On this day as we reflect upon the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, an article by New Jersey civil rights attorney Paul Tractenberg is a sobering reminder that in public education we have a long, long way to go. Tractenberg describes what he calls the two school systems of New Jersey:
“One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students. The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students. These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke‘s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements. But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.”
Tractenberg describes a new report he co-authored, released jointly by Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, that focuses on apartheid schools “with 1 percent or fewer white students” and intensely segregated schools with “10 percent or fewer white students.” According to the report, “almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated” —falling into one of these two categories. “Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income.”
Tractenberg depicts the school reform strategy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf as a radical agenda that ignores segregation and poverty: long-term state takeover of school districts; closure of so-called “failing” schools; privatization; attacks on teachers unions; evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores; and promotion of vouchers. (Newark’s schools have been under state control since 1995. Just this past week, Newark’s state-appointed overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, fired four principals for speaking up at a public meeting to oppose her plan to close a third of Newark’s public schools.)
Tractenberg concludes: “‘evidence’ regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that: long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster; 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.”
Tractenberg suggests that his own ideas —merging smaller school districts, creating county-wide school districts, creating a magnet school program modeled on Connecticut’s—are no more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda. He would acknowledge, however, that developing the political will for policies that will challenge power, privilege and attitudes about race and class is going to be as difficult today as it was when Dr. King tried to undertake a campaign against poverty toward the end of his life. Tractenberg suggests we need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion about racism and poverty and school segregation, a conversation that almost nobody is having these days in America.