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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

Yet few New Jerseyans are even aware of the existence of the Morris School District, let alone its unique history. By the way, other urban districts sought to follow in Morris’ footsteps in the early to mid-1970s, and again in the mid-1980s, but they were denied that opportunity.

The result is that today we have the Plainfield, New Brunswick, and Englewood districts standing in stark contrast to Morris as overwhelmingly minority and low-income districts with huge educational problems and in proximity to surrounding predominately white and upper-income districts that once sent their students to them when the urban districts were themselves more diverse.

Many states, including some with highly ranked education systems, have county school districts. If New Jersey adopted that model, it would have 21 school districts instead of an absurd 603. The Canadian province of Ontario, where I spent the first part of a sabbatical year this fall studying successful education reform processes, recently has consolidated, or as they call it amalgamated, its school districts.

Ontario now has 72 districts for 2.1 million students, as compared to NJ’s 603 districts for 1.36 million students. For the mathematicians among you, that means Ontario’s average district has 29,177 students; NJ’s has 2,255. Oh, by the way, Toronto’s students, diverse racially and economically, are the world’s highest performing English-speaking students based on the global gold standard, the PISA tests, and its per-pupil spending is about 60 percent of New Jersey’s.

Despite this NJ history (and the relevant experience of other states and countries), we are told, as if it has the ring of gospel, that it is impossible to deal with New Jersey’s extreme problems of racial and socioeconomic isolation and segregation. That is so despite the well-documented severity of the problem, the dire consequences for our state if we don’t deal with it, and the availability of successful solutions in other countries, in nearby states and in New Jersey itself.

And exactly why is that the confident prediction. Is it because these remedies are too radical for New Jersey?

In fact, if there’s one thing that Gov. Chris Christie, Commissioner Cerf, and I agree on it’s that fundamental, perhaps even radical, reform is required to upgrade urban education to a level that will afford the 290,000 students in New Jersey’s poor urban districts a high-quality education enabling them to be productive citizens carrying their full share of the state’s burdens and enjoying a full share of the state’s rewards. In truth, Abbott v. Burke has been a radical effort to reform funding and educational programs in poor urban districts. And make no mistake, the current Christie/Cerf reform agenda is a radical one involving:

  • long-term state operation of the largest urban districts;

  • labeling of urban schools as “failure factories”;

  • closing supposedly failing schools and replacing them with experimental programs;

  • reducing the role of teacher unions and the job security of teachers;

  • Evaluating teachers based on ever-changing student tests and rewarding teachers with so-called merit pay; and

  • promoting publicly funded voucher programs for parochial schools.

By the way, this is a reform agenda totally unlike the ones that have succeeded in other states and nations. Indeed, knowledgeable and thoughtful people in other countries with successful educational reforms are flabbergasted that we, in the United States and in New Jersey, actually are proceeding in the way we are, against all evidence and experience.

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