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Opinion: One-Size-Fits-All Legislation Won't Solve Separate But Unequal

With its tiered approach to education inequities, the Christie administration may be on the right track.

Over the past few months, the Christie Administration has intensified its focus on New Jersey's failure to provide educational equity. While our wealthier kids score top marks on assessments of national achievement, many poor students attend schools where most kids don't meet basic levels of proficiency in reading and math. In some of our neediest schools over 40 percent of third graders can't read at grade level.

This disparity in achievement is old news, inflated by our rampant home-rule ethic, which segregates schoolchildren into 590 economically disparate school districts, and by New Jersey's relatively high test scores, which statistically compound achievement gaps.
But here's what's new: New Jersey seems poised to formally acknowledge this bifurcation of our K-12 public education system by forging ahead with a reform-oriented agenda mostly oriented towards failing schools

This is a defensible move, although it may seem to harken back to the bad old days of "separate but equal," repudiated 60 years ago in Brown v. Board of Education. After all, we've differentiated poor districts from wealthy ones for decades through Abbott litigation (now codified in the School Funding Reform Act) which, in search of educational equity through financial compensation, allocates as much as 57 percent more in state aid to low-income kids.

The Christie Administration, over the past six months, has released several reports that illustrate its intentions to implement reform-oriented initiatives in primarily poor urban districts. Let's review:

This past November, New Jersey applied for (and subsequently won) a waiver from the penalties embedded in the federal No Child Left Behind law. Our application not only lays out our educational equity problem, but also proposes to divide schools into four categories: Priority Schools, Focus Schools, Reward Schools, and everyone else. Focus Schools are the 5 percent of schools with the bleakest test scores, 74 in all. Priority Schools are slightly better but still problematic and Reward Schools are the top 10 percent.

Priority Schools will be subject to intense government oversight by seven Regional Achievement Centers as well as "a full set of interventions." If a district doesn't follow its improvement plan, "the NJDOE will withhold the district's Title I monies [extra aid awarded to poor kids] until the district comes into compliance."

Reward Schools, on the other hand, are eligible for cash awards. Christie reiterated this separation of low-performing districts from high-performing ones in his budget address last month. From the speech: "[we] have great outcomes in some districts. But we have terrible performance in others. That is not right. It is not fair. It is not moral." The governor signaled his intent to deviate from court-ordered school funding compensation for poor districts because we'll see better educational outcomes from changes in tenure law, expansion of school choice, and teacher merit pay.

The release of the state aid numbers was accompanied by acting education commissioner Chris Cerf's "Education Funding Report," which reprised the same refrain: NJ has failed to provide equitable educational opportunities to poor children through the mechanism of money, so it's time for a set of qualitative initiatives.

"In writing this Report, the Department began with a single question: Why has New Jersey's achievement gap proven so resistant to the combination of Robinson, Abbott, and tens of billions of dollars? The Department quickly found the answer: New Jersey courts, the Legislature, and past Governors only got it half-right. They took an inarguable proposition -- namely, that a school must have sufficient dollars to succeed -- and twisted it into the wrongheaded notion that dollars alone equal success."

Here, Cerf echoes Gov. Christie's lead: educational equity for poor kids won't come from increased Abbott money, but only from systemic reforms to tenure laws, teacher incentives, and public school choice.

This political, fiscal, and philosophical distinction between high-performing and low-performing districts also appears in new legislation like the Urban Hope Act (enacted), the Opportunity Scholarship Act (proposed), and the Christie administration's informal decision to restrict charter school expansion to needy districts. Senator Teresa Ruiz's tenure and teacher evaluation reform bill encompasses all districts, although there's been some discussion about focusing energies towards failing ones.

For all the right reasons -- social justice, educational equity, research that shows that poor children require an extensive array of services in order to avail themselves of a rigorous academic curriculum -- we're acknowledging that fiscal remedies have failed and that in needy districts more contemplative measures are necessary.

Separate but equal, right?

Hardly. In Camden County, kids at who attend Cherry Hill East High School (a Reward School) choose from a menu of 18 AP courses and 98 percent of students graduate from high school. Kids stuck at Camden High (a Priority School) choose from a menu of one AP course and 42 percent of students graduate from high school.

NJ's public school system is separate and unequal. Maybe a little differentiation in the application of reform strategies is a pragmatic step forward.

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