In School Choice, Choosing Between the System and the Student

Last week Gordon MacInnes wrote an editorial for NJ Spotlight that vaunts NJ’s public school system as the best in the nation (except for Massachusetts) and browbeats NJEA, the teachers’ union, for not mounting an acceptable degree of pushback against Gov. Christie’s education reform agenda. He also attacks the newly-legislated cap on superintendent salaries, the expansion of charter schools, and the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA or the voucher bill).

Now Rev. Reginald Jackson, Executive Director of the Black Ministers’ Council of NJ, has submitted a rebuttal to MacInness’ “summer screed.” (It hasn’t been published yet and I have no link to it, just a copy, so I’ll quote liberally from it.) Rev. Jackson begins with the easy part: taking down Mr. MacInness’ facile references to NJ’s great NAEP scores and graduation rate. Our NAEP scores (see here and here for analysis) demonstrate intractable achievement gaps between low-income minority students and high-income white kids. And most people know by now that our official high school graduation rate is skewed way high through our practice of offering alternative proficiency assessments to regular ed kids. In fact, this practice was cited by federal reviewers of our Race To The Top application; e.g., “New Jersey acknowledges that its historical graduation rate data is unrealistically inflated.”

Then it gets interesting. Once Mr. MacInnes was done trumpeting the excellence of our public school system he moved to more familiar territory: denunciation of charter school expansion and the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the voucher bill. Here’s Rev. Jackson’s rebuttal:
MacInnes thumps the public education platitude of “serving all children” loudly when he attacks the bipartisan Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). And this is unfortunate not only for him personally, but for the scions of a new liberalism in New Jersey that which finds the destruction of children of color in failing schools a mere rounding error in its calculus. The OSA identifies 200 chronically failing schools where over 100,000 students—real children from real families—have and continue to languish academically. And let’s be clear, these are schools that Mr. MacInnes and other defenders of the status quo would never send their own child, or the child of someone they loved, to. They have, of course, already practiced the easiest form of the selection bias they decry by moving to the lofty suburbs of privilege, even as they fight to ensure poor black and Hispanic families do not have the same opportunity.
Ouch. Rev. Jackson then takes aim at “the state’s privileged elites” who whitewash the continued failure of our urban schools:
MacInnes takes issue with the Governor’s characterization of these schools as failing. Much like former Governor Corzine who called students in the state’s worst schools and districts “notable exceptions” and Senator Barbara Buono who believes 100,000 students in failing schools is “not a bad percentage” of all kids, they prove one thing beyond certainty: if the children are of color and not of means they are invisible. The constant failure of them is acceptable. And their dream of helping “all” children through the one system they favor is more important than helping “any” children in the state’s worst schools with all tools at our disposal. This is precisely the sort of exclusive intellectual jousting, performed by the state’s privileged elites, that can only be done from a distance when you have nothing at stake, let alone a child in a failing school whose future is at risk.
And then Rev. Jackson offers an answer to the Ravitchy platitude that until we end poverty we can’t fix urban education:
Perhaps most sinister of all is what Mr. MacInnes, and other status quoists, consider the cornerstone of their battle to maintain their entrenched positions of authority: poverty is destiny. This is actually the most destructive argument that can be offered against public education as an institution in our cities. If “poor kids can’t learn” given the lavish resources present in our former Abbott districts, and a teaching force that either cannot or need not be improved, why should the good taxpayers of New Jersey continue to fund this dysfunction? This revelation is truly the lynchpin in an emerging argument to topple what we today call public education in our cities, and it is offered by the very same individuals who believe they are trying to save it.
It’s that familiar yet weird (mis)alignment: MacInness, closely connected with the Education Law Center, primary advocates for poor urban students (he’s also a former state legislator and assistant commissioner for NJ’s DOE), sets himself up as an opponent of another group that seeks to improve education for poor minority kids, those who support charter school expansion and/or OSA. Add it to the list of strange bedfellows, like the ACLU fighting ed reforms in Newark or the NAACP drawing arms with teacher unions against school choice.

But let’s give Mr. MacInness credit where credit is due. He understands the intersection of policy and politics.
“I sat on the education committee for years, and you could be absolutely dead certain that anytime the education committee met, there would be two or three NJEA officials there ready to testify,” he said. “Most senators didn’t care about the bills. The question was, “Where’s the NJEA on this?’ Once they knew that, they were OK."
In some sense this bizarre choosing up of sides reflects a gladiatorial sentiment, a draconian framing of the debate as a choice between, as Rev. Jackson puts it, “ helping ‘all’ children through the one system they favor” versus “helping ‘any’ children in the state’s worst schools with all tools at our disposal.” Our rhetoric has posited this debate as a zero-sum game between NJ’s system of public education, one that would be undermined by school choice, and NJ’s suffering students in cities like Newark and Camden, who are undermined by the schools they currently attend. Those who advocate for the system, like Mr. MacInnes, describe school choice as a financial assault on the underpinnings of public education. Those who advocate for the individual student, like Rev. Jackson, describe a choiceless system as an educational assault that ignores the urgency of need.

Is there a way to save the system and save the students right now? Only if you recognize school choice as a way to strengthen public education through competition. And nobody on Mr. MacInnes' side trusts the system enough to subject it that test.

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