The Wall Street Journal
June 3, 2004

Acute Trentonitis

The Wall Street Journal
June 3, 2004

You won't find this malady in the medical books. But that's because this is a disease that afflicts governments, and its most prevalent symptom is the itch to impose "solutions" where there's no clear problem while ignoring crises right under their noses. Two current disputes suggest that politicos in New Jersey's state capital are suffering from a particularly virulent form.

The first involves several hundred parents standing on the statehouse steps last week to protest a bill that would impose regulations on New Jersey home-schoolers, in areas from testing to medical exams. The other, held the very same day, was a plea from a coalition of African-American ministers arguing for school choice for the kids they say are getting a distinctly separate and unequal public education in the Garden State. Guess which of these issues-regulating home-schoolers or liberating minority children-is likely to occupy Trenton's time?

"What we need is for the teachers unions and politicians to confess that the public schools are failing these children so we can move on to alternatives," says the Reverend Clenard Childress, pastor of New Cavalry Baptist Churches in both Newark and Montclair. "It's not about money-they're willing to spend more money. It's about tying the money to the children to impose some accountability, and they're all against that."

Mr. Childress says that during a visit to Milwaukee, the first city to pass school choice, he saw minority kids eager about learning and a public school system responding to the competition. Alas, there's not much appetite in Trenton for holding failing public schools accountable. To the contrary, what New Jersey gets is the home-schooling bill that provoked the statehouse protest, a bill that failed last session but is being reintroduced by Democratic Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg.

Even for New Jersey, this strikes us as a warped sense of urgency. Ms. Weinberg argues that New Jersey is one of only nine states that do not regulate home schools, that all she wants is that parents be required to report they are home-schooling their kids to local authorities and that they meet the same standards. As for the evidence that New Jersey needs such regulation, she cites a single newspaper article about an unstructured type of home-schooling and what she says has been her experience in finding kids that weren't going to school and nobody even knew they existed.

The statistical evidence about home-schooling is much disputed by critics who say the studies lack the proper control. But as Education Week reports online, to the degree we have data it tends to show overachievement: One study of 20,000 home-schoolers found that students' median scores on standardized tests were well above the national average, and that a quarter of these students were enrolled a grade above their public and private school peers. That doesn't include the disproportionate home-school successes at state and national spelling bees, science contests, and so on.

If New Jersey legislators really want to improve things, surely their energies would be better directed to liberating children from inner-city public schools that leave their charges with despair and leave thousands of New Jersey's minority and mostly inner-city children lacking the skills they need to become productive citizens. Ms. Weinberg, who opposes vouchers, rejects the comparison. "Don't tell me because kids in Newark aren't getting diplomas that we can't address home-schooling," she says. "The two are not mutually exclusive."

Maybe not. But if New Jersey politicians do succeed in holding home-schoolers to the same "standards" they have for the inner-city children these black ministers are worried about, we'll really be in trouble.