• U.S.

Education: When Schools Become Jungles

3 minute read
Ezra Bowen

Over the past two decades, too many big-city public schools have degenerated into jungles of incompetence, failed objectives, even violent crime. A million U.S. high schoolers drop out annually, joining a swelling underclass of unemployables. In Los Angeles, only 229 youngsters of 1,918 at one typical school can read up to grade level. In New York City, classroom thugs committed 1,606 assaults on school grounds last year. A showcase failure among the wreckage has been Jersey City, an 86% minority system where only 25.9% of ninth-graders can pass standard proficiency exams.

Last week, in an unprecedented move, New Jersey’s board of education prescribed a drastic remedy: a state takeover of the Jersey City system for at least five years. Proposed by Commissioner Saul Cooperman and based on a law rammed through the legislature and signed last January by Governor Thomas Kean, the move was the first such action ever taken by a U.S. state against a large urban school district. Moreover, the quiet, toughly effective Cooperman, 53, whose earlier reforms in teacher training have already set national standards, is monitoring ten other troubled districts, including Camden, Hoboken and Newark.

Cooperman plans to fire Jersey City Superintendent Franklin Williams, along with most of his top aides, and clean out the nine-member city school board — provided the state board confirms his plan. Explains the commissioner: “We looked at how the district governs itself, financial aspects, how they handled personnel, hire, promote and transfer, and at the curriculum. The sickness is pervasive.”

That grim diagnosis is based on a detailed 2,000-page report summing up a 15-month investigation. The document charges that the Jersey City system is afflicted with “political patronage, union pressure and cronyism.” Former Mayor Gerald McCann, for example, reportedly laid off dozens of teachers who failed to support his political campaign. School-board members (all city-hall appointees) have been accused of such shoddy financial supervision that favored contractors collected some $3 million above approved funds. A gym teacher became his school’s personnel chief after his union backed the election of incumbent Mayor Anthony Cucci — whose sister and step-daughter hold school-board jobs.

Reaction to the takeover has been generally positive. Mayor Cucci claims to welcome the move. So does Board Member Dolores Eccleston, who declares, “I’m hoping that the firm hand of the commissioner will clean out some of the riffraff.”

But not everyone around Jersey City is cheering. Board President Michael J. Marino angrily challenges some of the report’s findings and vows, “We will have our day in court.” Superintendent Williams also promises to fight back. But the fact is that Jersey City’s school administration and board have failed all three stages of an elaborate warning and reform agenda.

Cooperman is already moving to take control of the district’s personnel and money matters. Yet as the commissioner moves into battle, even some of his strongest supporters are wondering where the money will come from to rebuild the crumbled system and whether, after so many ruinous years, even the most drastic reforms will work for the people who matter most: the pupils. Says Cooperman: “We have got to get a critical core of people who will ask, ‘Is our action good for kids?’ That’s the bottom line.”

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