The Privatization of New Jersey Public Schools

by Charles Barone

 

Many of the hottest education debates right now revolve around ascribing good v. evil according to whether or not a school is “public.” In Manichean terms, these debates include: public v. private schools; public charter schools v. traditional public schools; neighborhood schools v. out-of-zone schools; segregated schools v. integrated schools; non-profit v. for-profit schools; privatization v. government. Issues within each of those dichotomies often bleed into the others. If you’re an astute observer of these deliberations, one needn’t spell out all the permutations.

Decoding any ideology or set of principles behind where people stand in these debates, assuming such exists, is no easy task. Some make it almost impossible. In an anti-voucher op-ed published by the L.A. Times in May, AFT President Randi Weingarten put public charter schools squarely in the good/public column. By July, however, according to the New York Post, Weingarten had (predictably) reclassified public charters as evil/private.

Increasingly, some very smart people are pointing out that schools typically placed in the “public” column may not live up to their billing. Over at The 74, Derrell Bradford dissects the relationships between property values, family income, school assignments, race, and student achievement:

[E]ducation, which ostensibly was not meant to be a market, has turned into one. More pointedly, it’s turned into two:

“The first one is the housing market, which is now in every way the proxy for the buying and selling of school that is supposed to be free…

“The other is the black market that arises when people lie about their addresses to gain entrance into better-performing schools in towns where they may not live. New Jersey, for example, employs the pernicious practice of having off-duty police officers follow children home to make sure they reside in the correct school district, to make sure no one steals ‘free school.’

As it turns out, in New Jersey, there’s a get-out-of-jail card, but it ain’t free. Little known is the fact that in the Garden State, public school districts can charge tuition to students who live outside their boundaries. It’s both perfectly legal and completely unregulated.

Take Princeton High School which, according to U.S. News and World Report is the best public high school in New Jersey of those high schools that have no admissions criteria for in-district students. Princeton has a wholesale deal with nearby Cranbury whereby Cranbury pays Princeton about $17,000 per student. That’s one thing. In this case, the local taxes that Cranbury families pay travel with them. There are no out-of-pocket costs.

But students from any other district can apply for retail admission if their parents are willing to cough up another $18,000 per year on top of the taxes they pay in their own districts, as well as those they pay to the state to fund public education among whose beneficiaries is Princeton High School. If you play detective for an hour or two like I did and are willing to cobble together available data for years of varying recency, there are probably 20 students attending Princeton High “retail.” Even if your parents have the dough, Princeton doesn’t have to take you. They can set whatever other admissions criteria they like.

Princeton High School isn’t the only publicly-funded district with an unregulated, for-profit education business on the side. Northern Highlands Regional High School in Bergen County realizes more than $400,000 in revenue annually from 31 students at about $14,000 a pop. Down the shore, according to NJ.com, “Point Pleasant Beach has a staggering 85 tuition students in its high school…among its total enrollment of 404. Each pays $7,747, amounting to a financial windfall of $658,495.” Here, the suspicion is that the district is in collusion with parents outside the district to enlist what would otherwise be known as “ringers” to its championship basketball team. Do school benefactors, as in college sports, provide financial enticements to offset or ease the pain of those tuition costs? Who knows? Even Montclair, the bastion of New Jersey suburbanites defending “public” education, has gotten mixed up in this although the details are somewhat sketchy.

New Jersey apparently doesn’t keep statistics on which districts are charging tuition to non-resident students or on how many parents pay tuition to public schools. Other well-known inter-district choice programs, such as those in California or Delaware, do not charge parents tuition. New Jersey does have a free, voluntary (even if a district is severely under-enrolled it is under no obligation to participate) inter-district choice program, but it became so popular that Governor Chris Christie suspended it in 2014. So, do the math: if you’re a high-performing district with extra capacity and you can charge parents outside your boundaries a market price that exceeds the state subsidy, if one is even available, are you not likely to do so? And what are the odds that those able to avail themselves of such choices are parents whose children are most lacking educational opportunities at home and in their neighborhood schools?

Good v. evil; public v. private; charter v. traditional; neighborhood v. out-of-zone; segregated v. integrated; non-profit v. for-profit; privatization v. government. In New Jersey, something’s not quite adding up.