To the Editor:
Although your original article on the New Jersey School Choice Alliance (“N.J. Alliance Launches Petition Drive for School Choice,” Nov. 10, 2004) provided a balanced update on the latest attempt in this state to promote private school vouchers, the letter in response from Derrell Bradford (“Why N.J. Urban Districts Need School Choice,” Letters, Dec. 8, 2004) shows how polarized the debate on choice remains. And neither your article nor Mr. Bradford’s letter offers any real enlightenment on the difficult issues involved. Those issues include:
1. The fact that New Jersey is engaged in the most ambitious program of urban education reform in the nation, pursuant to our state supreme court’s landmark decisions in Robinson v. Cahill and Abbott v. Burke; that even as the latest student-achievement data show that those reforms are beginning to work, with large improvements in the Abbott districts, particularly at the 4th grade level (notwithstanding Mr. Bradford’s dismal report), the movement for property-tax reform is gaining momentum and threatening to dismantle the Abbott reforms; and that there is little evidence that substantial expansion of choice, including vouchers, would contribute anything to either school improvement or financial relief for midwealth districts.
2. The fact that despite a state constitutional provision prohibiting school segregation, New Jersey’s schools remain some of the most segregated in the nation; that some public school choice programs in the state are trying hard to achieve greater racial and ethnic balance within the confines of the law; and that the impact of private school vouchers on this effort is uncertain at best.
3. The fact that the state constitution could be read to prohibit state subsidies for religious activity, including religious schools, and that any program providing vouchers to religious schools surely would be challenged.
4. The fact that education reform is a necessary but insufficient part of the effort to improve urban student achievement and students’ lives; that unless education reform is accompanied by social and economic policies aimed at reducing the pernicious effects of poverty, the achievement gap will not be closed. Even the effective education reform will not be a panacea, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.
The recent report by the Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy, “Tough Choices: Setting the Stage for Informed, Objective Deliberation on School Choice” (available at http://ielp.rutgers.edu) addresses these difficult issues and others. Simply reporting on the political debate, providing a forum for rhetoric, may be of some interest to readers, but it is not that helpful.
Institute on Education Law and Policy
A version of this article appeared in the January 12, 2005 edition of Education Week as N.J. School Choice Debate Lays Out Issues, Divisions