May 29, 2021
Mark Weber: Where Public Schools Are Left To Wither: A Four-Part Series
Mark Weber is a teacher with a keen eye and PhD who has done considerable research in the field of school financing. He’s also been a sharp critic of how public education is handled in New Jersey. This year he has written a series of posts about Lakewood, NJ, “Where public schools are left to wither.” The posts, spread over the past few months, are collected here, and look at some of the problems that occur in a fully voucherized system.
This post introduces us to Lakewood, its unique make-up, and its place in the current reform debates.
If you follow K12 policy, you’ve probably noticed that the school privatization crowd has recently become reenergized. The folks from right-wing think tanks and the professional school “choice” promoters have been pushing the idea of school vouchers hard, certain that the pandemic has created widespread dissatisfaction with our current system of public school districts.
Many times I’ve seen these people make the argument that private schools are fully open, and the only reason public schools are not is the intransigence of teachers unions and fecklessness of school boards. Of course, it’s hardly that simple: consider that many “no excuses” charter schools — free of both unions and BOEs — remain closed
. We also really don’t know how many private schools are open, or to what extent, or with what consequences.
Nonetheless, the privatizers see an opening. And considering the number of wingnuts out there who think COVID isn’t a serious threat that requires extraordinary actions to secure schools, they may be right. School privatization was, to my mind, always a secondary part of the overall conservative agenda, but that may have changed, if only in the short term.
Given the renewed focus on vouchers, I think we’re justified in taking some time to really think about what it would look like if we embraced the idea of privatized schools in a “choice” system. What would it look like? If they still existed, what would the public schools do? Which students would go where? How would it affect the community? How would it affect the taxpayers?
In the upcoming series of posts, I’m going to argue that we don’t need to speculate; we already have at least one example, right here in New Jersey, of what will happen if a community largely abandons its public schools.
This installment breaks down the student population and enrollment in Lakewood, and how the migration to private schools has left the public system adrift.
The vast majority of private schools students in Lakewood go to Jewish schools. As I said in the previous post, the religious denomination of the private schools students isn’t important: what’s important is that the majority of the town’s families have opted out of sending their children to the public schools. This is, for many in the school “choice” movement, exactly what they’d like to see: a large number of a community’s families choosing not to send their children to local public district schools.
There are at least two consequences to the majority of Lakewood’s families rejecting public education. First, the student population of the public schools is very different from the private schools. Second, the majority of the town’s families do not have a personal interest in the public schools’ success. Let me be clear: I’m not saying they want the public schools to fail; rather, whether those schools fail or succeed does not impact them personally.
This has profound effect on the Lakewood Public School District’s budget. The local school board is elected by a citizenry that is not invested in the public schools in the same way as is found in most other towns and cities. Whose interests, then, will the district’s budgetary decisions serve?
The presence of many private, voucher-funded schools in Lakewood has led to some serious shenanigans, including a court case outlined in this post. But of course that’s not entirely a surprise.
The amount of spending on private schools is, on average, six percent of a New Jersey district’s budget. But nearly sixteen percent of Lakewood’s budget is spent on private schools. How can a local board of education keep track of this much money if it is given to entities out of their control? Local districts have enough to do keeping track of their own finances, let alone audit the accounts of private schools.
Eisemann’s jury found he engaged in a complex financial scheme to evade the law. It took years for prosecutors to develop the case and win a conviction. It’s not reasonable at all for any school board to be expected to catch a private entity in this kind of act. But if that’s true, it stands to reason that bad faith actors will see an opportunity and try to game the system. And when there is a lack of accountability, bad things inevitably happen.
What is it like to be a public school teacher in a community that has largely abandoned its public schools? Not pretty.
We’ll talk later about how Lakewood’s school district has responded to the pandemic. For now, let me restate that I believe at least three things will happen when public schools are left to wither, as they have been in Lakewood:
- When a large part of a community abandons its public schools, chaos ensues and accountability dissolves.
- Segregation is the inevitable consequence of school privatization.
- Educators will be disrespected in a community that does not support its public schools.
#3 is precisely what’s happening in Lakewood: a climate of disrespect for teachers working in public schools — teachers who are educating only a small fraction of the community’s children.