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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

We could develop a system of very high-quality regional magnet schools that are good enough to attract students of all races and socioeconomic strata from multiple school districts. Connecticut has done precisely that in its very successful program triggered by the racial and economic isolation of students in the Bridgeport school district. Those magnets are so strong that they have produced waiting lists of students of every race and socioeconomic grouping.

Close as Connecticut is, we don’t have to look even that far for a model. Right here in New Jersey, county vocational districts have shown that, if your schools are good enough, the best students will come from across the county. According to the most recent U.S. News and World Report ranking of New Jersey high schools, five of our top 10 are operated by county vocational districts, three by Monmouth County alone.

And an even more recent study of average SAT scores found that, remarkably, the top 10 high schools in New Jersey by that benchmark are all operated by county vocational districts. Of course, students have to test into most of those schools, but that’s not the only way to structure highly attractive magnet schools with an explicit civil rights/diversity agenda.

New Jersey already has in place other cross-district programs, such as the increasingly popular interdistrict public school choice program and charter schools. The racial and economic diversity dimensions of both those programs could be substantially ratcheted up to make them effective vehicles for promoting diversity.

We can reach beyond education to induce state and local governments not to build or subsidize more low- and moderate-income housing in areas where students already attend apartheid schools and usually live in apartheid neighborhoods. Indeed, all state and local legislation, regulations, and policies could be rigorously screened to ensure that they promote, rather than impede, racial and economic diversity of communities and their schools.

NJ's Virulent Home Rule

Finally, we could once and for all confront New Jersey’s particularly virulent form of home rule. Consolidation of school districts and municipalities is routinely referred to as “a political third rail.” For three-quarters of a century this attitude has disabled us from addressing the gross inefficiencies -- fiscal, educational, social, and constitutional -- of our crazy quilt of undersized and colossally expensive municipalities and school districts. A former speaker of New Jersey’s Assembly, Alan Karcher, referred to it in a book title as Multiple Municipal Madness. As citizens and taxpayers, we excoriate politicians for our property taxes, by far the highest in the nation, but we cling with equal passion to our costly and dysfunctional governmental bodies.

During a period from the 1930s to date, as the number of school districts nationwide has dropped from well over 100,000 to less than 15,000, our state has significantly increased the number of its districts to 603 according to the NJDOE website. We have resisted recommendations of repeated blue ribbon commissions to rationalize our educational system by reorganizing it and dramatically reducing the number of districts (as, by the way, our neighbor Pennsylvania has done).

If we could get beyond our fetishistic attachment to home rule, there are many ways to consolidate districts, either on an individual or statewide basis. Examples of both abound. The Morris School District was created in 1973 out of the adjacent Morristown and Morris Township districts, one increasingly black and lower-income, the other overwhelmingly white and middle to upper income. It was created primarily for racial balance and allied educational reasons.

Despite initial start-up issues, 40 years later the Morris School District is an amazing success story. It may be the most racially and socioeconomically balanced district in the state, it sends 93 percent of its students on to higher education, and it is widely considered to have been primarily responsible for Morristown’s ability to flower as the state’s leading county seat.

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