New Jersey Gubernatorial Election: Closing Our Educational Divide

New Jersey Gubernatorial Election: Closing Our Educational Divide

Bruce Baker
Bruce D. Baker is a professor in the Graduate School of Education. 

New Jersey is home to some of the highest performing schools in the country. But not all students in this state have equal access to a high-quality education. Bruce D. Baker, professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers-New Brunswick, explains why the achievement gap in New Jersey is so wide and offers our next governor solutions to address the problem in the latest installment in our series on the New Jersey governor’s race.

What are the most pressing education issues facing New Jersey?

Baker: The most pressing issue for pre-K through 12 education in New Jersey is to bring the state school finance formula back onto track. The School Funding Reform Act of 2008 – relatively fresh when the economic collapse of 2007 hit –  is a rational, need-targeted formula that would move the state from focusing exclusively on aid to districts that brought litigation over a decade earlier  to a statewide system that considers the needs and costs faced by all districts. 

SFRA has been undermined by years of cuts and failure to implement the formula according to its original design and intent. Assuming the next governor and legislature can move forward to fully fund SFRA, the next step would be to recalibrate  the formula to meet today’s districts’ needs and costs and to provide children in 2017 and beyond equal opportunity.

There is still a significant achievement gap in this state. What are some ways the next governor can bridge that gap?

Baker: New Jersey does have a larger than average achievement gap, which reflects our income gap.  Both remain correlated with race, ethnicity and the high degree of racial and economic segregation across our state.   

Again, closing those gaps comes down first to equitable and adequate financing, with specific attention to progressively distributing resources to our state’s highest-need schools.  Those resources can and should be leveraged to provide smaller class sizes, additional support services and competitive compensation for teachers, administrators and others working with children in the highest-need communities.  High-quality preschool, especially targeted to those communities with the fewest private resources to invest in their children, is necessary.

A growing number of parents and students are opting out of high-stakes standardized testing. What is the future of those tests in New Jersey?

Baker: Policymakers at the federal and state level for the past few decades have largely misunderstood how testing can be used effectively as an instructional policy evaluation tool. 

There are two basic uses:
The first, testing for diagnostic and instructional purposes requires constant and immediate feedback – which is not available with our current testing – and should involve all children. The point of these tests is to inform teachers and administrators regarding the instruction of those children – NOT to rate and rank teachers or schools. The second, testing for system monitoring purposes (e.g,. accountability), could be achieved without testing everyone, every year for days on end.

Can charter schools and public schools co-exist in New Jersey without one negatively impacting the other?

Baker: We have set up a system in New Jersey that rates and ranks schools based on students’ state test scores. A good school has high proficiency rates. A bad school has low proficiency rates. The state creates and reports on this system, and the media serves as an echo chamber.

Schools of choice can achieve high test scores by avoiding students with the greatest needs, leaving district schools to carry that burden. This creates an adversarial situation between charter and district schools.
We must consider the balanced role of charter schools and district schools across the state’s widely varied geographic and demographic settings and evaluate how this dual system has exacerbated disparities between our children and introduced duplication in a state that already has too many school districts. 

– Lisa Intrabartola