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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Comment on Murray Sabrin's Article: "Local Institutions, local control, and local resources"
Alan J. Steinberg  (May 24, 2009, 5:53 pm)

I applaud Murray Sabrin for his creativity and insight that he displayed once again in his article on public education. There are two issues that I raise in response.

The first is the issue of the New Jersey Constitution, which states in Article VIII, Section IV, paragraph 1, :

“The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.”

This clause has been the subject of extensive litigation over the last five decades, most recently with the various Abbott v. Burke decisions of the New Jersey Supreme Court. I am hardly an expert on New Jersey Constitutional law. My instinct, however, is that Murray's recommendation that parents finance their own children's education, with their payments being deductible on their tax returns, would clearly fail to meet the "thorough and efficient" test, even with a conservative New Jersey Supreme Court.

Yet there remains an issue of whether the "thorough and efficient" clause requires public provisioning or public financing of education. Public provisioning means that the state must establish a public education system of "K through 12" education. Public financing means that the state provides sufficient financing to the parent of each student in order to enroll the child in a good "thorough and efficient" school, public or private. This could be done in the form of vouchers, which leads to my second issue: What is the most effective way for the state of New Jersey to provide a thorough and efficient system of education for the children of New Jersey ?

I favor a hybrid approach of public provisioning and public financing. By and large, most public schools have provided effective education to New Jersey children. I also believe that public schools in our nation have been successful in integrating the children of immigrants into American life and in training our children with the basics of good citizenship. The latter, of course, must always be supplemented by the parents at home.

Yet as Murray accurately notes, there are severe problems and failures with urban education in the GardenState. The parents of these children cannot afford to send their children to private schools or public schools outside the district. For children in failing school districts, as demonstrated by low standardized test scores, I strongly advocate vouchers, which could be applied towards enrollment in either private schools or public schools outside the district.

Where I part company with Murray is on the existence of Departments of Education at the federal and state level. I believe such departments are necessary in order to maintain accountability in the public school system. Accountability may be maintained through the establisment of curriculum requirements and standardized tests, in addition to monitoring school district finances.

There are many public policy approaches to education in New Jersey labeled as "conservative". My personal emphasis , which I define as "conservative" is on the provision of vouchers for children in failing school districts and the maintenance of accountability.