I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Thursday, August 22, 2013

New Camden Super: Christie Shows Hypocrisy on School Spending Once Again

When Chris Christie first took over Camden's school district, he vowed he would do whatever he could to make the schools as good as the ones he demands for his own children:
Christie, the father of four school-age children, expressed what he described as an obligation to get involved in the Camden district at a press conference today at Woodrow Wilson High School.
"I don't want anything worse for the children of this city or any other city in the state of New Jersey than I would want for my own children," he said. [emphasis mine]
As I pointed out at the time, however, Christie sends his own sons to the Delbarton School, which spends upwards of $30,000 per pupil; Camden, according to state records, spends about $22,000. Wouldn't it be nice if every Camden parent could send their sons and daughters to schools with small class sizes, and watch their children play sports on beautiful fields, just like Delbarton?

Chris Christie: Just another dad watching his kid play sports at school.

Yesterday, Christie recklessly appointed a 32-year-old with six years of education experience to run Camden's schools: Paymon Rouhanifard. What is it about this young man -- who has no experience running a school or a district and would certainly be an unacceptable leader for more affluent districts -- that Christie finds so compelling?

Perhaps one thing is that, like Christie, Rouhanifard says he wants the same type of education for the children of Camden that he himself enjoyed:

The new superintendent is Paymon Rouhanifard, who went through an interview with Christie himself. He has a compelling personal story that includes his family’s escape from Iran after the revolution and their struggles in America, which included a period of homelessness. 
“I can remember my mom telling us that if it weren’t for the education she and my father had received, they would not have had the courage and the wherewithal to persevere through that hardship and to start their lives all over again,” he said. “I must have heard her say that a thousand times. They helped me see that the education I was afforded could help shape my destiny and, thanks to their profound sacrifices, it has.” [emphasis mine]
That is certainly a compelling and moving personal story. It is also incomplete, because, just like the Christie children, Rouhanifard enjoyed the benefits of a well-resourced private school education:
The idea of creating a community was critical to Paymon Rouhanifard’s (’99) success as a teacher.

Paymon transferred to MBA at the beginning of his sophomore year. He attended The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and served as the Senior Class President and received the University Chancellor’s Award, given annually to one senior male and female student for demonstrating outstanding char- acter, leadership, and honor. He graduated with a B.A. in Economics and Political Science.
The idea of improving communities through education is very important to Paymon. He is also grateful for the MBA community. “I think MBA was really the first step for me to set higher expectations for myself. Where I was coming from before, I was kind of a middle of the road student and never really thought big picture about what I wanted to do with my life. I think MBA not only instilled ambition into me, but taught me about public service, taught me about discipline, and how to achieve your goals in addition to setting them.”
This is from an alumni magazine published by Montgomery Bell Academy, an elite all-boys prep school in Nashville, Tennessee. Some relevant statistics [emphasis mine]:
  • Student body of 720 in grades 7-12
  • MBA consistently does well in producing National Merit Scholars, with 21 Semifinalists and 17 Commended Scholars from the Class of 2013
  • In 2010-2011, MBA featured 13 National Advanced Placement Scholars and 43 Advanced Placement Scholars of Distinction
  • Entering students represent 34 different public and private schools
  • The student-teacher ratio is 7:1, with an average class size of 14
  • 23% of the student body receive more than $1.75 million in need-based financial aid
  • Students took 526 AP Exams in 2012
  • Average SAT scores were 200 points higher than the national average
  • 100% of our student body is college-bound
  • 25 AP classes and examinations offered
  • National and regional awards in studio art 
  • 67% of faculty hold advanced degrees, including 15 doctorates 
  • MBA enjoys one of the top debate programs in the country.  In 2005, MBA became the only school in the history of policy debate to win both first and second place at the national championship tournament.  MBA debaters compete nationally and have won three national championships. MBA also hosts the prestigious Southern Bell Forum, the premier invitational competition in high school debate, on campus each January.
  • Active community service is key to the MBA experience. Through the Service Club, the boys support such worthwhile causes as soup kitchen, peer tutoring, Backfield in Motion, Time to Rise, Hispanic Achievers Tutoring, Preston Taylor Homes Tutoring, and the Burundi Refugee Tutoring program
  • The library houses a state-of-the-art digital language lab
  • There are nine fully endowed faculty chairs: English, Science, Math, Fine Arts, History, Junior School, Interns, Leadership, and Humanities
  • The school maintains foreign exchange programs with schools in Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, South Africa, China, Singapore, and Colombia
  • The 150+ acre campus on Long Mountain near McMinnville, TN, has an observatory operable remotely from the Nashville campus
  • The Honor Code is an integral part of life at MBA, promoting a strong sense of mutual trust and respect among all members of the MBA community.  
  • Named as one of the top 50 theater programs in the nation by the American High School Theater Festival 
  • More boys in Nashville Youth Symphony than any other school in Nashville 
  • Field space exclusively for Junior School athletes on 42nd Avenue in Sylvan Park 
  • MBA Junior School won the HVAC Inman All-Sports Trophy consecutively from 2005 through 2011 
  • 14 varsity sports with state championships in basketball, baseball, cross country, football, lacrosse, rifle, swimming, tennis, and track 
Perhaps the new state superintendent will start a rifle team in Camden's schools.

According to tax documents obtained through Guidestar, MBA (I swear, that's what they call it) has "functional expenses" of just under $29 million. That would put its per pupil costs at around $40,000 a year.

I want to be very clear about this: there is nothing wrong with sending your child to or attending an elite prep school that has high per pupil spending. (Full confession: I went to a mix of private, parochial, and public schools throughout my K-12 career; we moved around a lot). I think it shows great character on the part of Rouhanifard's parents that they raised a son who was able to excel in his studies and attend such an elite institution. Perhaps he received financial aid to attend; but even if he didn't, Rouhanifard was clearly an academically gifted young man. I would not for a second diminish his early successes, nor would I say that his attendance at MBA necessarily disqualifies him to run a public school system.

No, my problem -- once again -- is with the massive hypocrisy of Chris Christie. This is a man who refused to follow the law and fund New Jersey's poorest districts as is required by both court decree and the state constitution. This is a man who has let the infrastructure in the state's poorest districts literally crumble. This is a man who says over and over again that we spend too much money on education, and who blames that spending on middle class teachers. And still he sends his own children to private schools that spend a fortune compared to the state's public schools.

But the governor does not only engage in personal hypocrisy on this issue: Christie has selected an uncertified and barely experienced superintendent on the basis of Rouhanifard's "personal story," yet that story includes attending a school that spends nearly twice as much per pupil as the public schools in Camden.*

We will have to wait and see what Mr. Rouhanifard has to say about this. My hope is that he will demand that Governor Christie change his policies on school funding, because as both Rouhanifard and Christie know -- from their personal experiences -- money does matter in education. My hope is that, at Mr. Rouhanifard's insistence, children in Camden will not have to attend charters or private schools to enjoy the benefits of a well-paid staff, excellent facilities, the latest technology, a deep curriculum that includes the arts, and many extra-curriculars including an extensive athletics program.

We'll have to wait and see if my hopes match Mr. Rouhanifard's actions.

Chris Christie: "Paymon has a proven track record..."

* I'm not even adjusting for regional cost differences. The Census Bureau says Nashville-Davidson County spends $9,800 per pupil, which means MBA is spending more than four times as much as its neighboring public schools.

Can you imagine the Camden schools if they quadrupled their spending per pupil?

UPDATE: Just for future reference: MBA's Headmaster makes $541,826 a year; that includes housing. No cap there...

UPDATE 2: Bruce Baker has a brand new post on Tennessee, including the gap between public and private school funding:
All that aside, what do we know about the great state of Tennessee?
But don't take Bruce's word for it: ask the new superintendent of the poorest city in America...


alm said...

The logic here is so upside down that I am having trouble following it -- Rouhanifard's story, as far as I understand it, is the American dream made real - coming as an immigrant, a refugee, attending a mix of public and private schools from K-12, and ultimately going to his state's flagship public university. When Christie says that he is inspired by his personal story, I think it includes the totality of everything listed above.

Maybe Camden's schools can't all have rifle teams on 22K+ a year, but they sure as hell ought to graduate more than 49% of their students from HS.

Duke said...


Brimm Medical Arts High School teacher Karen Borrelli also said experience was essential to navigating a district as troubled as Camden.

"If I need heart surgery, do I chose a resident or an established, experienced surgeon?" Borrelli said. "Why do we settle for less for our children?"


Further: if well-resourced schools are good for Rouhamifard and the Christie children, why aren't they good for Camden's children?

giuseppe said...

Camden should graduate more than 49% of its kids from HS? Gee, if you ignore the fact that Camden is one of the poorest cities in the US, if you ignore the crime, the violence, the unemployment and if you ignore all the kids who enter school with huge social problems (incredible problems that don't exist in suburbs like Princeton), then I guess you can be outraged at the low graduation rate. Much of that $22,000 goes to special services to deal with the huge problems of the children of Camden.

giuseppe said...

From the Camden Education Association web site: "Without appropriate state aid, classes in our district would be outrageously over crowded due to lack of adequate staffing. Already aged infrastructure would be crumbling and necessary repairs would go undone. (Currently, our district pays about 28% more than our state average for maintenance and grounds.)Thanks to current funding prescribed by the SFRA, our poorer students have greater access to free or reduced price school breakfast and lunch. Students grappling with external societal issues creates the need for more school psychologists, more district employed social workers, more special education staff, more behavioral therapists, and even nurseries for teen mothers looking to continue their education – mostly financed by funding mandated by the SFRA; which Governor Christie seeks to scrap. (Camden schools pay 44% more for “support services” than the average NJ school district.)"
Now do you get where a lot of that $22K goes. Maybe, all things considered, Camden teachers and schools are doing the best they can. Throwing money at elite private schools which can pick and choose who enters their schools, who can expel disruptive kids while Camden public schools must accept all kids from a poor and crime ridden dying city.

giuseppe said...

More from the CEA web site: "Unlike Charter schools that receive both district funds, and Camden students from more stable backgrounds, by law, public schools cannot discriminate in who we educate and must serve everyone walking through our doors. In short, per-pupil spending at Camden public schools is higher because our students need, and are entitled to, all the help and resource our district can provide.

What will our district look like with the simultaneous increase of charter schools and decrease of state funding: Chester-Upland School District in Chester County, Pennsylvania."


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Dr & ex Senator Bill Frist is a 1970 MBA grad. Frist (R) is the state chair of TN SCORE- Gov Haslam's independent state collaborative on improving (wink, wink) public education. These reformies are such an incestuous group.

One little tidbit lest you think those need based scholarships are because MBA alumni are magnanimous givers. The scholarships go to athletes- mostly for football. The coaches are paid like university coaches used to be paid. Only the BEST for Big Red.

Duke said...

Good stuff, g. Don't forget: if you want to recruit "great" teachers to a district like Camden, you have to give them competitive pay relative to "easier" jobs in the 'burbs.

jcg: why am I not surprised? ;-)

juan said...

I’m stunned!!! This character is very much the corporate puppet cliché. The onion can’t think of this…

giuseppe said...

As Duke said, "Can you imagine the Camden schools if they quadrupled their spending per pupil?" And I would add, can you imagine the Camden schools if they could pick and choose with a fine tooth comb the students who enter their schools; not only that, if Camden schools could off load and eject any pupils who are too problematic or disruptive. That's certainly the case for elite private schools.

otr214423 said...
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