The Ethics of Home Rule

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There’s a great piece in the New York Times today
by Peter Applebome that profiles a seventy-year-old retired T.V. journalist who haunts school board meetings in the wealthy, white district of Blind Brook, Westchester. Dick Hubert, one of those pesky yet eloquent community members whom school board members dread, has accused Blind Brook of fostering a racist school system by refusing to merge with the comparatively poor and minority district of Port Chester. Applebome comments,

But that aside, it’s not easy to see many roads out. Rich districts won’t be merging with poor ones, no matter how much this region’s stratospheric taxes are exacerbated by our crazy quilt of boutique school districts, each with its own layers of administration and bureaucracy.

He might as well be talking about New Jersey; substitute Blind Brook and Port Chester for Princeton and Trenton or Moorestown and Willingboro and you have the same scenario of privileged, elite school districts next door to impoverished, struggling ones. Continues Applebome,

And anything that even hints at a merger of a wealthy school district and a poor one virtually anywhere in America is dead well before its arrival.

New Jersey distinguishes itself by two elements: first, we fund our school districts almost entirely through property taxes, so the advantages to a larger tax base augment the contrasts in curriculum, class size, and assorted services provided to children. Secondly, the involvement of our State courts through the Abbott decisions mandate that the State pick up the slack for an arbitrarily-designated 31 districts. Thus, we have created a three-tier system: the rich districts that comfortably fund their own high-quality programs, the very poor, urban districts that receive enormous amounts of State aid, and everyone else.

As the State wields a catalogue of mandates intended to rectify the inequities, school districts stuck in the “everyone else” category struggle to navigate the rutted endless loop of poorly-conceived DOE regulations. Expensive mandates like full-day preschools and advanced laboratory science courses that all our kids deserve are easy for rich districts that can afford them and Abbott districts that get piles of cash. (Okay – not easy for disadvantaged kids in Abbott districts, but at least there’s the money to try.) But the districts in that third tier, which include the majority of school districts in New Jersey, get mired in all the detritus strewn in their path.

So here’s to Mr. Hubert, an insightful crusader for equity among our schoolchildren. Someone tell him that it’s even worse in Jersey.

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