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A closer look at New Jersey's highly rated schools


Is New Jersey’s school system the best in the country? Many surveys put it at or near the top. Some experts say that doesn’t really tell the story though. Peter Woolley is a political scientist at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He said it all depends where you live, and if you live in one of the big cities, like Newark, those surveys don’t mean much:

“There is a school system within our school system which is really one of the poorest in the nation, or at least very middling at best, about as good as Kentucky’s, let’s say. So if you’re in a good school district in New Jersey you’re good, but if you’re not in a good school district in New Jersey you’re not good,” he said.

The 2023 ranking from US News and World Report put New Jersey’s schools number 2 behind Florida. But housing patterns in New Jersey determine who goes to what school, with the result that many students go to schools where almost everyone looks like them, said Woolley.

“At the same time that we have very good schools overall we also have very segregated schools overall. New Jersey ranks about number 6 in the nation for segregation in its schools,” he said.

That segregation often results in vastly different educational opportunities, like the number of advanced placement courses offered in high school, seen as an important steppingstone to college.

There’s also the issue of charter schools, especially in Newark. These are public schools that far outperform the district schools in Newark in many cases.

“The teachers union will claim that the charter schools are simply skimming off the best students, but I think that that’s been debunked many times,” he said. “A lot of these schools, charter schools, use lotteries for entrance, not exams, so they’re getting a fair sample of the students. What they have is a different administration, with different rules and teachers and expectations, leading to different outcomes.”

US News and World Report includes charter, magnet and traditional schools in its rankings. The union says charter schools sometimes weed out underperforming students.

Janice Kirkel is a lifelong award-winning journalist who has done everything from network newscasts to national and local sports reports to business newscasts to specialized reporting and editing in technical areas of business and finance such as bankruptcy, capital structure changes and reporting on the business of the investment business.