Sunday, October 30, 2016

Hanging in the Balance: Hoboken's District Public Schools

Demarest School, formerly Hoboken's High School (credit: Hoboken Historical Museum Digital Archives)

As most people already know by now, the QLC Board of Education Candidates forum revealed to all in attendance exactly who was backing the Parents United slate and what values they hold dear. Beyond the thuggish hijinks though, little discussion has focused on the debate itself which was revealing in its own right.

Why These Candidates?

Parents United are not remotely qualified for the School Board positions they are running for. Worse, their campaign is actively working to undermine Hoboken's Public Schools with the ultimate goal of convincing parents to abandon the public schools altogether. Like last year's "Smarter Future" slate, and the "Education for all Children" slate the year prior, the PU slate were hand-picked by a group of politicians with long histories of corruption at the School Board and city level. Like all candidates they have chosen to run, none have had any prior experience with or shown any interest in Hoboken's Public School District.

If PU are elected, their job will be to do what they are told to do, just as their elected predecessors are doing today.  Once they have inserted their own Superintendent, they will have total control of the multimillion dollar public school budget and will use it to reassert their political power, just as they did before they were voted out in 2009. As has been the case with every School Board election for more than a decade, this election is about providing a quality education versus draining the budget to consolidate political power and pad pockets.

PU's total lack of prior experience or interest in the public school district was on display at last week's candidate's debate. Incredibly, not one of them has ever attended a school board meeting. And it was obvious from their comments that they are completely uninformed on what is happening at the district schools, particularly at the High School.

What They've Been Told to Say

The PU platform comprises the classic, contradictory, political platitudes: cut costs and improve everything. They claim they love the programs that exist but also say things are in a bad state and many more programs are needed. They say they intend to dramatically reduce costs but won't say how they intend to do this. Presumably this is because any proposal to dramatically cut costs must involve dramatically cutting services, programs, teachers or benefits. Not only would this damage the schools, this would also run counter to all of their promised improvements. But, hey, they're running for election on behalf of the people who selected them to run, so they're saying whatever they've been told to say.

Along those lines, one of PU's most obvious failings is their manifest ignorance of school programs and services. At the debate they claimed the public schools were deficient and needed to add language classes, cooperate with local businesses, work with Stevens Institute and other higher education institutions, add STEM courses, and add cybersecurity classes. All of these already exist! Their complete ignorance of the district combined with their desire to take control of it is not only an insult, but also a threat, to district students, parents and teachers.

Trashing Hoboken High School

What riles me the most though is PU's unrelenting, underlying, message that the High School is a terrible, scary, school that no one in their right mind would send their children to. At the debate, two of the PU candidates stated they wouldn't send their own kids to the High School, and the third said with a resigned sigh that she had "no choice" but to use the High School. Trashing Hoboken High School is a tradition amongst opponents to school reform. Their supporters enthusiastically embrace this disparaging message and, by implication, disparage the students, the teachers, the staff and, of course, the Superintendent, and the School Board.

Every High School student, every one of their parents, and every High School teacher and staff member should be personally insulted by PU's constant, ignorant claims about the High School. Unlike every other high school option for Hoboken children, the Hoboken Public School District is the only district that unconditionally accepts (in fact, is legally bound to accept) every student, regardless of economic background, physical or mental ability, or academic ability. What does this mean? It means that Hoboken public schools, and the High School in particular, have a more diverse population than any other schools in the city.

Those who have experienced the strong sense of community at Hoboken High understand that diversity is a core value and a strength. But it goes without saying that student diversity leads to diversity in grades and, by extension, diversity in test scores. Diversity in test scores does not, however, imply, as PU would have you believe, that Hoboken High School teachers are poor, curricula are substandard, or that the Superintendent and School Board neglect academic achievement. In fact, the reality is just the opposite. But as was clearly evident at the debate, irresponsibly trashing the High School is seen as a more effective talking point then providing considerate, insightful constructive criticism. Of course, to do the latter would require taking time to learn about the current state of the High School and attending a School Board meeting or two.

The Real Agenda

But PU has no reason to learn about the current state of Hoboken's Schools. Their goal is to undermine them. And the reason they do this is a fundamental part of a longer-term strategy to drive people away from the schools so that no one's left to notice when they divert resources away from the classrooms. I know this sounds like overheated conspiracy talk but, unfortunately, this exact behavior occurred for decades and only ended in 2009 when reformers first gained a majority on the School Board. Well-documented forensic audits and legal contract reviews revealed years of pillaging by PU's current backers. Once one understands that this is, in fact, the reason that PU is running, their ignorance and negativity make sense. Improving education isn't the point.

The Future is in Jeopardy

Last year's school board election was a blow to reform's efforts to continue to improve Hoboken's public schools. Reformers lost two seats which means that, this year, reform's majority is in jeopardy of being lost to those who controlled the schools pre-2009. Unlike last year, however, I sense the resurgence of a grassroots movement supporting Hoboken's Public Schools. Further, I've noticed parents starting to feel protective and proud of their schools. They're no longer willing to simply accept the uninformed, negative chatter. Community confidence in the high school is growing because parents are getting involved and getting informed.

Realize that last year's School Board election was decided by only 34 votes! So even if you are ambivalent about voting at the national level, keep in mind that your vote matters at the municipal level, not just in deciding election outcomes, but also deciding the direction of our city's public schools!