Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXIV, No. 13
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
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“Citizens for Successful Schools” Thinks Educational Money Should “Follow the Child”

Ellen Gilbert

While N.J. school districts bemoan recent state cuts to their budgets, there is a movement afoot claiming that more money is not necessarily the key to successful schools.

While infusions of money were given to poorly-performing N.J. school districts under the Abbott decisions, which mandated that those districts be brought into parity with others in the state, Citizens for Successful Schools (CSS) notes that things have only gotten worse in those districts.

The volunteer group, which meets in members’ homes every three weeks, describes the Trenton School District, for example, as “a tragedy,” where 60 percent of students drop out between the ninth and 12th grades; 55 percent of the remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in reading; 78 percent of those remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in mathematics; and only 36 percent of seniors pass the High School Proficiency Assessment for graduation. These numbers are taken from the Report Card for the Trenton Central High School (TCHS), published annually by the State Department of Education.

“We feel that Princeton residents should be informed of Trenton’s school disasters, if only because 90 percent of that district’s budget is subsidized by our state taxes,” said CSS member James Deneen.

The mission of CSS, which began as a men’s group at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Princeton two decades ago, is “to develop ideas and engage people to move education forward.” Mr. Deneen’s background is in teaching and school administration, followed by a long stint at Educational Testing Service where he worked for the Advanced Placement program. Another CSS member, Montgomery resident Carm Catanese, who has authored several articles with Mr. Deneen, is a physicist and former executive vice-president at Sarnoff.

In op ed pieces and local presentations, CSS is trying to spread the word about “the human and financial costs of New Jersey’s failing urban schools,” Mr. Deneen said. “We have found in our presentations to groups and in interviews that most people in communities that are generally well-served by their schools are unaware of these issues,” which, he adds, “are not inevitable or insoluble.”

Indeed, Mr. Deneen recently published Schools that Succeed, Students Who Achieve, a book that profiles programs around the country that help all students to learn. The key, he says, is in increasing the professional development of teachers, and changing the content of curriculum and the ways in which it is delivered. “It depends an awful lot on leadership,” he observed in a recent interview.

Follow the Money

CSS points to a “patronage mill” as the main reason for disappearing funds. “We can’t do anything,” noted Mr. Deneen. “We have no authority, and we’re not trying to raise money. We’re just extremely upset and indignant at what’s happening to the kids — and people — of our state.”

The recently-produced documentary called The Cartel provides a compelling look at dysfunctional school systems in the U.S., which spends more on education than anywhere else in the world. Subtitled “Education + Politics = $”, the film suggests that “Behind every dropout factory lurks a powerful, entrenched, and self-serving multi-billion dollar business.” It observes an absence of “oversight” for money that “disappears down a rat hole,” and the need to “hold someone accountable.”

CSS hopes that area groups will call upon them to learn more about why, for example, the spending per-student in Trenton has recently averaged $16,000, while in Montgomery, where nearly all students remain in school until graduation, has been $12,000 per capita. “We’re dedicated to publicizing the situation,” said Mr. Deneen. “But the only ones who can change things are are the people in the Trenton school system and the mayor.”

Follow the Child

While CSS concedes that “there are exceptional teachers and principals in the Trenton schools, just as there are in Montgomery,” they are “hired and fired by educational policy makers, and attend to union leaders whose agendas are very different from that of a mother or a PTA committee. In Montgomery the client and the source of funding are the same, so the focus is not divided or diverted.”

“Why should we not ensure that the client is always the child and his or her family?” CSS asks. “A simple rule to make that happen is for the educational money, whatever its source in local or state taxes, to follow the child.”

For more information about CSS, see For more information on The Cartel, see, or check the availability of the Princeton Public Library’s copy.

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