COMMENTARY: Murphy’s Public Educational Politics Are Neither Strong Nor Fair

Gov. Phil Murphy loves to preach about his quest for a “stronger and fairer New Jersey” but, if recent events are any indication, he’s talking the talk without walking the walk. Example: Murphy’s education department just denied 77% of expansion requests from charter schools that had earned the state’s highest performance rating. 

Why would he do that? The reason matters less than the result: Murphy’s Administration is full-throatedly supporting public school choice for high-income white and Asian students while undermining public school choice for low-income Black and Brown students.

How does this work? Obviously higher-income NJ parents, disproportionately white and Asian, use the state’s most common form of public school choice, moving to a better school distritct.

But there’s also our county magnet school system.

Here is a quick example:

NJ Ed Report got a press release last week touting 20 NJ high school students who will be presenting “their exceptional scientific work at the National Association of Academies of Science.” So cool! Who are these students and which high schools do they attend?

According to the release, 12 of the 20 attend these magnet high schools which can draw enrollment from the entire county with tuition paid by county and state taxes. Ten of these award-winners attend High Technology High School in Monmouth County. What are the demographics of that school? 94.5 % of students are white or Asian and a mere 2% qualify for free or reduced lunch, a measure of poverty. Two of the winning students attend Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Science High School in Ocean County, which is a little more diverse: only 93% of students are white or Asian and 2% qualify for free or reduced lunch, a similar demographic to Bergen Academies where one student was selected for the science honor.

Six attend traditional district high schools. Which ones? Rich white/Asian ones–Tenafly and Holmdel–although two attend Palisades Park, which is admirably diverse. 

Can anyone go to a magnet school? Do they accept, for instance, students with learning disabilities? Nope. (Qualifier: at Bergen Academies 1% of students has a learning disability.) English Language Learners? Nope. 

In fact, you better have had a great education starting from preschool, since the highly competitive admissions system includes 7th and 8th grade GPA’s and scores on math and reading/writing tests. Bergen Academies’ admissions system has spawned a private industry of test prep companies: parents pay them to prepare their children for thechallenging, mentally taxing, and lengthy” math tests. One offers an 8-week course for $1,500 dollars, although many of them start the preparation in 6th or 7th grade. You can also buy the “Get Ready for Bergen County Admissions Tests” book, now in paperback.

Yet Murphy is a big fan of our magnets, cutting the ribbon to a brand-new campus for High Tech High and exclaiming, “students in New Jersey deserve an educational experience that will nurture their creative ideas and challenge them to succeed.”

But what about public school choice for Black and Brown low-income students? Murphy just denied a 300-student expansion to North Star Academy where, as the Washington Post notes,”more Black students…scored proficient on the 2019 state tests in math and literacy than in the entire Newark school district, even though the district has three times as many Black children as the school does.” At North Star, 98.5% of students are Black or Brown, 86% qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 9% have disabilities.

Murphy also denied an expansion proposal from Paul Robeson Charter School in Trenton, which, like North Star, receives the State Department of Education’s highest ranking (Tier 1) and was recognized last year—by Murphy’s Education Department! —as a Lighthouse District, a designation that the school is a “beacon of success for public education in New Jersey.” There, 99% of students are Black or Brown, 97% qualify for free or reduced lunch, and 12% have disabilities.

Why is Gov. Murphy in favor of public school choice for rich kids but not for poor kids? Why does he inflict educational homelessness on students in Trenton and Newark while bolstering a segregative elitist system that cherry-picks wealthy white and Asian students and ignores everyone else?  Could it be as simple as the debt (in campaign funds) he owes to  NJEA officials who love magnet schools where teachers have to join the union and deride charters where teachers have a choice?

The reasons don’t matter. Here’s what does: Gov. Murphy, preening about his “stronger, fairer New Jersey,” only supports public school choice for rich kids. School choice for poor kids? Nah, he’ll take a pass.

Laura Waters

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