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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

In the intervening years, incidentally, the changing demographics in our state have accelerated. In the 20 years between 1989 and 2009, the percentage of white students in our schools has declined from 66 percent to 52 percent, and soon half, not one-third, of our total state population will be black, Latino, or Asian.

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I have been painfully exposed to the reality of isolation and estrangement in recent days because of the Newark state superintendent of schools' leaked plan to close and otherwise fundamentally alter many of the district’s public schools, including the iconic Weequahic High School, my alma mater in the days when it was at least a top-10 high school in the U.S.

At a crowded meeting convened by the extraordinary Weequahic High School Alumni Association, alumni, school staff, NTU members, parents, and community members vented their anger and frustration at the failure of the state superintendent to consult them in advance or even to inform them directly of the plan about to be implemented.

You have to understand this about state takeover and operation of the schools in Newark, as well as three other major urban districts, Jersey City, Paterson and Camden -- it is seemingly endless (Newark was taken over in 1995, Jersey City in 1989, Paterson in 1991 and Camden only recently). It has produced scant, if any, improvement in student achievement, school and district staffing, educational management, and facility and infrastructure modernity and safety, and it is overseen mainly by people with no prior connection with urban New Jersey and, often, with only limited experience in the schools.

Even worse, the main focus of state takeover and operation was to have been the building of local capacity to run local schools, the norm everywhere in New Jersey except in the poorest urban districts. But the state has entirely ignored and subverted that legislative command. The Newark school district’s central office is like a ghost town, populated mainly by high-priced consultants whose role, compensation, and tenure in Newark are acidulously shielded from the public eye. School staffing is declining with dozens and dozens of teachers and other staff to get their walking papers as a result of the just-leaked “reform” plan.

Shifting the Blame

To add insult to injury, the state education authorities recently defended a lawsuit seeking the return of local control by starting their legal brief with a litany of how awful education in Newark is -- as if that’s someone else’s fault. The unstated but obvious message was “since we’ve done such an awful job in operating the Newark schools, you, the court, have to leave us in control.” And amazingly that argument prevailed. Can you understand how Newark’s parent, students, and other residents feel?

Notwithstanding all these imperatives and the impossibly harsh reality of life in urban New Jersey for more than a million of our fellow citizens, we have done almost nothing to address our state’s extreme school segregation and its pernicious effects. Almost 10 years ago, Deborah Poritz, as the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, remarked in an opinion touching on race that “[w]e have paid lip service to the idea of diversity in our schools, but in the real world we have not succeeded.” The reports issued a short time ago demonstrate that the intervening years have not altered that distressing comment.

So what can be done about this huge and growing problem? There is no shortage of viable solutions that have worked elsewhere, only a question of whether we can summon up the will and enlightened self-interest to move forward, to liberate ourselves from a narrow-minded, defeatist attitude that has held us captive for far too long.

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