The New York Times
By: Winnie Hu
February 18, 2010
Nearly one in five public schools in New Jersey has almost no poor students, the highest percentage of any state, according to a new report.
The report found that at 18 percent of New Jersey schools, or 402 schools, less than 5 percent of the students were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The report found 2,817 such schools nationwide.
In addition, the report, by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative policy group in Washington that supports school choice, found that about one-quarter of New Jersey's white and Asian students attended the 402 wealthy schools, compared with 2 percent of black students and 3 percent of Hispanic students.
New York had 230 public schools, or 6 percent of its schools, in which less than 5 percent of the students were poor, according to the report. In Connecticut, there were 178 such schools, or 17 percent of its schools, the second highest percentage in the country.
Derrell Bradford, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone, a group in Newark that supports school choice, said the report illustrated the need for change. He said that while the state had increased financing for poor districts, it had deprived too many students of the opportunity to attend better-performing schools in wealthier districts.
"The state's policies have failed to extend a lifeline to many low-income kids in districts with high numbers of chronically underperforming schools," Mr. Bradford said. "What I find very frustrating is that this state masquerades as one where integration by race and economic opportunity are important. When you look at this study, you realize the reality is 180 degrees away from that."
The report comes as school choice advocates in New Jersey are gaining momentum in their effort to expand charter schools, which are publicly financed. They are also pushing to create a voucherlike system in which corporations, in exchange for a tax credit, would donate money to a scholarship fund so poor students could attend private schools or out-of-district public schools that charge tuition.
Gov. Christopher J. Christie and the acting education commissioner, Bret D. Schundler, have said they favor more school options for parents. On Thursday, the State Assembly is expected to consider legislation that would expand a program started in 2000 that allows one school district per county to take students who live outside the district and to receive state financing for them.
Under the new proposal, any district could apply to participate. They could hold lotteries if they received more applicants than the number of spots available.
In the school district of the Chathams, about 25 miles west of New York City, where less than 1 percent of students are poor and about 90 percent are white, the six schools serve a wealthy community. Many families have moved in for the high-performing schools; enrollment has grown by more than 100 students annually for the past 12 years, to 3,900.
The superintendent, Jim O'Neill, said he would welcome out-of-district students as long as the Chatham schools had enough classroom space and received financing so that local taxpayers would not have to shoulder the additional cost. Ninety-three percent of the district's $48 million operating budget is supported by local property taxes.
"I think one of the opportunities the state has missed as they have looked at trying to help students from low-performing schools is to see if high-performing schools have openings at different grade levels to help diversify populations like mine," Mr. O'Neill said.
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the state, said the union had concerns about starting too many charter schools in a short period of time. And the union is opposed to providing tax credits to corporations for donating money for tuition.
"In essence," he said, "tuition tax credits take public funds and use them to subsidize private education."