It’s been a busy and bruising few years for Earl Kim *93, the superintendent of schools in Montgomery Township, just north of Princeton. Like other schools chiefs during the recession, he has had to steer the district through budget cuts that forced layoffs, larger classes, and program reductions. He has coped with a hurricane that left district schools flooded and teachers unable to get into their classrooms. He has managed all the sensitive issues that crop up in any fast-growing, affluent school system with high-achieving students and demanding parents.
But on top of all that, Kim increasingly finds himself a major player in the battle over public education that is raging across the United States but is especially potent in New Jersey because of Gov. Chris Christie’s pitched struggles with the teachers union.
Equitable funding. Teacher evaluation. Tenure. Student testing. Kim’s positions have led bloggers and at least one newspaper columnist to call for his ouster. People have been so riled up that earlier this year, when Kim was preparing to testify before a state Senate committee against a Christie initiative on teacher evaluation (not long after testifying in a Supreme Court challenge to state funding cuts), one veteran of New Jersey’s public-education wars, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, advised him that he might need “protection.”
“I thought it was tongue-in-cheek,” says Kim, a former college wrestler and ex-Marine. “But I’ve since learned that the powers-that-be don’t like me testifying anywhere against a position the [Christie] administration holds, and it really is a blood sport.”
When, exactly, did public education become a blood sport? Granted, there were vicious battles over busing in the 1970s. But now the whole American system of public education, which once made us so proud, seems to have become suspect. Perhaps it’s all those reports that show how far our students now lag behind their peers in places like Finland and Singapore — though Kim points out that once you adjust for poverty, we are still doing fine — or perhaps it’s a reflection of how both students and parents fret over college admission. Maybe it’s our economic clout, which we feel slipping away. After all, notes Montgomery school board member Andrea Bradley, New Jersey school budgets are “the only ones communities get to vote on.” Adelle Kirk ’93, another board member, thinks education has become such a bitter battleground because the private sector continues to feel pinched while teachers are getting raises, however small; meanwhile, teachers feel frustrated that the public doesn’t understand how much they do for how little. “It’s a very negative climate,” says Montgomery teacher Bonnie Lieu ’06, who believes that union activists and ordinary teachers have been “lumped together” in the eyes of the state.
Public education has become a proxy for a slew of hot-button issues, like taxes and the relative merits of the public and private sectors. Russ Walsh, the Montgomery district’s director of human resources and staff development, believes it’s all those anxieties, rolled into one troubling puzzle we all think we know something about because we’ve been there: schools. “I can’t understand why politicians don’t cast this in a larger light,” says Walsh, meaning that the problems of education are reflections of larger problems in society, including great challenges tied to poverty. “Perhaps because the problems are too big and they don’t want to deal with them.”
At first glance, Montgomery would seem to have virtually none of the problems that cripple New Jersey’s big cities. Just 20 years ago, it still was mostly rural, a bucolic slice of the state’s midsection where rolling farmland nestled up against the long ridge known as Sourland Mountain to the west. “You didn’t move to Montgomery for any reason other than the schools,” says Bradley, who came with her family in 1997.
The district’s schools continue to be a real lure. In the 14 years since Bradley moved to Montgomery, the district has grown tremendously and now has more than 5,000 students. When the Bradley family arrived, there were fewer than 100 students in the high school’s graduating class; last year’s class had 430. Many of those newcomers had different expectations from the people they found there. “There was a switch from being old-time Montgomery — predominantly farmers — to a culturally diverse community,” says Bradley, who went to Stanford and became a lawyer, as her husband did. “We have lots of double-income professionals, people who work at Plasma Physics [PPPL] and in big pharmaceutical companies.” In other words: The district has parents who’ve gotten a good education themselves and demand the same for their children.
In many ways, Kim, four years into the job, would seem to have one of the country’s most enviable superintendent jobs. Though families in his community have struggled with layoffs, Kim need not worry about the crushing poverty of inner-city districts. The vast majority speak English as their first language. High school students outshine their peers statewide and nationally in their performance on the SATs and Advanced Placement exams, and most easily pass the state tests required for graduation. More than 86 percent of members of the Class of 2010 went on to four-year colleges.
Still, Kim has spent much energy on issues of educational equity — seemingly a higher priority for low-income school districts like Trenton and Camden than high-achieving, suburban Montgomery. A few years ago, when state budget cuts forced yet another hard look at Montgomery’s spending and there was talk of instituting an “activities fee” for extracurriculars, Kim opposed it, arguing that there was no real distinction to be drawn between classroom activities and extracurricular ones: Students find what they need in different places. This year, he testified before the state Supreme Court, arguing that New Jersey’s education-funding cuts violated the state constitution. The court later reinstated state aid, though Kim’s more affluent district did not share in the windfall.
Last June, Kim became the target of a columnist at New Jersey’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger, because he opposed a plan to change the way schools are financed in the state. The plan would result in increasing the tax burden on low-income school districts — known as “Abbott” districts because of the state’s landmark 1985 Abbott v. Burke school-financing case — while easing the burden on wealthier districts like Kim’s own. Responding to a letter from the plan’s Senate sponsor, Kim laid out his reasoning: “The research is pretty clear that the return on investment to a child who is lesser advantaged is far greater than the return on a dollar spent on an advantaged child,” he wrote. In case the economic argument failed to persuade, Kim appealed to the more nebulous notion of “Rawlsian fairness” — a brave move, since the sacrifice implicit in John Rawls ’43 *50’s conception of “justice as fairness” is a tough sell during a recession.
Indeed, the justice argument made little headway with Kim’s critics. “Let me offer a hint to this overpaid bureaucrat: An employee of the school board has no say whatsoever in such public-policy matters as the proper amount of property-tax relief,” wrote Star-Ledger columnist Paul Mulshine. “If he did, however, he should not be advising his superiors to take a course of action that deprives the taxpayers of tens of millions of dollars that could lower their property taxes and help keep them in their houses.”
Rutgers University professor Bruce D. Baker, who teaches about school finance, jumped to Kim’s defense. “In the politics of state school finance, self-interest is often hard to overcome,” he wrote in his blog, School Finance 101. “It is a rare administrator who is able to balance these conflicts well — to not take the easy way out and accept an absurd or even unethical policy position simply because it drives more dollars to their constituents.” Kim, he wrote, was the exception.
The whole affair left Kim feeling not defeated, but disappointed that there seems to be no hope for honest debate on a critical subject. “Just having a different view leads to this kind of escalation,” he says with a sigh. “It’s not a climate in which you can have a discussion. You get called out.”