The Christie administration has recalculated the amount it says New Jersey public school districts spend per pupil, increasing the state average rate by several thousand dollars to more than $17,800…. In 2009, under the previous administration’s calculation, the state average was $13,200 per student…. The new spending guide shows Newark spending at nearly $23,000 per student, up from about $17,600 under previous estimates.

Spend more, get less is the unofficial New Jersey education motto. This will be redundant for anyone who has seen Bob Bowdon’s excellent exposé, ‘The Cartel’, but the fact of the matter is that higher spending rarely yields better quality in public education. Here was my review of a screening of the film at Cornell:

The most ardent critics of oligopolies, be they on the left or right, find common ground in a distaste for cartels, exclusive organizations of producers who fix prices and production. Since their formation usually yields price increases and a decrease in the quality of services, governments prevent the formation of cartels through competition law.

So why, then, is our nation’s school system allowed to function as the sole beneficiary of tax dollars, lobbying for price increases with no ascertainable improvement in production quality? Our spending on education is the second-highest in the world, the US boasts an average of $91,700 per student in the nine years between the ages of 6 and 15. Despite this, the US was recently ranked 14th out of 34 countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. Finland, by comparison, spends one-third less per student but ranks near the top in all categories.

Former Bloomberg television host Bob Bowdon followed the trail of these bloated numbers and shoddy service to find a systemic, political cause. In his film, ‘The Cartel’, he focused on the state that spent the most per-pupil in the nation ($17,000 at the time), New Jersey, to show that more spending on education cannot aide a system with perverse motives.

Bowdon documents a sinister aspect to the unions in New Jersey. Teacher’s union campaign contributions regenerate in the form of large salaries, “cadillac” benefit plans, and a compensation scheme that pays based on time – not merit. Though it is one of the smallest and most densely populated states in the nation, it has over 400 school districts who remain autonomous, each boasting separate sets of administrators with multiple titles and salaries. These are largely the product of school board elections that take place on work days to promote low-turnout and a rich tradition of crying bloody murder if salaries are not increased each year.

It wouldn’t be a film worth viewing, though, if it was just union-bashing. Bowdon looks at the absurdity of the public school system and applies it to other facets of the way our government works. If cars were determined by address the same way schools were, would anyone stay with the shoddy brand? Would anyone continue to pay for the production of these cars if it wasn’t compulsory? Teachers’ unions rail against vouchers, or any other form of increased competition, but ‘The Cartel’ points out that food stamps are vouchers which are wildly popular. Pell grants also serve as vouchers for the needy and fuel the rich competition between schools at the university level.

The victims of this systemic failure are, of course, the children. Teachers who don’t have to compete based on merit have less of an incentive to be innovative and the tenure system yields a 99.97% teacher retention rate in New Jersey. Bowdon filmed accounts of teachers who abused children but, because of their union reps, are rarely fired. If they are, their cases are sealed so they may seek work elsewhere. Recently, James Smith, head of security in the Paterson, NJ public school system, claimed he had orchestrated busts in his career as a lieutenant in the police department that required less rigor than trying to fire a teacher in New Jersey. Paterson recently fired a tenured special education teacher after he punched a handicapped student. It took Paterson officials four years and over $400,000 to successfully fire him.

Through electing officials who are dependent on union money for re-election yield policies that stymie charter schools and other forms of competition. Though some children may thrive in smaller classes, the “one size fits all” public school system condemns many, particularly the urban poor, to large, oftentimes dangerous, high schools. Bowdon profiles students in Camden, NJ who, after twelve years in the public school system, are functionally illiterate. To function in a modern world, some sought an actual education in the Community Educational Resource Network (CERN), located in church basement where the teachers are local volunteers and the tuition is a mere $30/month.

For the past ten years, my mother has been a teacher in urban Paterson, New Jersey. I volunteered at her two schools throughout my adolescence, tutoring and helping her fellow teachers. I have absolutely no doubt that most of these men and women become teachers for the benefit of children, particularly the urban poor. As we’ve seen in New Jersey, though, years of politicians crying for more spending on education for these kids only goes to increase the numbers in pockets of administrators and unions, not test scores.

Things have to be changed, the cartel needs to be broken.

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