Disparaging Academic Success

Let’s see if I’ve got this right. Our state income tax dollars are devoted primarily to education to assure that kids in poorer districts have the same chance to succeed as kids in wealthier districts. Ideally, that means that some urban kids will make it to places like Stanford. Or maybe Yale Law School. Or maybe even Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar.

That’s exactly what Cory Booker did. I thought that was called success. So I was distressed to read that Rev. Dr. Jethro C. James, pastor of Paradise Baptist Church, referred to him as an “academic freak”.

What message does this send to kids in Newark? If you get good grades, we will call you a freak? Isn’t it hard enough to break out without this kind of burden? I’ve had kids in Abbott district high schools tell me that they are tormented by their peers if they get good grades. I thought a minister would be among the first to denounce such behavior.

What message does this send to people who are sending their hard-earned tax dollars to Newark? The answer is that it doesn’t really matter because this is about children and the opportunities open to them, not an adult who seems to resent academic success.

Nevertheless, comments like this may diminish the political will needed to invest money in a community where certain community leaders suggest that they don’t want the results that it is intended to produce.

Other elected officials and community leaders, whether they like Cory Booker or not, should condemn the equating of academic success with being a “freak”. There is enough of an undercurrent for a tax revolt in New Jersey as it is. A perception of ingratitude within a beneficiary community just might be the tipping point for a scaling back of funding for kids who need it most. Taxpayers will fear that if Rev. James’ attitude is widespread, no amount of money will produce good results in Newark’s public schools.

Fortunately, there are examples of success in Newark, such as the Robert Treat Academy. Its graduates are demonstrating that they can succeed in some of the best prep schools in the country. It’s too bad that people like Rev. James are broadcasting a message that too readily translates as separate and unequal.

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