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A Tale of Two Deeply Divided NJ Public School Systems

The reform agenda proposed in the IELP and Civil Rights Project reports is hardly more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda, and there are two major differences between the agendas -- IELP/CRP’s is constitutionally mandated and Christie/Cerf’s is constitutionally suspect, and IELP/CRP’s is evidence based and Christie/Cerf’s ignores or defies the best evidence.

Illustratively, as to the IELP/CRP agenda:

  • Many post-Brown studies, including those of Professors Robert Crain and Roslyn Mickelson, show that desegregation has improved the educational achievement of minority students while not impeding the educational achievement of white students;

  • Many studies, including Professor Amy Stuart Wells’ and other very recent ones, demonstrate the benefits of diversity on social learning and post-schooling attitudes;

  • Richard Kahlenberg’s important work shows the educational benefits of socioeconomic diversity in schools;

  • The extraordinary recent successes of New Jersey’s county vocational district magnet schools, as well as the widespread and longstanding use of county districts in many states, including Virginia and Maryland, augur well for at least a pilot of a county-wide district, with the compact and deeply segregated Essex as the most obvious candidate (more about that below);

  • The extraordinary long-term success of mandatory consolidation in the Morris School District is well documented but completely ignored for decades;

  • The widely-reported success of the Bridgeport, Connecticut cross-district magnet program demonstrates how a nearby, very comparable state with poor urban areas like ours can move ahead constructively to deal with a similar problem; and

  • The educational and fiscal inefficiencies of New Jersey’s crazy quilt of more than 600 school districts, about half of which are too small to operate a full K-12 educational program, have been documented by countless blue ribbon commission reports and a leading book recommending consolidation and shared services.

The Christie/Cerf Agenda

By contrast, the “evidence” regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that:

  • Long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster, as the state has frequently acknowledged yet clings to;

  • According to the great weight of serious studies, private for-profit operation of public schools, public funding of private, mostly parochial schools, and most public charter schools have produced little or no substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement;

  • Replacing existing public schools with experimental “turnaround” schools is no assurance of substantial and enduring improvement; and

  • School vouchers have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public every time they have been put to a referendum.

The use of Essex County as a pilot for the county school district model requires elaboration. By the usual New Jersey political calculus, it is a solution with no chance of being tried. It runs afoul of some formidable political bosses and some very wealthy and influential suburban residents. It runs head-on into the glib and dismissive badmouthing of cities like Newark, Irvington, East Orange, and Orange. If there was ever a quintessential political third rail, this seems like it.

Yet Essex County, although it is quite populous, is one of New Jersey’s smallest and most compact counties. You can drive from one end of it to the other in not much more than 30 minutes. In other times, Verona actually implemented a voluntary program under which students came from Newark to attend the Verona schools and that was not seen as logistically or politically infeasible.

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