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State Journal: Not the normal statement

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In a cover letter distributing copies of his recent testimony before the Education Committee of the New Jersey Senate, Commissioner of Education John Ellis observed that his comments were "not the normal statement a bureaucrat presents.''

Indeed, Mr. Ellis's remarks--which he described before the committee as "not written by staff nor sanitized by government experts''--analyzed the continuing controversy over the state's school-finance reforms in unusually blunt terms.

Mr. Ellis was responding to criticisms of the increased state aid provided under the reform law to 30 urban "special needs'' districts.

The attacks on the funding, he charged, were due in part to "a sickness in our society.''

"The sickness takes many forms, but it is most virulent when the powerful fail to respond to urgent needs of the weak, while they cloak themselves in apparent virtue,'' he said.

Although critics proclaim their interest in improving education in the troubled districts, Mr. Ellis contended, "many quickly show other values when they dwell solely and endlessly on the money being spent, and want guarantees for performance that suggest the districts are comprised of moral lepers....''

"This self-righteous attitude permits individuals to take the apparent moral high ground of safeguarding the taxpayers' money,'' Commissioner Ellis continued. "But, regrettably, the ground they stand on could frequently be called selfishness, callousness, political demagogy, or far worse.''

Mr. Ellis said he agreed with those who want to hold the districts accountable for how they use their new money.

"But when the accountability arguments dominate the dialogue, it does not take a brain surgeon to diagnose that such arguments are likely to be stalking horses for indifference or hostility,'' he said. "Such arguments are likely to be a cloak to cover the desire to deny the districts the funds they truly need.''

Although the reform law has not yet completed its first year of implementation, Mr. Ellis noted, "I hear demands that we demonstrate immediately and conclusively that the funds are wisely spent or 'they won't get any more.'''

"That's like demanding that we immediately demonstrate the plane has safely landed while it is still in mid-flight,'' he added.

The commissioner devoted much of his testimony to the state's oversight efforts. Even so, he observed, "The state is not a pervasive big brother peering over the shoulders of everyone engaged in a transaction. Be real.''--H.D.

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