Ed Driscoll

'Nothing Ever Changes In Camden, It's A Great Human Tragedy'

“The Slow and Glorious Death of America’s Worst School System” is charted by Jim Epstein at Reason:

The public school system is at “Def-Con 1,” warned the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, the poorest and most dangerous city in America. In an open letter to the governor, the mayor described “horrendous conditions” in the schools, warning that the situation had “reached a critical stage.” Camden’s school system “relegates too many of our young men to criminal careers” and “lifetimes of dependency,” he wrote.

That letter was dated 1998, but it could have been written yesterday. Then-Mayor Milton Milan (his heart wasn’t entirely in the right place, as he was later jailed for corruption) complained of aging school buildings and collapsing ceilings; Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard recently found that school buildings “are often in disrepair and no longer adequate as educational sites.”

Twenty-three years ago, crusading ex-Marine Gordon Sunkett stood on a six-foot platform for more than 60 consecutive hours to draw attention to out-of-control violence in Camden’s schools; on a recent listening tour, Superintendent Rouhanifard found that “half of elementary school students say they don’t feel safe going to the bathroom or walking in the hallways.” In 1998, researchers at Rowan University caused waves by reporting that 50% of Camden students dropped out of high school; last year, Camden’s dropout rate was 49%.

“Nothing ever changes in Camden,” says Derrell Bradford, the executive director of NYCAN, an education reform nonprofit. “It’s a great human tragedy.”

There’s certainly one aspect of life (and death) in Camden that hasn’t changed since 1936:

Camden, New Jersey rounds out the top ten, with a poverty rate of 42.5 percent, and child poverty rate of 56.7 percent. In one poll, Camden was rated the second most dangerous city in the nation, with gang violence cited as a chief contributing factor. Democrat Dana Redd is the current mayor of the city. Frederick Von Nieda was Camden’s last Republican Mayor — he served until 1936.

That’s the line up regarding poverty. Yet there are also eight large American cities facing bankruptcy, a reality that would undoubtedly exacerbate each city’s poverty rate. Cincinnati and Camden hold the distinction of being on both lists. The other six cities are Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Note that the last four are in California, the nation’s foremost Democratic stronghold. As for Baltimore, it has been run by Democratic mayors and city councils since 1967. Since Washington, D.C’s home rule began in 1975, every mayor has been a Democrat.

And then there’s Rhode Island, aka Detroit on the Atlantic. At City Journal, Aaron M. Renn dubs poor little Rhode Island “The Bluest State,” adding that “decades of liberal policies” have made the state “the nation’s basket case:”

In the early 1900s, the Republican Party ran the state, wielding power through a Tammany Hall–style political machine. That changed in 1935, when Democrats seized control in the so-called Bloodless Revolution. In a power grab described at the time as “a startling coup” by the New York Times, the Democratic lieutenant governor refused to swear in two Republican senators who had won contested races the previous November. Democrats then declared their own candidates the winners in these elections and, having gained control of the chamber, effectively fired every Republican appointee in the state across 80 boards and commissions in a matter of minutes. The Democrats even sacked the Republican-dominated state supreme court.

The Democratic Party has dominated Rhode Island politics ever since. Democrats have held the state legislature since 1959 and currently enjoy an overwhelming majority there, along with every statewide elected office. Republicans occasionally manage to get elected governor or mayor, but party allegiance hasn’t been strong. Current governor Lincoln Chafee was a Republican senator who became an independent before migrating to the Democratic Party. Cianci originally won the Providence mayor’s office as a Republican before becoming an independent.

Decades of Democratic control have produced systemic corruption—and reliably left-wing policies. Thus, Rhode Island has the full complement of blue-model orthodoxy: high taxes, high social-services spending, powerful unions, and suffocating regulation.

As Jay Nordlinger wrote in 2010, “If people are voting a certain way — maybe it’s because they want to:”

On the subject of education generally, I like to quote my colleague Ramesh Ponnuru: “If the American people wanted better schools, they’d have them.” I’m not 100 percent convinced of that; but I very much appreciate the line.

For many years, conservatives said — maybe they still say — “Black Americans, on the whole, are conservative. They are certainly well to the right of their leaders — their self-appointed leaders. Black Americans favor traditional morality, law and order, school discipline and reform. Jesse Jackson, Ben Hooks, and Al Sharpton are far outside the black mainstream. The ‘black leadership’ is like Bella Abzug; black Americans are more like Gerald Ford.”

I myself talked that way. But I stopped, at a certain point — when black Americans kept voting for the Democratic presidential nominee 88 percent, 91 percent, 94 percent . . . I said (to myself), “Do not commit the error of condescending. If people are voting a certain way — maybe it’s because they want to. Maybe they know full well what they’re doing. Sometimes you have to take no — such as ‘no to Republicanism’ — for an answer.”

On the other hand, perhaps this is a rare glimmer of hope for education reform from ultra-blue and ultra-screwed California, but like Ace, I’m not getting my hopes up, as long as Jerry Brown is in office and Democrats control Sacramento. (Which brings us back to Nordlinger’s comment about American voters.)

Update: Meanwhile in a legendary community organizer’s old stomping grounds these days, “Mayor Rahm Emanuel is so committed to public education that he sends his children to a private school 15 miles away from where his children live.”