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Opinion: Self-Selection of Public Schools, New Jersey’s Double Standard

Upper-middle-class families vote for school choice with their feet, while poor families are pilloried for trying to get the best for their kids

laura waters
Laura Waters

Cami Anderson may not win anyone’s Superintendent of the Year award, but you’ve got to give her credit for a candid admission to the New Jersey State Board of Education earlier this month. In response to a question regarding a four-point drop in test scores among Newark students enrolled in traditional elementary schools, Anderson acknowledged that the city’s growing sector of public charter schools serves children who are less poor and less likely to be classified as eligible for special-education services.

“I’m not saying they [the charter schools] are out there intentionally skimming,” said Anderson, “but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools.”

Charter advocates winced and went on the defensive. Charter detractors grinned and high-fived. Both reactions miss the point.

Statisticians and social scientists argue about the presence and/or impact of this unintentional bias cited by Anderson, what Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the progressive Century Foundation, calls “the self-selection problem that skims the most motivated families into charter schools.” So let’s start by agreeing that many charter schools are subject to unintentional skimming (and note the irony that Anderson’s “One Newark” universal enrollment plan, the subject of much criticism, was created specifically to avoid that bias.)

But this narrow reading of Newark’s public school enrollment template ignores the big picture. New Jersey parents have a long proud tradition of self-selection of schools. It’s as New Jersey as cranberries. Charter school skimming in Newark is just New Jersey’s school segregation problem writ small, an in situ version of a statewide pattern.

There are 21 school districts in Essex County, including Newark, which educate 124,000 students in 247 public schools. The median household income is $55,000, about $16,000 below the state’s median $71,000. The county’s racial makeup is diverse, with equal numbers of white and black residents and a growing Hispanic population. However, as Paul Tractenberg pointed out in these pages last year, Essex is the most segregated county in the state. Twelve school districts are almost entirely white and wealthy. Four, including Newark, “are urban, desperately poor, and almost entirely populated by students of color.”

According to data from the State Department of Education, 88.3 percent of the students at West Side High, one of Newark’s traditional high schools, are economically disadvantaged. Twenty-eight percent are eligible for special-education services, and all students are black or Hispanic. Two percent of students got a 1550 or above on the SATs, a measure of college and career readiness. The graduation rate is 65 percent.

Ten miles away at Millburn High School, also in Essex, 1.3 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 15 percent are eligible for special education services, and 4.9 percent are Black or Hispanic. Eighty percent of students get a 1550 or above on their SATs and the graduation rate is 99 percent.

Given a choice between Newark and Millburn, motivated parents of any means would most likely choose to send their kids to school in the latter, as long as they could afford the freight of the median house cost of $665,000 and an average annual tax bill of $20,439. This sort of self-selection -- skimming, if you will -- is regarded as a cause for applause, an emblem of good values and good parenting. In New Jersey we embrace school skimming. With our ZIP code-driven district-assignment system, town choice is school choice. If you can afford granite countertops then you can afford great public schools.

But in Newark, a system that allows families to choose more successful, albeit nontraditional, public schools is suddenly suspect. A proud N.J. tradition is transformed into a scourge, simply because we’re talking about poor parents and not rich ones.

Now, it’s fair to acknowledge that our school self-selection system can have a deleterious impact on the students in Newark who can’t find room in one of the city’s charter schools (there are 10,000 children on waiting lists there) or have significant special needs. As Anderson said, this can lead to a clustering of the neediest students in traditional public schools and a different kind of segregation.

But we should also acknowledge that the school self-selection process has had a deleterious impact on for the students of Essex County who can’t afford a room in Millburn.

So what’s the answer? Paul Tractenberg half-heartedly suggests county-wide school districts, although he concedes that such a conversion is a “quintessential political third rail” due to New Jersey’s addiction to local control. Whatever that answer is or, indeed, whether it exists, let’s agree that parents should be able to make school choices for their children, and that their right to do so shouldn’t rest on their ability to afford granite countertops.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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