All Newark's Children

SINCE 1984 the Newark school system, New Jersey's largest, has failed to meet the state's minimum-competency requirements. While per-pupil expenditures are at $10,700, more than $2,000 above the state average, the Newark system was known to be neglected, with dirty and sometimes rat-infested buildings, low attendance, and many unskilled teachers. Meanwhile, administrators work in plush offices in jobs many of them consider a permanent sinecure.

Yet if Newark school officials count on the apathy of state residents, and believe that accountability for their schools, for their financial behavior, and for their performance as educators will never be an issue - they have been proved wrong.

``The Newark School District has been at best flagrantly delinquent and at worst deceptive in discharging its obligations to the children enrolled in public schools.'' So reads part of the charge made Friday in an exhaustive 1,100-page investigation by the New Jersey Department of Education. The report is part of a process of ``takeover'' of the Newark schools by the education department. New Jersey has taken over two other districts since 1989, for similar reasons.

The takeover of a school district by state authorities runs deeply against the cherished American ideal of local control. Such a step should only occur as a last resort and in special cases of neglect or waste, fraud, and abuse. In the case of Newark, many in the Garden State will ask why, given the pattern of corruption and mismanagement detailed in the report, the state did not intervene sooner.

Newark education officials plan to ``fight all the way'' any takeover. But the most important aspect of the reform process is that rather than either ignoring the report or merely contradicting it with a series of rhetorical counterattacks in the media, by New Jersey law Newark officials must in 20 days answer the charges in court and show why a takeover is not necessary.

Newark's children live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. According to the report, their schools, the one place they might see a better world, are not ``safe, healthful environments.'' Charges of federal and state laws broken, of kickbacks and poor teaching, must be answered fully and honestly. Those in New Jersey awake enough to face these problems deserve applause.

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