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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

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Review & Opinion

Cape May County’s Public Schools Need Attention

We are at a point where our system of government is increasingly unable to deal with complex problems. The partisan divide is too wide, the culture wars too intense, the zero-sum nature of our dialogue too pervasive.

Liberals cannot solve complex problems by themselves. Conservatives cannot solve complex problems by themselves. Each lacks a key element to any resolution, the trust and commitment of the other side. “I win, you lose,” is a mental construct that does not lend itself to meaningful dialogue.

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Now is the time to take a hard look at our school performance.

We cannot depend on school administrators to do this for us.

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Yet one complex problem we should be able to agree on continues to grow. It threatens the future of our most prized possessions, our children.

A recent Pew Research Center poll showed that over half of Americans feel our public K-12 education system is “generally going in the wrong direction.” 51% of us were willing to say that when Pew asked, but we cannot dialogue with each other about it.

We can easily dispel the sense that the problem is seen only by one side of the divide. It is true that Republicans are more likely (65%) to think the schools are headed in the wrong direction, but a sizeable percentage (41%) of Democrats concur.

If 51% of Americans feel something as fundamental as the health and vibrancy of K-12 education is in trouble, we need to address it, especially when we see the problems up close in our own local schools.

Cape May County has 15 operating school districts with 29 individual schools. This does not include the county’s special needs district. In the 2022-2023 school year, the last full year for which we have data, these districts had a collective enrollment of 11,521 students. More than two-thirds of those students were enrolled in districts that were below state averages in English Language Arts and Mathematics. And more than two-thirds were in individual schools that had state ranking scores (called Summative scores) below 50 on a scale of 0-99. In some cases, our schools were well below state averages.

We can debate the value of testing. We can point to the large percentage of county students who meet state definitions for being economically disadvantaged as a reason for performance issues. We can point to the impact of the pandemic even though our county’s relative scoring was no better in 2019, the year prior to Covid’s arrival. But the basic fact is the majority of our school districts are consistently in the lower rankings of New Jersey public schools.

Do we have success stories in our schools? Of course we do. But we cannot let these blind us to the performance of the vast majority of our students.

The issues we need to confront are not for lack of hard-working, dedicated teachers and other professionals who seek nothing but the best education for their students. We have a system problem and the adjustments necessary to fix it may turn out to be uncomfortable for many.

It is certainly easier to continue to ignore the evidence, maintain emotional attachments to specific local schools, and think the problems are elsewhere. But doing what is easiest will not get us improvement.

There has never been a better time to come together and dialogue on this. Education is getting more expensive by the year and the property tax is going to foot the bill.

State funding for county schools has been decreasing for seven years now. We knew it would happen seven years ago; we have seen it unfolding relentlessly. As expected, our schools are now coming to taxpayers for more funding. Pandemic funds that represented one of the nation’s largest investments in education are running out.

Studies that looked seriously at consolidation of our schools have gained no traction, with some dismissed by administrators and school boards without ever even being shared with the public. The state’s great gift is going to be to raise the cap on the local tax levy so property taxes can rise even more.

We are losing young families with children for many reasons including the high cost of housing. There is little doubt that the quality of education is a major factor in the decision young families make on where to live. So far, we know they are not choosing Cape May County.

We are becoming a county of grandparents, not parents. The average age is rising. The population under 18 has dropped by 40% in the last two decades. New baby deliveries fell so consistently and to such a low level our local hospital could not maintain maternity services.

Now is the time to take a hard look at our school performance. It is also the time to check our differences in the culture wars at the door. We need to dialogue and roll up our sleeves to improve the performance of our schools. We need to look at what is working elsewhere and consider its applicability here. We cannot depend on the ever-growing cadre of school administrators to do this for us.

This is our fight. These are our children.

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From the Bible: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it. — Proverbs 22:6

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