"A child's learning is the funtion more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Booker Agenda: Killing Public Education or Stopping the Killing?

From the AP:

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - In a city where gun violence has become an all too common part of daily life, these shootings were enough to chill even the most hardened residents: Four young friends shot execution-style in a schoolyard just days before they were to head to college.

Three were killed after being forced to kneel against a wall and then shot in the head at close range Saturday night, police said. A girl was found slumped near some bleachers 30 feet away, a gunshot wound to the head but still alive.

The four Newark residents were to attend Delaware State University this fall. No arrests had been made by Monday and authorities had not identified suspects.

The shootings ratcheted up anger in New Jersey's largest city, where the murder rate has risen 50 percent since 1998. The high number of killings have prompted billboards in the downtown area that scream, "HELP WANTED: Stop the Killings in Newark Now!"

"Anyone who has children in the city is in panic mode," said Donna Jackson, president of Take Back Our Streets, a community-based organization. "It takes something like this for people to open up their eyes and understand that not every person killed in Newark is a drug dealer."

The killings bring Newark's murder total for the year to 60, and put pressure on Mayor Cory A. Booker, who campaigned last year on a promise of reducing crime.

One can hope that Mayor Booker's school takeover and privatization plan may be shelved long enough to deal with what could be more pressing issues of children murdered execution style. From the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board's latest Booker celebration a few days before the latest multiple murder incident:
Part of Mr. Booker's solution to this dilemma is education reform centered on school choice. "It's the last frontier we have to cross in order to become the most thriving city in America," he states confidently. "Parents in Newark are more demanding than ever, and they deserve a plethora of options of excellence to choose from that meet the needs of their kids." Mr. Booker is a longtime advocate of school choice: In 1999 he helped found E3, a prominent education-reform group in New Jersey that pushes for charter schools and vouchers for inner-city communities.

Newark's public schools enroll around 42,000 students. With frequent instances of in-school violence, decrepit facilities and low morale, the system is in need of serious overhaul. Just 37% of the city's high-school seniors passed the state proficiency exam in 2005, a statistic that is even more embarrassing considering that city schools spend around $20,000 per pupil--far above the $13,000 state average (itself the second-highest in the country).

Before Mr. Booker can pursue any sweeping reforms, though, he must wrest control of the district from the state, which took over in 1995. "My goal is to turn the clock back to the '70s and vest control in the mayor to appoint school board members that can drive an agenda for reform," Mr. Booker says with hope. "Elected school boards often hit the lowest common denominator. . . . They are not the way to get courageous, driven change."

Mr. Booker emphasizes that until local control returns--which, thanks to recent moves by the state, could be within "16 to 18 months"--his powers are limited. But that hasn't stopped him from cultivating donors to start thinking about charter schools for the future. Last month, he flew to Seattle to meet with representatives of the Gates Foundation. "We had very strong conversations," he reports. "I told them, 'If we can grow KIPP schools and overachieving charter schools [in Newark], it will be much easier to show that [school choice] can work, because you'll see results a lot quicker than in a place like New York, which has around a million school-aged children.'"

Many charter-school donors won't touch Newark until Mr. Booker gains control. Without a powerful leader to ensure accountability, they fear, the city is simply a black hole for outside funding. "The Broad Foundation and others don't want to invest in cities that don't have mayoral control," Mr. Booker says. "So mayoral control has to be one part of the strategy to bring resources into Newark [schools]."

Mr. Booker realizes that educational turnaround will take a lot more than charter schools. Across the country "you're seeing teachers unions allowing merit pay, or unions allowing more leeway in the hiring of good teachers and the firing of bad teachers." In Newark, he predicts, multi-pronged reforms could quickly create "an abundance of excellent schools that can empower our kids to create a 21st century knowledge-based economy, plus keep a lot of residents here."

Meanwhile, Newark's high crime rates are a pressing crisis. Thanks to the zero-tolerance policy of new police director Garry McCarthy, a no-nonsense former NYPD crime strategist, most major crime categories are down in the mayor's first year. The high murder rate, however, hasn't budged.

"These homicides are principally drug-related," Mr. Booker says, explaining that his next step is to tackle New Jersey's draconian drug laws. . . .

Here and here are some background on Booker's more focused agenda.

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