Opinion: Columnists

Gregory Kane: Camden's lesson in failure

Opinion,Gregory Kane,Columnists

This is almost shooting-fish-in-a-barrel easy. Writing something about Camden, N.J., public schools being so dismal that the state had to take them over?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, announced early last week the reasons for the takeover, and it's hard to argue with the stats, provided by assorted news media. The Camden school district has 13,700 students. The graduation rate for the 2010-2011 school year was 56.9 percent. For the 2011-2012 school year, it dipped to 49.3 percent, a drop of 7 percentage points.

Camden's graduation rate is the second-lowest in the state. Only Trenton's is worse.

According to USA Today, "three of Camden's schools are the lowest-performing in the state and 90 percent are in the bottom five percent. [Under] 20 percent of fourth graders are proficient in language arts literacy, and just 28 percent of 11th graders are proficient in math."

To put it in plain, simple English: The Camden public school system is a train wreck that New Jersey taxpayers are stuck paying for. In the 2011-2012 school year, Camden officials spent about $23,709 per student. The state average for per-pupil funding is $18,045.

More plain, simple English: New Jersey taxpayers are getting chumped for about $5,000 extra bucks per Camden student.

When a group of government officials jacks taxpayers for their money and then tells them said money is to be used for education, those taxpayers have every right to expect a return for their dollars. At a cost of $23,709 per student in Camden, such educating should have darned well been done.

The numbers suggest otherwise. The money was spent, and nothing like education or educating occurred. There are two terms that describe a situation in which government officials take taxpayer money for a specific purpose and then not spend it on that purpose.

"Fraud" is one word that comes to mind. "Theft" is another.

Camden schools officials have been guilty of, at the very least, fraud. I can't say they've stolen money in the traditional definition of the word "steal," but I will say that the Camden stickup guy who points a gun in somebody's face and says, "Give me your money" has a lot more integrity than these Camden school honchos.

News about the state of Camden's public schools should be depressing for anyone who cares about educating America's children. And the news is depressing. Unfortunately, it's not surprising. My favorite depressing story out of Camden occurred in 1996, when Christine Todd Whitman was governor. You might remember it.

Whitman accompanied New Jersey state troopers on a drug sweep in Camden. Troopers frisked a couple of black suspects during the sweep, and somebody thought it would be a good idea to photograph Whitman frisking one of the suspects.

The details came to light four years later. Whitman was a white Republican who frisked a black suspect. Of course, America's race hustlers made the incident a race issue.

The guy Whitman frisked was named Sherron Rolax, only 16 at the time and out at night in a known drug area. Some criticized Whitman for the frisk and pat-down, but I criticized her for something quite different. Not only should Whitman have frisked Sherron Rolax, I wrote back in 2000, but she should have also put her foot squarely up his derriere, chided him for not being at home studying and then sent him on his merry way.

Ten years after Whitman frisked him, Rolax pleaded guilty to selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school.

Twelve years after Whitman frisked him, Rolax was shot dead during a fight that started at a house party.

We can safely count Rolax among those thousands of students Camden school officials failed. We might even say they failed him to death.

Examiner Columnist Gregory Kane is a Pulitzer-nominated news and opinion journalist who has covered people and politics from Baltimore to the Sudan.

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