Redefining School Reform

Let’s start with something we can all agree with: some of NJ’s public schools are great and some stink. The worst schools are usually in the most impoverished urban areas. This disparity has remained unchanged through many different education commissioners and both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Another truism: we’ve recognized this fact for decades and have tried mightily to alleviate disparities through additional funding to impoverished districts. This has worked well in a few places and less well in many others.

And another: NJ is broke. We’re spending as much as (or more than) residents can bear for public education. Increased state funding in our neediest districts is not an option.

Let’s continue the truisms: New Jerseyans love their home rule. A Garden State school board and administration in a well-performing district is insular, circumscribed, a world unto itself. Our bulimic state government – scarfing down money and vomiting out regulations and mandates – merely increases a functional district’s isolation and lack of shared responsibility to poor kids outside its wrought iron gates.

Yet politicians, union officials, and power brokers shy away from acknowledging the real-life distinction between academically healthy suburban districts and academically frail urban ones. Maybe it’s because the richer ones are mostly white and Asian and the poorer ones are mostly black and Hispanic; no one wants to bring race or economic status into the discussion. Maybe it feels unpatriotic to give up the pretense that we educate all our kids equally.

In fact, the two pieces of legislation passed this year intended to expand educational choice to underserved students make no distinction between districts inside the gates and those outside. The first one, the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, took a 1995 pilot program whereby school districts could apply to be “choice districts” and accept kids from within the county but outside district boundaries. There are 15 choice districts in the state, mainly tiny schools trying to stay alive. No other district has yet expressed interest in opening its doors.. (Example: Nutley’s Superintendent Joseph Zarra told the Nutley Sun that “I don’t envision a lot of space available for interested students.”)

The second piece of legislation intends to expand charter school growth through allowing other authorities besides our embattled DOE to approve charters and expediting the approval process. Currently the legislation is fending off attacks by wealthy districts that fear loss of revenue and additional transportation costs. (Example: a Mandarin-immersion program intending to serve kids from three wealthy areas – Princeton, West Windsor, and South Brunswick – was blocked from opening through political pressure and a tiny technicality on its application.)

Here’s an idea: what if we acknowledge the obvious. School districts like South Brunswick and West Windsor are different than school districts like Newark and Plainfield. Opposition to reform initiatives like school choice is voiced most adamantly from districts where students are, by and large, well served. There’s no sense of urgency in South Brunswick, no lives on the line, unlike, say, families whose kids go to Barringer High in Newark. There, according to the Star-Ledger, “all of the 88 doors are broken,” “holes in the walls allow rats and mice in the building, the roof has holes and many rooms are without thermostats” and there is “a breakdown that is leaving students vulnerable to violence and depriving them of a basic education.”

What if we focused efforts for school reform in districts that need it right now? How could the NJEA officials ethically oppose new charter schools for kids or experiments in merit pay and tying student growth to teacher compensation at schools like Barringer High? How could legislators (like Senator Shirley Turner, who voted against expanding charter school authorizers because "I am concerned that some of these charter schools are turning into private schools at taxpayer expense”) make an argument against new options for Barringer familes? Why would school boards in functional districts fight approval of charters outside their jurisdiction?

For decades we've distinguished our West Windsors from our Barringers through school funding, first the Abbott rulings and now the School Funding Reform Act. Now it’s time to distinguish our functional districts from our dysfunctional ones through application of reform initiatives for the kids who need it right now.

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