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Opinion: Separate And Unequal, Bringing All the Kids Under the Tent

It's time to match school reform efforts to the districts that truly need help.

At last week's New Jersey School Boards Annual Convention in Somerset, Department of Education staffers gathered with convention-goers under a big white tent in the afternoon sunshine.

Cozy, right? Not exactly. While updates on legislation to rein in teacher tenure garnered warm smiles, the mood quickly turned frosty during discussions of impending school reform, especially expansion of charter schools. An indignant school board member grabbed the mike. “Our schools are terrific!” she proclaimed. “Why is the DOE so negative?”

When Assistant Commissioner Willa Spicer intoned, “Our problem is that we have children in schools who are not great” and “our attention is drawn out of humanity to the children who are not served well,” the reception was frigid.

Why the shift in temperature?

Most of the school board members and administrators in the audience were from Bergen County. They oversee wealthy, high-achieving school districts. Who needs charter schools, these officials might argue, when your public schools are great? Who needs school choice, if all it's going to do is drain off scarce resources? Who needs state-dictated curricula when your students ace Advanced Placement exams and choose from lists of highly selective colleges? Who needs voluminous state regulations when your district glides through governance like Glenn Gould through a Bach fugue?

Either missing or silent during that session were representatives of poor urban districts. It was left to beleaguered DOE officials to trumpet messages of equity and school choice.

That tent in Somerset, in fact, was an apt illustration of New Jersey’s educational system: high-achieving, wealthier districts on the inside and chronically failing, poorer districts on the outside.

So it goes in New Jersey, especially in regard to an education reform agenda that now informs front pages of national newspapers, Presidential addresses, state legislature hearings and hit movies ("Waiting for Superman" is only the latest).

According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the plight of poor students is “the civil rights issue of our time.” Nowhere is that more true than in New Jersey where, after decades of Abbott compensatory funding, we’re not even up to the Plessy v. Ferguson days of “separate but equal.” It’s worse than that: NJ’s public schools are separate and unequal.

Example: a student in Moorestown, a wealthy Burlington County district, attends a public high school that offers 22 AP courses. Just about every student passes the state assessments.

Nine miles down the road in Willingboro, also in Burlington, a student attends a high school where in 2009 exactly one student successfully completed an AP course. Only half the kids passed the standard state assessment. Same state. Same DOE. Completely different set of educational opportunities. Separate but equal would be an improvement for Willingboro’s kids.

But can you blame the administrators and school board members in great schools like Moorestown for resisting the cry for reform that echoes through Newark and Trenton and Camden? Why wouldn’t they sit on their hands while DOE officials plead for compassion? Who needs Superman when your kids already know how to fly?

Here’s one way to get through the rational albeit provincial resistance from leaders of high-performing districts. Let’s just say, we have schools that are among “the very best in the nation.” But we also have schools that are among the nation’s worst. We’ve made this distinction for years, primarily through the State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which mandate that we fund our poorest districts (recently revised to poorest students) at the same rate as our wealthiest. Why not take this acknowledgement of inequity to its logical conclusion and implement reform efforts -- charter school expansion, school choice, higher compensation for great teachers, data-driven instruction -- in our chronically failing districts?

Surely school leaders, legislators, New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) executives and the DOE can coalesce around charter school expansion in Pleasantville and Trenton; merit pay in Camden and Plainfield; or tying student growth to teacher evaluations in Newark and Asbury Park. While state-wide school reform will eventually come to New Jersey, our poorest students can’t wait. Targeting progressive educational strategies to failing schools may be politically distasteful, but it’s the only way to get those kids under that big white tent where they belong.

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