Head of the Class
Spring 1994

The school system in Union, New Jersey, boasts an extraordinarily high degree of academic achievement and an extraordinarily low dropout rate for its 6,700 students. But the Union Township School District spends about $1,000 less per pupil than the New Jersey state average, and its elementary and high school classrooms contain about five more students per teacher, according to a recent report from the Partnership for New Jersey, a private group. Nor is Union, a city of 52,000 not far from Newark, filled with success-driven yuppies: only 13 percent of the community’s adults graduated from college.

Union achieved its academic successes (high test scores, above-grade reading levels, a 96 percent graduation rate) and low spending ($6,496 per student, less than what 90 percent of New Jersey’s school districts lay out) by paying many of its teachers a little more to teach a little more and by keeping a tight rein on the number of nonteaching bureaucrats. The Union school district has only 35 fulltime administrators; its high school, for example, has only one administrator for every 272 students (the state average is one administrator to 140 students). The district has eliminated fancy-title positions such as a “crisis intervention specialist” for elementary schools. Many upper-level teachers teach six classes a day instead of the standard five, receiving an additional $2,500 in salary.

The accolades Union has received are making other New Jersey school superintendents worry that they, too, will be expected to do more with less. Albert Burnstein, who heads the Partnership for New Jersey and chairs a state commission on education financing, has suggested to fellow commissioners that they lower the recommended baseline per-pupil spending from $8,200 to $7,000.

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