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Op-Ed: New Jersey Public Schools -- Separate, Unequal, and Unfair

Julia Sass Rubin | October 3, 2013

Policies that disproportionately harm and disenfranchise communities of color are incapable of improving either educational achievement or equity

Is public education the civil rights issue of our time? Yes! And the situation in New Jersey is alarming.

Public schools in our state are among the most racially and economically segregated in the nation. Equally troubling, recent policy initiatives are targeting public schools attended primarily by low-income children of color for harmful interventions while disenfranchising local communities from democratically governing those public schools.

Here are seven of the most significant examples:

Crumbling, Inadequate, and Unsafe School Facilities

Trenton High’s 1,800 students, and thousands of others, attend schools plagued by rats, roaches, asbestos, and black mold because the Christie Administration has all but frozen the work of the Schools Development Authority. The authority is charged by law with building and renovating public schools in the 31 former Abbott districts, while those school districts are precluded from repairing or rebuilding their dilapidated public schools.

State Control of School Districts

All four of the school districts taken over by the State -- Camden, Jersey City, Newark, and Paterson -- are populated overwhelmingly by students of color. There are many New Jersey school districts facing steep challenges, but only those in communities of color seem to be vulnerable to indefinite State takeover and the resulting loss of democratic control.

Reductions in School Funding

New Jersey public schools have been underfunded by the State by an astonishing $5.2 billion since 2010. This shortfall has been most severe in school districts populated primarily by children of color. For example, the Paterson, Elizabeth, and Newark school districts combined lost over $300 million since 2010. If the New Jersey Supreme Court had not intervened in 2012 to restore some of the funding, the damage would have been even greater. Gov. Chris Christie also tried repeatedly to permanently alter the State’s school funding formula, to reduce funding for the almost 40 percent of New Jersey public school students who are low-income and/or Limited English Proficient.

Taxpayer-Funded Vouchers for Private and Religious Education

Christie and some legislators in both parties promote taxpayer-funded vouchers specifically for communities of color. Vouchers were used in Southern states during the 1960s as a method of intentionally perpetuating segregation. To prevent children of color from attending all-white public schools, some districts closed those schools and issued vouchers to the white families that were only good at segregated private schools, known as segregation academies. The more recent history of voucher use in other states confirms that they continue to increase segregation. What vouchers have consistently failed to do is to provide a better education for children. In fact, Wisconsin and Louisiana voucher students actually performed worse than students who stayed in the public schools.

Because efforts to promote universal vouchers have failed to win popular support, proponents began marketing vouchers specifically to low-income communities of color. Despite the marketing, Rutgers Professor Dr. Bruce Baker found that most of New Jersey’s voucher money would actually flow to the parents of children already attending all-white religious schools.

Expansion of Charter Schools

In the wake of significant pushback against the opening of new charter schools in the suburbs, the Christie administration has limited new charters primarily to urban communities of color. These schools are being opened with complete disregard for community wishes.

The administration also has ignored the fact that many of the charter schools are contributing to the segregation of students by income, language proficiency and race.

For example, New Jersey Department of Education 2012 - 2013 data shows that Hoboken’s three charter schools educate 31 percent of the City’s total public school students, but a significantly larger proportion of its white students (51 percent), and a significantly smaller proportion of its impoverished students (6 percent of the free lunch and 13 percent of the reduced lunch). The charter schools also educate none of the city’s Limited English Proficient students.

In this way, the charter schools not only substantially increase the economic and racial segregation in Hoboken, they also contribute to the city’s most impoverished students being concentrated in traditional public schools. That concentration makes it much more challenging for the Hoboken school district to provide a high-quality education for the 69 percent of public school students who attend the district’s schools.

Priority Schools and Regional Achievement Centers

Children of color made up 97 percent of the population of schools that the New Jersey Department of Education classified as “priority” in 2012, and subjected to intervention by state-controlled Regional Achievement Centers (RACs). The RACs are staffed by individuals who report to education commissioner Chris Cerf and are given tremendous power over schools, disenfranchising school boards, parents, and other community members and draining educational resources.

If priority schools do not meet RAC-imposed benchmarks by the summer of 2014, they may be closed, turned into charter schools, or handed over to private management companies, all with no concern for the wishes of their host communities.

Forced School Closings

In New Jersey, forced school closings have taken place exclusively in cities populated by low-income people of color. These closings are likely to increase with the advent of Regional Achievement Centers and the expansion of charter schools, consistent with a national pattern of forced closings of public schools that primarily educate children of color -- most recently in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Forced school closings increase instability for children who already face significant life challenges and destabilize communities for whom the public schools are critical anchors.

Policies like these, which disproportionately harm and disenfranchise communities of color, are not only morally deplorable, they also are ineffective at improving either educational achievement or equity. Neither outcome can be attained by increasing segregation or by destroying community participation and democratic control of public education.

We know what is effective: addressing concentrated poverty; involving parents and communities in decision-making; providing adequate funding and healthy and safe facilities; ensuring access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and wraparound social services. The research is clear and consistent. We only need the political will to follow.

Julia Sass Rubin, PhD, is an associate professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. She also is one of the founding members of Save Our Schools NJ, a nonpartisan statewide organization.

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