School reform with a bang

NEW JERSEY has taken education reform into uncharted territory by initiating a state takeover of the Jersey City public schools. Local management of schools in that blue-collar town of 220,000 had become so bad, said Education Commissioner Saul Cooperman, that intervention by ``higher public authorities'' was the only way out. That may be the case. In Jersey City, a patronage-ridden local government long ago entrapped the schools in its web of political favoritism. ``Invasive surgery,'' as Dr. Cooperman puts it, may indeed be called for.

And invasive it is, with the state commissioner able, eventually, to remove the local superintendent and his top aides and reconstitute the city's school board.

For now, the process has only begun. Local officials can challenge the state takeover in court, and indications are the school board might pursue that path.

Five other states, in addition to New Jersey, have laws allowing direct state intervention in ``bankrupt'' school districts. Few, we hope, will have to follow the precipitous step being taken in Jersey City. Wherever possible, state reformers should work with local school authorities to build on the strengths at hand.

If education reform is to have the renewing impact its apostles hope for - resulting in rejuvenated classrooms where students actually become intrigued with learning - it has to move from statehouses and bureaucracies down to the neighborhood school.

Fortunately, sweeping away local decisionmakers with the big hand of state government isn't going to be part of the solution in many districts. In a few, however, where constructive change seems particularly unlikely, that kind of thunderbolt may be needed to keep the quality of education from disintegrating.

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