An education plan soon to be considered by the New Jersey State Senate might look at first glance like a reasonable compromise over new federal testing requirements. The plan, swathed in constructive-sounding buzzwords, directs state education officials to “prioritize resources” and “maximize local control.” It passed the Assembly in late June by a straight party-line vote.
But the plan’s bottom line – withdrawing New Jersey from the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) – carries with it prohibitive fiscal and educational costs, especially for public schoolchildren from poor and minority households.
Opting out of NCLB would cost New Jersey taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars: $470 million in 2006, according to one official estimate. One reason the cost would be so high is that federal education funding to New Jersey has grown substantially – by 42 percent – since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2001. This trend is in sharp contrast to rhetoric by New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) leaders and their allies, whose assertion that the law is underfunded stems from little more than arcane legislative logic about the Congressional funding process.
The NJEA, along with other state affiliates of the National Education Association, has worked systematically to undermine NCLB’s historic education accountability requirements ever since they became law. The NEA is currently suing the federal government over NCLB along similar grounds.
“Abandoning NCLB is an exercise in denial,” challenged New Jersey’s Latino Leadership Alliance President Martin Perez. “The fact of the matter is that there remains an achievement gap in this state: one that scales incomprehensibly when it is compared to New Jersey’s epic investment in public education.” Minority families at the low end of this divide have the most to lose should the new accountability be abandoned by their public school system – and the fewest alternatives.
For parents in many New Jersey school districts, getting accurate and useful information about how their children’s school performs comparatively has never been an easy task. Before NCLB and its new standards for school report cards, it was often virtually impossible.
With this new accountability, the location of the state’s most chronically underperforming schools came as little surprise to most observers. The four state takeover school districts – Camden, Jersey City, Newark and Paterson – have shown little or no improvement since the state assumed control and are heavily represented on this list. Under NCLB, families whose schools defy improvement year after year are entitled to new choices and options, like public school choice and private tutoring by approved outside providers.
Strong transparency for education results is an important new development to many Garden State school districts. And its effects can already be measured: 56 New Jersey public schools anchored in the lowest category of test score rankings in 2004 were able to improve student performance enough to avoid that same designation when the latest results were announced last month.
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