WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Last week New Jersey could be proud when its pugnacious Republican Governor Chris Christie sat down with the Democratic Mayor Cory Booker on Oprah to thank Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg for his $100 million dollar gift to Newark's schools. The challenge grant could ultimately leverge as much as $250 million dollars to help Newark's students, or roughly 25 percent of the Newark's districts current annual budget.
But money is not at the root of the Newark problem. Targeting is. Already the state is spending $24,000 per student, quite a bit more than the $16,000 state per student average and more than double the national average.
Keep in mind kids only spend part of their life in school. The rest of it they are someplace else, like home and in their neignborhoods. And that's where they are interacting with the adult members of their family and social circle -- where on average more than a third of the adults 25 and older have no high school diploma.
According to the US Census 2006-08 Community survey more than 16 percent of Newark's adult 25 and older have less than a 9th grade education and another 17 percent got passed freshmen year only to drop out before continuing high school.
This legacy of a chronic education deficit can be documented in a long list of New Jersey's cities. In Atlantic City, Elizabeth, Paterson, Union City, Passaic, Perth Amboy and Trenton the stats tell the same disempowering story. It is hard for kids to model behavior without a template. The percentage of college graduates in these communities is in the single digits, while the poverty rates are double or nearly triple the state average.
The unemployment rate for those adults without a high school education is more than third higher for folks that have one. And the ranks of the educationally hobbled is growing rapidly. In Trenton, New Jersey's capital the drop out rate from 2008 to 2009 jumped dramatically for blacks and whites. In 2008 7 percent of white students dropped out. By last year it was above 28 percent. For black students in Trenton in 2008 the drop out rate was ten percent, still three times the state average. Last year almost 23 percent threw in the towel without graduating.
Throughout America this legacy of the chronic education deficit passed down from one generation to the next casts a shadow over our national future.
Truth be told, turning around schools needs to be about turning around families. Literacy and adult education programs have been short-changed historically. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy there has been some improvement under President Obama; but more needs to be done, and he needs to break out some of that "urgency of now" juice he got the majority of voters to swallow in 2008.
Ultimately, this is something Americans have to do for Americans. Congress won't appropriate the money to fix it. Perhaps it is time for a draft of sorts, a national conscription for all of our fabulously well educated college graduates to spend some time teaching somebody else to read. Or has JFK's rhetorical challenge, "ask not what your Country can do for you but what you can do for your country," morphed into 'I only act in my own self-interest?'
For now, we'll have to count on more folks like Facebook's Zuckerberg. Struggling schools will have to comb their alumni and drop out lists. You'll never know what synergies you'll find. Take Trenton's Central High. It is really trying but state scores indicate only 44 percent of the students taking the state's tests are proficient in language arts, compared to 84 percent of the kids tested statewide. In math only 19 percent were proficient, compared to 73 percent of their peers statewide.
Maybe they could tap famous alumnus -- there's former Mayor David Dinkins, and its most famous drop-out, rapper-mogul Jay-Z. Ultimately, we may be heading towards the world described in Ralph Nader's latest novel: "Only the Super Rich can Save Us".