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Conference Says Choice is the Solution to Poorly Performing Schools in NJ

The creator of a controversial documentary on NJ schools is holding a conference in East Windsor this weekend, open to anyone with questions about the school choice movement.


School choice is an issue that's coming into its own in New Jersey, and Hoboken resident and filmmaker Bob Bowdon has had something to do with that.

"The Cartel", Bowdon's award-winning 2009 documentary on what he sees as the low quality and runaway spending of the state's schools, has had a large part in changing the conversation on how schools should operate.

That question is going to be the centerpiece in one of the first-ever conferences on school choice in New Jersey. That conference, the New Jersey School Choice Summit, takes place this Sunday, January 27, from 3 pm to 6 pm at the Central New Jersey Conference Center at the Holiday Inn in East Windsor.

"It's going to be kind of cool," Bowdon said. "Ordinary people can ask questions of anyone at the conference."

Anyone can attend for the $2 price of admission, and talk to a wide range of experts and enthusiasts about the pros and cons of school choice.

The group in attendance is going to be some of the state's educational power hitters, including NJ Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf, among state senators and education groups, all with different viewpoints than the traditional one that has New Jersey paying the highest per pupil cost in the country, and according to Bowdon, with little to show for it.

Bureaucratic bloat

"Why do we need 616 school districts in New Jersey?" Bowdon said, pointing to Maryland, a similarly small but densely populated state, which makes do with 24 districts.

All that extra bloat of administrators, technicians, support workers, Bowdon said, means that the educational bureaucracy in each of the districts costs a fortune. It also means that that money isn't going into the classroom to teach kids. It also doesn't even begin to touch on corruption, bribery, and cheating scandals, such as the ones that have rocked Woodbridge in the past year.

The huge number of school districts is "this strange, archaic legacy," he said, making the administration spending little more than "a jobs program" to keep bureaucrats employed.

"The Cartel" lays out a dizzying array of statistics that is sure to get any parent or taxpayer steamed. [The documentary is being shown free on Hulu.]

In the Maryland example, Bowdon says that each of that state's 24 districts serves 35,000 students, compared to an average in New Jersey's 616 districts of 2,300 students. That means that New Jersey has 15 times as many administrators and other support staff as Maryland, along with all the costs, including salaries, pensions, and benefits.

The premise of the School Choice conference, Bowdon said, is that "there are all different kinds of schools run by different groups, and it's no different than any other aspect of life. We have choice with everything from cell phones to airlines to a university education. Why should there be just a single provider of public school education? Why should there be just a 'one size fits all' solution?"

NJEA is a foe

Of the various groups and individuals attending the School Choice conference, the notable absence is of any members of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).

When Bowdon's documentary came out, the NJEA went into attack mode, he said.

"Their attacks were so ad hominem. There is not a single statistic [from the documentary] that has ever been questioned or [an allegation that a] quote was out of context in the film. It was only that I was a bad guy or not a legitimate journalist," Bowdon said. "No wonder they're losing."

The NJEA could not be reached in time for this report. They did put out a release after the debut of "The Cartel" that purported to expose the free market, libertarian connections behind Bowdon and his film.

Bowdon, who chairs the Choice group, is a former Bloomberg News anchor and reporter. He has also written satire for The Onion, a popular online site for faux news.

The NJEA release seemed to have taken The Onion credential seriously: Bowdon, they said, is a "fictitious correspondent on the made-up Onion News Network: his resume describes his work as a “reporter of comedic, fake news” for Onion.

Christie and school choice

Far from being the right wing conspiracy the NJEA purports his organization to be, Bowdon pointed to Cerf, a lifelong Democrat appointed by Republican Governor Chris Christie.

The Choice panel includes four members of the New Jersey legislature: two Republicans - State Senator Michael Doherty and Assemblyman Tony Bucco;  and two Democrats - Assemblymen Gary Schaer and Gabriela Mosquera.

The governor, Bowdon said, "is on board with school choice, particularly for urban districts. His emphasis lately is for towns  who 'need it', which he defines as low performing districts. He's been supportive of those efforts."

Bowdon has also taken aim at the massive funding the 31 Abbott school districts receive. His own town, Hoboken, is on the list of Abbott districts, which are defined by the NJ Supreme Court as poorer urban districts or special needs district in need of state funding to bring them up to the rest of the state school districts.

"Hoboken has a higher per-capita income than dozens of other towns who aren't on the Abbott list. Then there's Garfield in wealthy Bergen County. They wanted some money, too, so they got on the list," he said. Which districts got on the Abbott list was a matter of "political horse trading done at that time. Everyone wanted their share of the money."

The whole tenent of school choice is that "parents get to decide. 

"If parents are happy, not a single thing changes. The kids stay where they are, all the dollars stay where they are," Bowdon said. "Only if parents want to leave and go to a different school, the money should follow the kid."

He doesn't think he's wrong, either, judging by what he said are the minority parents clamoring for a different educational experience for their children.

"Look at the black and hispanic parents who line up by the millions to get their kids into charter schools. I just point to all those parents who want to get out of the system."

The NJ School Choice Summit is this Sunday in East Windsor. The cost is $2, and registration is required. To sign up, go to this link.

Bowdon's documentary, "The Cartel," is being shown free on Hulu. To watch it, go to this link.

Monk January 27, 2013 at 11:41 AM
Amen. Unfortunately, some anti-religion folks are so rabid and irrational, that they would leave society in a moral vacuum rather than acknowledge the wisdom enshrined in religious doctrine. Only, there is no such thing as a moral vacuum. Expel the good, and in rushes the bad.
proud January 27, 2013 at 01:42 PM
@Robert Yates, you are100% correct. We as Americans exist in an economy of Governent and a society of takers. Unsustainable? Not until the printing press breaks down.
Jane Doe January 27, 2013 at 02:23 PM
SAVE, how do you account for the states with no teacher's unions having the worst schools, then?
Jane Doe January 27, 2013 at 02:27 PM
She has offered no answer as to why, if we changed the entire funding process, we can't restrict the credits she suggests only go to public schools. She has offered no reason why they should go to private, unaccountable failed voucher mills and quasi-private, graft-machine charters.
NorasTea Party January 27, 2013 at 02:59 PM
Jane Doe: The "whys" were stated, educational liberty = happy people. Children who fail to thrive in any school need options. Taxpayers need relief from overspending. The poor in any town should NOT be taxed for fancy fluff in school construction or football fields astro-turf. . And YES if we change the funding process we can EASILY control which schools are eligible to receive state tuition allowances. There is no reason WHY-NOT to include private schools as eligible. . My daughter went to private school, they did a fine job. Was also Catholic school but we are not Catholic, nor were many other children there. Contrary to liberal opinion, Catholic schools do not stuff religion down kids's throats. 3-12 she went and she's not in a Nun's habit <grin>.
NorasTea Party January 27, 2013 at 03:08 PM
Jane Doe: there are more variables than just union vs non-union associated with school performance. No ONE variable determines excellence or failure. Also, I don't recall anyone saying there should be no unions. Some trade unions have very nice models for employee support, the electrical workers in particular. . You also didn't here me say anything about no unions. Funding public schools on a transferable per/child tuition allowance basis has nothing to do with union vs non-union. It simply caps a school's overall public contribution to the sum of enrollees allowances. . School administration then must work within that financial constraint. Unions must also recognize the cap applies to employee overhead expenses. All entities need financial limits, that limit is available revenue. You can't spend more than you have.
NorasTea Party January 27, 2013 at 03:11 PM
Monk: As you sow, so shall you reap. <grin> You sow the 7-sins and you reap chaos and depravity. History abounds with examples.. Rome comes to mind.
NorasTea Party January 27, 2013 at 03:17 PM
Really: Granted. I concur. That's why performance measurement is important in any workplace, public or private. You can give a referred party a try, but if they aren't up to snuff you replace 'em. <G>
NJCORRUPTION January 27, 2013 at 03:22 PM
You most be kidding right...Poorly performing students. Who's fault is that? There is so much more cheating going on in the schools today. Public School's cheat to make their students look better than they are. Who's fault is that?
NJCORRUPTION January 27, 2013 at 03:24 PM
Leave it up to the parents where they want to send "THEIR CHILDREN" to school.
NJCORRUPTION January 27, 2013 at 03:27 PM
"NJ" has become the number 1 state in corruption. That includes our "NJ public school system.
chtulu2000 January 27, 2013 at 03:33 PM
YOU must be kidding....American parents have raised the white flag and turned over teaching of everything to teachers. If you again read my posts...something you must not be good at...you will see that there are bad teachers that need to be fired and this must be done...but to not blame anything on the student absent 40 times a year, with zeroes on all of their homework, or with numerous cuts in a class is just plain stupid or naive...which are you?
NJCORRUPTION January 27, 2013 at 03:58 PM
chtulu2000, Neither...you must be another whining administrator or teacher. Schools are a big scamming business. Those who don't show up, then fail them..those who don't do their homework give zeros, those who cheat, give them a zero and suspend them...oh the school will not do it because they usually play sports that are the star players...will not do that. Stop inflating grades or curving tests. The schools are cheating and not following their own school rules. Who's fault is that. The kid or parent has no control on what the school choose to do. Who is allowing these poorly performing students get away with they do. When you have H.S. kids saying they were given grades that they really did not deserve knowing it is wrong. What teenage H.S. kid is not going to take something that is given to them so freely. I think you are the one who is naive and really don't know what is truly going on. Lets get rid of all the superintendents and incompetent principals first. They are the ones with all the power.
Keith Jensen January 27, 2013 at 05:56 PM
Please attend this movement which can truly fix the school systems, along with this story on fair school funding: http://fortlee.patch.com/articles/fort-lee-republican-state-assembly-candidate-pushes-for-fair-school-funding
chtulu2000 January 27, 2013 at 06:03 PM
So you are naive...You live in a fantasy world where the blame lies only on the educator...AND again, apparently you cannot read, since I agree with your point about getting rid of bad teachers...you should try thinking once in awhile. You must be the parent of a failure who did not raise a good kid and now blames the system, instead of yourself? Is that it?
Fletcher January 28, 2013 at 02:30 AM
I WENT TO THIS CONFERENCE AND ALL I CAN SAY IS: WHAT A BUNCH OF QUACKS!?!#!?!
SAVE THE CHILDREN January 28, 2013 at 03:55 AM
Jane: Besides that unions protect themselves more than the students, many teachers (my relative being one of them) hate the unions because they impede the schools from performing the best that they can. In regard to the point that you say that some schools underperform even though they are not unionized, I would argue they would be even worse off if not for the fact that they are non union. There are other variables too why schools underperform and the point that I was making was that the unions are one of the main reasons that holds a school back from improving!!!
Joe R January 28, 2013 at 04:26 AM
Save the Children: Your relative hates the unions?? Then your relative is a BIG hypocrite. She or he could work for a private school or a religious school that is non-union. Oh wait, maybe your HYPOCRITICAL relative likes working for a public school that accepts all kids and has better working conditions than many private or religious schools. Unless you are talking about some restrictive elite private school that has a tuition of $30,000 a year, not counting other expenses. No one is forcing your phoney baloney relative to work for a unionized public school. The states with the best results and scores for their schools (NJ, Mass, CT) all have unionized work forces. The best districts in NJ have unionized teachers so please stop lying that unions hurt the schools or the children.
Gull January 28, 2013 at 04:33 AM
chtulu2000....You sound really stupid!
Gull January 28, 2013 at 04:45 AM
Joe R...What world are you living in? I know tons of public school teachers who hate the unions. They think it is a scam and I have to agree with them. You are forced to join the union even when you don't want to. If you don't join they still take out 85% in union dues. So I guess all your teacher friends are hypocrites too. The Unions do hurt the school and children. The Union is a huge pyramid scheme. The ones on top and all the lawyers are making the money. Sheesh...for a bunch of teachers you are really not that smart.
Gull January 28, 2013 at 04:49 AM
Joe R...Education and the Unions have become poor propaganda and garbage.
Katy Lake January 28, 2013 at 05:15 AM
Joe is obviously a union hack. He's just protecting his bread and butter. Public schools can't stand competition, which is why they need a government monopoly. If they didn't have a compulsory clientele, they'd cease to exist. No parent would keep their kid in a public school if they had a better alternative.
frankie thesherm January 28, 2013 at 11:53 AM
I agree with Joe If ya hate unions feel free to work at a non union school for half the money no pension and less benefits. If you are a republicons and hate unions yes that would make you a hypocrite If you work at the unionized power plant and youre a republicon you are a hypocrites Fema is immoral End All Foreign Aid
proud January 28, 2013 at 01:07 PM
@Frankieand all the other names you use, you are a hypocrite because you don't have a job and haven't worked in years.
Mrgrumpass January 29, 2013 at 12:09 AM
The answer to the poorly performing schools is parental participation in their child’s education, not all but most (not all) parents wave by-by at the door and expect the schools to do it all! They don’t help with home work hell many would prefer that the children had no home work, they don’t ask their child how school was today, lets face it they are SLACKERS and many of you know I am right!
Sal April 16, 2013 at 12:36 PM
All the finger pointing in the entire World has absolutely nothing to do with REALITY. Children from poor families under-preform. Children from single parent households under-perform. Children of higher educated wealthier parents do better in school. The higher economic class and wealthier higher income that any school district is __the better the children perform in school. "Peer Pressure" plays a larger roll in a child's life than parents or teachers after age 12. That 14 to 17 year old kid in Newark or Camden is not going to tell his friends I cannot play basketball today because I have to get my homework done.
Sal April 16, 2013 at 12:45 PM
All SMART people have unions or Associations that they belong to for the betterment of the entire group. To name just a few: The Manufacturers Assoc., The Lumberman's Association, The Trial Lawyers Assoc., The American Medical Association, The Cattleman's Association, The Dairyman's Association, The Realtor's Association and these Corporate Associations pay dues and they make $$ Billions of dollars in campaign contributions and spend billions more on lobbying costs each year to get what they want. . All SMART people have unions or associations and all Dummies do not.
Sal April 16, 2013 at 12:59 PM
What we have is a bunch of people here that are posting messages that are a display of their Ignorance on this issue (By the way ignorance means 'lack of knowledge" just in case you did not know). The Private Charter schools actually pay their teachers HIGHER wages to attract good teachers "away from the Public Schools". The Charter schools do not grow their own special superior teachers on trees or create their own teachers in test tubes. When the Charter schools have open enrollments and they do not 'Hand Pick' the students that they allow to enroll __there is no difference in child performance. The only times the Private Charter schools out-perform the Public Schools is when they Hand Pick which students they allow to enroll and only accept children that are already performing 'above average'.
Sal April 16, 2013 at 01:11 PM
"Peer Pressure" means far more to children in school than good teachers or good parents. In poor school districts ___achieving at an above average grade level and being a A+ student is viewed by their peers as a big negative in the eyes of their student peers making them very unpopular __ the subject of ridicule and seen as outcasts by their fellow students. Like it or not ___That is Reality and we are all powerless to change "Peer Pressure". Kids all over the USA commit suicide everyday because of Peer Pressure. We see the news headlines all of the time "Harlem or Newark or Camden___ Honor Student shot down on the street".
NorasTea Party April 16, 2013 at 04:27 PM
Sal, Well said. Peer Pressure is a powerful motivator. According to Maslow <father of modern sociology> being a "member of a group" (accepted, recognized, & status) are THE #2-3 & 4 human motivators. Safety/Shelter - #1. . To keep my daughter in line all I had to do was threaten to come to school in a Barney costume. <grin> That big purple dinosaur. Just the THOUGHT of being embarrassed in front of her school mates was enough. LOL . All HUMANS, little one or big ones, function according to motivations for acceptance from the society they live in. When it's acceptable to walk around with pants around knees, that is what they do, or purple hair, or piercings. OR how they behave in educational environments. . It's up to ADULTS to set the level's of acceptable behavior and teach it to the kids. That DUNCE CAP worked! It worked to straighten kids out, like the chair in the hall for "time out". Embarrass the tikes and they straighten up real fast..

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