New Jersey, Maryland Need School Choice, Studies Show

Published June 1, 2005

If high per-pupil spending and widespread underachievement are two of the qualities that make a school system an ideal testing ground for vouchers, then Paterson, New Jersey and Baltimore, Maryland are two prime candidates, according to a pair of recently released studies.

State Control of Schools Has Failed to Help Paterson, New Jersey Children: Why Not Choice Instead? by Don Soifer and Robert Holland of the Lexington Institute, and A School Voucher Program for Baltimore City by Dan Lips of the Maryland Public Policy Institute show how vouchers could help solve problems in the two towns.

Underserved Minorities

In 1988, New Jersey became the first state to authorize its department of education to take control of failing local schools, Soifer and Holland note. Currently, the state is managing three school districts: Jersey City (since 1989), Paterson (since 1991), and Newark (since 1995). They are three districts that Derrell Bradford, deputy director of New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), describes as a collective “train wreck.”

“The people who run it know it’s a business,” Bradford said of the government schools. “It’s a hugely unaccountable business that gets bigger and bigger and more powerful at the expense of the people who ultimately fund it and the kids.”

In Paterson, the school district is 55 percent Hispanic, 37 percent African-American, 5 percent white, and 2 percent Asian. “Well over half of Hispanic students in many Paterson public schools are failing to reach proficiency in English and math, as shown by testing required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB),” the authors write.

Being run by the state apparently hasn’t helped Paterson’s students. The authors note, “while the state standard as part of the No Child Left Behind Act is for 68 percent of students to test at or above proficiency, only a little more than one-third of black children [in Paterson] reached that mark.”

Easy Diplomas

High school graduation rates also were found to be lagging in Paterson. At East Side High School, the 2003 graduation rate was 58.5 percent–30 points below the state average.

The graduation rate in Paterson, as well as in the other state-controlled school districts, is even worse than the study indicates, Bradford said, thanks to New Jersey’s alternative diploma program, known as the Special Review Assessment (SRA).

If a student fails the state high school proficiency exam three times, he or she can take the much-easier SRA exam to get a diploma, Bradford said. Forty-two percent of one Paterson high school’s graduating class obtained their diplomas through the SRA.

Soifer thought school choice would work particularly well in Paterson because per-pupil spending is already high ($12,603 in 2002-03, 10 percent above the state average) and because of its proximity to nearby public school districts as well as a diverse selection of nearby private schools.

Baltimore’s Choice

In March 1996, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke called for “dramatic” reform in the Baltimore school system and formed a task force to study “widespread choice among public schools or offering vouchers for private schools.”

Eight months later, the task force issued its final report. While its recommendations fell short of calling for private school vouchers, it did call for public school choice and legislation to create charter schools that would operate independently of Baltimore’s school board, according to Lips’ study.

Almost nine years later, no action has been taken on the Schmoke task force recommendations. Parents still have “no real school choice” in Baltimore, Lips concludes.

The study identified the Baltimore school system’s student academic achievement as its “first and most acute” problem.

“The sad reality is that by the time a student reaches the tenth grade, he or she is only half as likely to be proficient in reading on the [Maryland State Assessment] if he or she lives in Baltimore City versus Baltimore County or elsewhere in the state,” Lips writes.

Poor Education

Baltimore is the nation’s 17th largest city overall and has the seventh largest black population, said Leon Tucker, director of communications at the Black Alliance for Educational Options.

“I think it’s a much different conversation when you look at some of the demographics of Baltimore, and when you talk about the level of crisis in the city, you can’t have this discussion without looking at the fact that the Baltimore school system is overwhelmingly black,” he said.

“Baltimore never did a good job of educating black children,” Tucker pointed out. “It was just never a priority.”

The study links Baltimore’s low adult literacy rate, low workforce participation, large low-income population, and declining overall population to the inadequacies of its public school system.

Looking to Cleveland

“Policymakers considering implementing a school voucher program for Baltimore should look to the long-running programs in Cleveland and Milwaukee, and the pilot program that began in Washington, DC in 2004 as useful examples,” Lips wrote.

“A growing body of research also suggests that school choice programs have a positive impact on student achievement,” Lips noted. “For example, a study conducted by researchers from Harvard and Georgetown universities and the University of Wisconsin released in 2001 found that African-American students receiving private scholarships in Ohio, New York, and Washington, DC scored significantly higher than their peers who remained in public schools.”

Tucker agrees with Lips that vouchers could help turn life around for Baltimore students over the next decade.

“School choice in Baltimore is a way to provide hope to not only the parents and students,” Tucker said, “but also educators who don’t have hope.”

Greg McConnell ([email protected]) is a freelance writer in Palatine, Illinois.

For more information …

The Lexington Institute’s March 2005 study on Paterson’s state-controlled school district is available online at

For more information on the Maryland Public Policy Institute’s voucher proposal for Baltimore’s public school system, see