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Opinion: A County-Wide Approach to Desegregating NJ Schools

Could magnet schools may be a way for all students to cross district boundaries to get the education they deserve?

laura waters
Laura Waters

It’s an old problem: New Jersey has one of the most segregated public school systems in the country.

In tony suburban Millburn (Essex County), white and wealthy students attend a high school with great facilities and universally high academic achievement. A few miles away at Barringer High School in Newark, police pepper-spray students to break up fights and test scores are grim.

Notably, only 1 percent of Millburn’s students are economically disadvantaged, while Barringer's kids clock in at 75.5 percent.

Education reform discussions in New Jersey pivot on this inequity. Students are assigned to schools based on where their parents can afford to live. Those granite countertops and wine cellars in Millburn come accessorized with top-notch public schools; we buy our way into academic nirvana.

Either you stake your ante on voluntary municipal consolidation (forgive the cynicism, but that’s a pipedream in a state that genuflects to local control) or you look for other forms of school choice that allow children to cross those hallowed district boundaries.

In a recent essay in NJ Spotlight, Paul Tractenberg, founder of the Education Law Center, powerfully describes our "two fundamentally different educational systems,” one "predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban” and the other "overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor,” and suggests that one remedy to this bifurcation is an expansion of NJ’s county magnet schools.

It’s a great idea, but here’s the rub: many of NJ’s magnet schools are just as segregated as Millburn and Barringer.

You wouldn’t think so. After all, they operate under the umbrella of "vocational/technical schools,” those campuses in every county that train future car mechanics, foodservice workers, and landscapers. In the late 1990s, however, some of our county officials saw the opportunity to couple those vocational schools with some of our most rigorous high schools. As a vo-tech model, they’re funded through a combination of county taxes, state and federal aid, and tuition payments from students’ local school districts.

Interestingly, magnets draw little of the political vitriol often directed at other public school options that depend on parental motivation, resources, and application processes. After all, the angry objections to charter schools -- “creaming off" high-performing children from traditional schools and burdening local districts with tuition and transportation costs -- could be made about magnets too.

But they’re not. In New Jersey, magnets are school-choice Teflon.

U.S. News and World Report’s most recent “Best High Schools in New Jersey” lists seven out of our top 10 as magnet “vo-tech” schools.

Bergen Academies, for example, is considered one of the best high schools in America. Located in Hackensack on the campus of Bergen Technical Schools (there's another location in Teterboro), the academies are open to students in Bergen County’s 70 school districts if they can meet the strict admissions criteria. These include top-notch transcripts, high standardized test scores, entrance exams, and interviews.

Admitted students have access to the International Baccalaureate Program (an elite kind of diploma) and a Nano-Structural Imaging Lab, which includes a scanning electron microscope, a transmissions electron microscope, and a laser scanning electron microscope.

The acceptance rate is about 15 percent. You can buy a book called “The Get Ready for the Bergen Academies Admission Test,” now in paperback.

At Bergen Academies, 8.8 percent of students are black or Hispanic. Everyone else is white or Asian. Three percent of the total student enrollment is economically disadvantaged.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at the other public high school in the city, Hackensack High. The average SAT score is 1,349. Students get an hour less of instructional time than kids at Bergen Academies. There are no electron microscopes. About 29 percent of students are black, 22.9 percent are white, and 43.6 percent are Hispanic. Forty-two percent are economically-disadvantaged.

Joseph Abate, the superintendent of the 4,800-student Hackensack City School District, earns an annual salary of $167,500. Howard Lerner, the superintendent of the 1,660-student Bergen County Vocational Schools, earns an annual salary of $234,090. Those state-mandated superintendent salary caps don’t apply to vo-tech/magnet schools.

One other thing: the total budgetary cost per pupil at Hackensack High School is $15,746 per year. The total budgetary cost per pupil at Bergen Academies is $27,205.

Here you have New Jersey's big equity problem writ small, an emblem of our de facto segregated school system that endures in spite of the 60-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision (Brown v. Board of Education: "separate educational facilities are inherently illegal") and after decades of state court-ordered school funding antidotes (Abbott v. Burke) that haven’t worked.

But magnet schools hold promise because they incite little controversy. While there’s some history of friction between local school boards and magnets (especially in Union County where Scotch Plains, Rahway, Linden, and Springfield filed lawsuits to protest tuition payments), county schools emerge unscathed. It’s that Teflon thing.

Most importantly, magnets inspire a progressive attitude towards the educational inequities that haunt our state school system, one that eschews local school district boundaries and encompass whole counties.

So why not initiate a legislative process of integrating magnet schools by mandating a desegregation process that increases admissions of economically disadvantaged children throughout each county? We can maintain strict admissions criteria while chipping away at the patina of privilege and exclusivity and maybe, just maybe, spread that wealth around.

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