jersey. Photo by Olivier Douliery/McClatchy Tribune.

In 2010, then-Mayor Cory Booker brought Gov. Chris Christie on board to bring cutting-edge educational reform to Newark, New Jersey’s miserably failing schools through philanthropic donations, which bypass the need for public review of spending.

Although admitting he didn’t know much about education reform, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stuck his big toe into the philanthropy pool with an enormous $100 million gift to the cause — announced with great fanfare during an appearance on Oprah.

But four years on, Zuckerberg’s money has run out with no noticeable improvement in student performance. Where did the great majority of the funding go? To labor contracts and consulting fees.

As Vivian Cox Fraser, the president of the Urban League of Essex County, lamented in a May article in The New Yorker, “Everybody’s getting paid, but Raheem still can’t read.”

Although school boards across the state plead for more and more money from their ever-pressed town residents, let’s be honest: Money can’t buy education.

As we talk about school competition, ratings, rankings, report cards and other ways to determine the effectiveness of our educational system, we exclude private institutions from the conversation, including America’s Catholic schools and the 2 million students they educate.

The average Catholic school costs about $3,700 for elementary and $8,200 for high school while the average U.S. school district spends $10,608 for each individual student, here in Maine, $12,189, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (There is some argument that public education spending is well understated.) And Catholic schools deliver students who excel.

Some will argue that private schools do better than public schools because they have more money and can attract and recruit higher-performing students while expelling lower-performing students. Parents might also choose to send their child to private schools with values more closely aligned to their own, in addition to the perception of a better education.

This side also argues that a voucher system would pour money into private schools at the expense of public schools.

But private and parochial schools know that if parents don’t think they’re getting their money’s worth, they can leave. It’s a great incentive for them to carefully hire teachers and educators who believe in their mission and are serving their students effectively. There are free-market forces at work, which mean they have to provide an excellent product to be competitive with other choices.

One advantage non-public schools have: Very few teachers are members of the powerful education unions.

“When unions get involved in having contracts in schools, they tend to control everything from the operations, to who gets hired… and even the curriculum for that matter,” Jeanne Allen, who heads the Center for Education Reform, told Fox News back in 2011.

Without union interference, non-public schools can turn the ship on a dime, addressing issues quickly without the involvement of many different union constituencies. Hiring, and on occasion firing, also becomes a much more efficient undertaking.

Teachers in non-public institutions tend to be much less well compensated, both in pay and benefits: Average salaries are nearly $50,000 for public, and barely $36,000 for private, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Even allowing for state laws requiring public schools to hire only licensed teachers, something not required of private schools, that’s still quite a pay gap.

All schools, public and private, whose students tend to do better have strong leadership and a culture of accountability and excellence where teachers love what they do and inspire and motivate students to stretch, learn and explore. We are blessed with many such institutions in Maine.

So what makes private school teachers want to work under such seemingly diminished financial circumstances?

Smaller class sizes, perhaps. But more than that, a workplace with no governmental and bureaucratic meddling, being able to actually discipline students when needed and having the most important ingredient in student success: parents who are interested and involved in their children’s education.

Parental involvement has nothing to do with economic status or type of family. It has everything to do with reinforcing the lessons learned in school at home, ingraining habits of self-discipline, personal responsibility for one’s actions and a respect for their educators.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professors Sarah Theule Lubienski and Christopher  Lubienski concluded that children attending private schools did better not because the schools were any better, but because parents have higher expectations of their kids’ academic performance, as do the parents of their children’s peer group.

As Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, says, parental choice sets the tone for the student because it “gives a child a real sense of security knowing that the adults are taking responsibility of the child’s education.”

Those are things that money simply can’t buy.

Susan Dench

About Susan Dench

Susan Dench is the founder and president of the fast-growing non-profit, non-partisan Informed Women's Network. Recognizing that many women are tired of "politics as usual," Susan decided to take action and develop strategies that are innovating the way women and politics intersect, nurturing and encouraging women in fun, energetic gatherings where views can be expressed in a supportive environment and then translated into practical solutions that produce results.