Tackling the Toughest Questions Facing NJ’s Public Education System

A new report in the “Crossroads NJ” series recommends a variety of solutions to problems like school funding and segregation

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz
As New Jersey is about to pick a new governor, the state’s public education system is teeming with challenges, from the funding of the schools to the very makeup of their classrooms in one of the most segregated states in the country.

And in a new report issued yesterday, the remedies seemed as vexing as some of the problems, with money in short supply and the state’s racial chasms apparently unbridgeable.

The policy report was issued by the Fund for New Jersey as part of the foundation’s ongoing “Crossroads NJ,” a series of recommendations dealing with everything from public finance to housing to transportation. The next and final report in the series will focus on criminal justice.

With education, the foundation and the report’s authors focused on just a few of the many issues concerning public education in the state, with a heavy emphasis on funding and integration. Left out — for now at least — were topics like charter schools, testing, and teacher quality.

But in their choices, the report picked some big issues, offering recommendations both familiar and nuanced.

Full funding

For instance, it recommended full funding of the state’s school-funding formula, a common refrain these days, especially among Democratic lawmakers.

It also recommended further funding for expanded preschool, another legislative favorite, if only there were money to spare. And greater state funding for higher education, as well, both to hold down tuitions and to provide more support to keep students on the diploma track.

Further, it took on the hot-button topic of school desegregation, a political debate that threatens the sanctity of New Jersey’s home rule. Stopping short of radical actions to desegregate schools, the report nonetheless said more could be done to pay attention to race in magnet schools and interdistrict choice programs.

“We don’t presume these are the only options, but we do believe they are reasonable and practical,” said Kiki Jamieson, the foundation’s president.

A tale of two school systems

The premise underlying the report’s release was a tale of two school systems in New Jersey, where opportunities are vast in some wealthier communities and severely limited in poorer ones.

The main speaker at the release in Trenton yesterday was someone who knows a thing or two about school equity: former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, a member of the foundation’s board.

“In some ways, we are the best education system in America,” Poritz said at the start of the press briefing at Thomas Edison State University. “In some ways, it is the worst … the very bottom.”

Poritz led the court in the years it deliberated over the state’s landmark Abbott v. Burke school-equity case on behalf of the 31 poorest districts. While not writing any of the larger decisions herself, she presided as the court considered subsequent orders.

And yesterday, Poritz was adamant that the state had not fulfilled its responsibilities in fully funding the School Funding Reform Act that had been sanctioned by the court in 2008 as a remedy for all districts. Depending on how the money is counted, the state under the Christie administration has underfunded the formula over the past eight years by between $1 billion and $2 billion a year.

Unfulfilled promise

“We have come a long way, and built a lot of buildings,” Poritz said of the Abbott legacy. “But the Legislature never fulfilled the promise.”

But when asked where the money would come from to match the promise, Poritz was more circumspect. She acknowledged “enormous” fiscal challenges facing the next governor — outlined in the first “Crossroads NJ” report on public finance — but also called it a matter of priorities.

We need educated children, we need an educated workforce,” she said. “If you want these things, you may need to take some pain … You may be willing to be taxed more, you may be willing to swallow hard.”

If that weren’t tricky enough, the segregation debate makes school funding look easy. Poritz and the report pulled few punches, pointing out that New Jersey has some of the nation’s strongest laws and court precedents about school integration. New Jersey in 1947 was one of the first states in its constitution to call for school integration.

But at the same time, New Jersey is in the bottom five states in the percentage of minority students in schools that are virtually all minority students. By one count, close to half of New Jersey’s black and minority students are in schools that are 90 percent minority.

“How is that possible?” Poritz said of the paradox. “How have we done that?”

Housing patterns

Part of the blame rests on housing patterns, she said, but the report nonetheless outlines the benefits of school integration, including achievement gains for both minority and nonminority students.

It pointed to integration models both inside the state — Morristown and Montclair, among them — and outside, too, such as Hartford, CT, where the courts ordered regional integration.

But the report pulled back from recommending radical actions such as those, instead recommending adjustments to existing county magnet schools or choice programs to at least consider race.

There was no mention of mandated regionalization and consolidation, remedies the former chief justice acknowledged would be a tough sell, not to mention difficult to implement. And from her perspective, she said she wasn’t sure the court would be the avenue either.

“This court has been practical and reasonable,” Poritz said. “It is just not practical to bus everyone, how many hours can you be on a bus?”

“These are practical and reasonable [recommendations],” she said. “It’s a start.”

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