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Opinion: The Balance of Power -- How Much Government is Good for Education?

Melding local governance and state authority in the service of disadvantaged kids.

The deadline just passed for the third round of Race To The Top, the federal government's education reform competition. Maybe the third time's the charm for beleaguered New Jersey, which lost the first two rounds -- the first by miles, the second by inches. Now we're trying yet again, this time for a potential $60 million targeted for early childhood education.

Buck up, Garden State. Our status as an also-ran is no indication of our importance in the roiling national debate about the proper role of the government in public education. In fact, we're a barometer for gauging the national zeitgeist, with a couple of Jersey twists.

Consider the following exchange at a debate among candidates for the Republican presidential nomination last month in Orlando regarding President Obama's education reform agenda, codified in Race To The Top:

Gov. Rick Perry: There are a lot of good ideas here on the side and whether it is cutting back on the Department of Education, making those types of reductions … But there is one person on this stage that is for Obama's Race to the Top and that is Governor Romney. He said so just this last week. And I think that is an important difference between the rest of the people on this stage and one person that wants to run for the presidency. Being in favor of the Obama Race to the Top and that is not conservative.

Gov. Mitt Romney: I'm not sure exactly what he's saying. I don't support any particular program that he's describing … Education has to be held at the local and state level, not at the federal level. We need to get the federal government out of education."

Then the rest of the candidates on stage piped in with their disdain for the intrusion of the feds into matters best left to the states. Rasped Rep. Ron Paul, "If you care about our children, you'll get the federal government out of the business of educating our kids." Rep. Michelle Bachman vowed that if elected she would "pass the mother of all repeal bills" to get rid of the "entire federal education law." After that, she'd "go over to the federal department of education. I'd turn off the lights, I'd lock the door, and I'd send all the money back to the states and localities." Jon Huntsman jumped right into the anti-fed mosh pit: "you've got to say no to unfunded mandates coming out of Washington. Localize, localize, localize."

Simple, right? In the realm of education Republicans want the government out and Democrats want the government in, specifically through programs like Race To The Top.

Not in New Jersey.

We're asking similar questions here: just how much power should the NJ Department of Education (DOE) wield? Which issues should be delegated to local school districts? What's the proper balance between governmental oversight in the name of educational equity vs. the rights of municipalities to direct their own affairs?

But in a partisan twist, the Republican Christie Administration has steadily strengthened the role of the state government in local educational matters. Until last year, superintendent compensation packages were negotiated by local boards of education. This year the state sets strict salary caps. Staff members' healthcare benefit contributions were once settled at the bargaining table. Now, new state legislation sets the rates. Academic course content? We're proud signatories of a national common core curriculum that specifies what students study and what teachers teach.

Further, the DOE is piloting a value-added teacher evaluation model that aims to standardize the way we measure teacher effectiveness, previously a matter settled locally. Currently in the works is a bill designed by Sen. Teresa Ruiz that overhauls tenure rules.

While some of this power shift is tied to the diminution of teacher unions, much of it results from a bipartisan determination to address the inequities of our current educational infrastructure, where opportunity is tied to zip code. This sort of systemic correction must be top-down, from the state to local school districts.

Ah, but then there's the siren call of localization, Jersey's anthem. For example, a minor bill currently in the Senate (A 3582) proposes to strip the DOE of its power to authorize new charter schools and delegate that power to local voters. True to the Jersey inversion, it passed the Assembly through the power of the Democratic caucus, although the Republican presidential candidates on that stage last month would have embraced its ideology.

The proper balance between the disparate poles of rabid localization and autocratic accountability most likely lies somewhere in the middle. Clearly, the Republican candidates, at least judging by that night in Orlando, are still looking. New Jersey, however, is wending its way towards a respect for local governance coupled with the resolve to use the power of the state to foster improved educational opportunities for disadvantaged kids. That's a road worth travelling.

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