Monday, November 24, 2014

New Spotlight Column: Self-Selection of Public Schools and N.J.'s Double Standard

It starts here:
Cami Anderson may not win anyone’s Superintendent of the Year award, but you’ve got to give her credit for a candid admission to the New Jersey State Board of Education earlier this month. In response to a question regarding a four-point drop in test scores among Newark students enrolled in traditional elementary schools, Anderson acknowledged that the city’s growing sector of public charter schools serves children who are less poor and less likely to be classified as eligible for special-education services. 
“I’m not saying they [the charter schools] are out there intentionally skimming,” said Anderson, “but all of these things are leading to a higher concentration of the neediest kids in fewer [district] schools.”
Charter advocates winced and went on the defensive. Charter detractors grinned and high-fived. Both reactions miss the point.
Read the rest here.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Leftovers

Asbury Park’s graduation rate just dropped to 49% a year. “The class of 2014 started its freshman year with 136 students and there were 75 students remaining when they reached senior year,” Also, “In 2013, the district's fiscal monitor released a report saying about 54 percent of Asbury Park fifth-graders entering middle school were reading at a first-grade level.”  All this for $30K per student per year. (Asbury Park Press)

The NJ DOE has frozen the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, despite a state statute requirement of an annual application period. According to the Press of Atlantic City, the program, which permits students to cross district boundaries to other districts, was too popular and the state surreptitiously stopped the funding stream. “ As a result, many districts have stopped promoting their programs, although they will accept applications in case more openings occur. Districts were not notified of the freeze until Oct. 31, giving them little time to adapt or notify interested parents before the Dec. 1 application deadline.”

NJ Spotlight on the first year of new data-driven teacher evaluations: “While key data is still not available, survey suggests that new rating system based on ‘student growth objectives’ is mostly working well.”

Star-Ledger: "Another state-appointed arbitrator has ordered Newark Public Schools to rehire a teacher the district tried to fire under New Jersey's new teacher tenure legislation."

The union representing custodians in Teaneck Public Schools is protesting the School Board’s decision to outsource custodial work. From The Record: “Board members who supported the measure said the union was ignoring economic realities faced by the district and by taxpayers. Custodians in the Teaneck district are paid an average annual salary of $56,000. That’s 75 percent higher than the private sector, board trustee David Grubber stated before the vote. The benefits package of up to $25,000 for a worker’s family is 49 percent higher than the average U.S. worker.”

Trenton Times: “A decrease in enrollment at Trenton elementary schools led the district to reassign 10 teachers, taking them away from classes they had already started in and putting them into other roles.” That’s because a “larger than expected” number of families chose to enroll their kids in charter schools.

Also, "Tallying the hours that they spend working on lesson plans, preparing reports for administration and entering test scores into new computer systems, Trenton public school teachers told the Trenton school board last night they are overworked and underappreciated by the administration."

News from N.J. School Boards Association's Delegate Assembly: "School board representatives at NJSBA’s  semi-annual meeting on Saturday in West Windsor voted to support efforts to have advisory decisions issued by the School Ethics Commission made public; to seek legislation that would impose a cap on per-pupil tuition increases levied by receiving districts and schools; and to seek legislation to support an option for a waiver under certain circumstances to enable conflicted board members to participate in the interview of the final candidates for the position of chief school administrator."

Assemblywoman Donna Simon has introduced a bill that would study consolidation of N.J.’s 591 school districts. Here’s an op-ed she wrote for the Star Ledger.

Read Tom Moran’s essay in today’s Star-Ledger, which charts his reassessment of  “Dark Lord” George Norcross, including the Democratic power-broker's contributions to Camden's public schools.

Philadelphia Inquirer: “Talk about pent-up demand. After the Philadelphia School District announced that it would accept applications for new charter schools for the first time in seven years, it received 40, the district said Monday.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

New Newsworks Column: Should Extracurriculars Drive School Schedules?

Last week the New Jersey Senate Education Committee approved a bill proposed by Sen. Dick Codey (D-Essex) that would authorize "a study on the issues, benefits, and options for instituting a later start time to the school day in middle school and high school." Makes sense, right? After all, we know that the hormonal changes of puberty affect teenagers' circadian rhythms which, in turn, dictate sleep schedules and alertness. If you've had teenagers (I've had four) you know that they're late to bed and late to rise, a pattern that hardly squares with school start times of 7:30 or so. Sen. Codey's bill logically proposes that middle and high schools students start school when they are awake enough to fully benefit from academic instruction. This shift is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. 
You'd think that this would be an easy call for the State Legislature, but it's complicated. With all the agonizing we do over the state of American education -- our kids are underperforming! our kids are over-tested! it's the race to nowhere! it's their only chance! -- we rarely focus on the fact that school schedules are shaped by an assortment of priorities that at times coexist harmoniously with the academic mission of schools and at times conflict with that mission. One of those conflicts is our tradition of designing school schedules to accommodate the needs of extracurricular activities. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Sen. Codey's bill is that it forces us to examine that compromise.
Read the rest here.

QOD: Millburn Superintendent Quits to Avoid Salary Cap

James Crisfield, superintendent of Millburn Public Schools (Essex County), explains to John Mooney that he is resigning and taking a job in Wissahickon School District in Montgomery County, Pa.  to avoid  a $50,000 salary cut next year when his contract expires and  N.J's  superintendent salary caps kick in.
Q: You are not the first in Essex County to leave the state, at least in part due to the caps.
I know of a number of vacancies now. I know Livingston has an interim superintendent, South Orange-Maplewood is also looking. I find it impossible to believe someone would not have figured out this effect when they put it in. And if a reasonable person could predict this, why then would they do it?
Q: How many in Millburn would make more than you if you stayed and took the pay cut?
Maybe five. And also the effect is that the cap is cutting way back on the pool of people who are interested in becoming district leaders. Why would you move from principal or maybe assistant superintendent and incur the added time and responsibility, and with a pay cut? That’s not a natural outcome.
For my take, see here and  here.

Fact of the Day: How Much Time Does Standardized Testing Actually Take?

There is a direct relationship, I have noticed, between the complexity of a topic and the potential for nonsense to surround it.
That is exactly what is happening with the too-much-state- testing student walkout business.
The cold, hard facts are that state-required standardized testing in first through 12th grades takes 1.4 percent of a kid's annual school time at most.
Alice Caldwell at the Denver Post (hat tip: RealClearEducation)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Guest Editorial: "New Jersey and the Myth of SFRA"

Here's an editorial by Essex County Board member Jeff Bennett on the absurdities of N.J.'s allocation of school state aid through the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). Jeff describes disparities among  suburban and exurban districts, between Abbott districts and equally poor non-Abbots, and the respective  roles of Gov. Christie, the Education Law Center, and the State Legislature.

New Jersey and the Myth of SFRA 

You would have to look pretty closely to see similarities between the school systems of Hillsborough and Bloomfield.

Hillsborough is an exurban community in Somerset County where only 8% of students are Free & Reduced Lunch eligible. The per capita income is $43,000 and the schools are supported by $820,000 in property valuation per student.

Bloomfield is an inner suburb in Essex County where 35% of students are Free & Reduced Lunch eligible.  The per capita income is $30,000 and the schools are supported by only $660,000 in property valuation per student.

Despite the fact that Hillsborough is much richer than Bloomfield, it actually gets more state aid per student, $3586, versus Bloomfield's $3,286.

Guttenberg and Jersey City, on the other hand, are as similar as Hillsborough and Bloomfield are different.  In Guttenberg 82% of students are FRL eligible.  In Jersey City 75% of students are FRL eligible.    Guttenberg’s per capita income is $33,000 and the schools have $443,000 in valuation per student (adjusted for being a K-8 district). Jersey City’s per capita income is $30,490 and its schools have $551,000 in valuation per student.

Despite the fact that Jersey City is slightly richer, the state gives Jersey City drastically more money - $13,836 versus $3,834 per student for Guttenberg.  Despite similar needs, Guttenberg’s per student spending is $11,116.  Jersey City’s is $17,859

New Jersey’s Aid Unfairness

Despite decades of effort to make New Jersey’s education aid distribution fair, the distribution of education aid remains riddled with absurdities.  Exurban districts get 2-3 times as much aid as suburban districts that have equal wealth and Abbott districts get 2-3 times more than non-Abbotts that are their equals.

The fact that poor districts that were not part of the Abbott lawsuit are underaided is well known, but less well-known is a pattern of exurban /suburban disparities, where exurban districts typically receive dramatically more aid than their suburban peers.  The following examples are random and yet representative.

- Hamilton Township (DFG FG, 11,000 students) in Mercer County gets $6,062 per student. Clark, Bergenfield, Dumont, Fort Lee, Hasbrouck Heights, Maywood, New Milford, Northvale, Rochelle Park, Wood Ridge, Nutley combined get a (weighted) average of $1450 per student.

- Marlboro gets (DFG I, 5200 students) gets $11.6 million in state aid, or Berkeley Heights, Springfield, Scotch Plains-Fanwood, Cranford, Mountainside, and Westfield combined (DFG FG-I, 21,000 students) get $11.2 million, or $530 per student.

- West Windsor-Plainsboro (DFG J, 9800 students) gets $7.5 million, or $784 per student. Livingston, Glen Ridge, Verona, Oakland, and Summit combined (all DFG I, 18,700 students) only get $6.5 million, or $370 per student.

Exurban districts even get double the per student funding of districts that are 2-3 Factor Groups below them.

- Old Bridge (DFG FG) gets $533 per student. Clifton and Bloomfield (DFG CD and DEs) get $2636.

- Jefferson Township (DFG GH) gets $4835 per student. Hackensack, Lyndhurst, and Garwood combined (DFG CD-DE, 8,400 students) only get $15.3 million, $1841 per student.

Underaided middle-class and wealthy suburban districts are often able to make up for their aid gaps by accepting very high tax burdens, so the per pupil spending gaps are usually modest, but the Abbott/low-resource non-Abbott aid disparities translate into wide spending gaps, since the low-resource non-Abbotts lack the tax bases to make up for the lack of state aid.

The Abbott lawsuit was waged on behalf of poor districts, not poor students.  The New Jersey Supreme Court, in its wisdom, decided that poor students in Abbott districts had rights which poor students living in identical circumstances in non-Abbott districts did not have.  Despite Abbott - or because of Abbott - many poor children in New Jersey are left behind.

- Perth Amboy is 64% FRL eligible.  As an Abbott it receives $13,425 per student.  Carteret is 63% FRL eligible and receives $7,261.  Total spending in Perth Amboy is $15,759 per student, total spending in Carteret is $11,721.

- Passaic is 80% FRL eligible.  As an Abbott it receives $16,898. Prospect Park, a non-Abbott, is 75% FRL eligible and receives $9,372 per student.  Total spending in Passaic is $16,944 per student.  Total spending in Prospect Park is $12,140.

- Elizabeth is 88% FRL eligible.  As an Abbott it receives $15,931.  Its neighbor Hillside is 58% FRL eligible and receives $7,243 per pupil.  Total spending in Elizabeth is $17,444 per pupil, total spending in Hillside is $13,925 per pupil.

- Irvington is 69% FRL eligible.  As an Abbott it receives $16,395.  Belleville is 52% FRL eligible and receives $5394 per pupil.  Total spending is $16,825 in Irvington.  Total spending in Belleville is $10,868 per pupil.

These listings underestimate the disparities, since the Abbotts get the state to pay for almost all capital costs.

Pre-K’s Savage Inequalities

The disparities between Abbotts and low-resource non-Abbotts are even more intense in pre-K funding.

90% of New Jersey’s pre-K aid goes to the Abbotts, even though they have less than half of New Jersey’s poor children.  Jersey City alone gets $65 million, almost as much pre-K aid as all of the non-Abbotts combined.  There is no means testing, so “free” pre-K goes to children of high-income parents in several Abbotts.  Many towns with high rates of poverty, including Belleville, Bloomfield, Clifton, get (literally) $0.

The Myth of SFRA

New Jersey’s school funding law, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA) was supposed to do away with disparities like these.   SFRA was supposed to be the “one formula” that would fund Abbotts and non-Abbotts at equal levels per their needs.  SFRA promised that all districts where more than 40% of children were Free & Reduced Lunch eligible would get funds for pre-K.  SFRA was even supposed to help middle-resource suburbs.  So what happened?

What happened is that the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 was only a method of distributing new education aid. The idea behind SFRA is that all districts would get more aid, but underaided towns would get more new aid than others.

Even if a town has seen a large increase in wealth SFRA entrenches its aid level through a provision called “Adjustment Aid.”  The districts getting Adjustment Aid (a $555 million expense) are mostly rural and Shore districts where land values have risen and where poverty rates are low, but gentrified cities do immensely well.  Jersey City is the biggest recipient of Adjustment Aid, at $114 million, a fifth of all Adjustment Aid given.  Ocean Township (Ocean County) is the biggest winner in percentage terms, getting 86% of its aid (33% of its total budget) through Adjustment Aid. (See User Friendly Budgets)

Since SFRA is a formula for distributing new aid, and not a redistribution, without new aid SFRA “does not breathe,” and low-aid towns like Bloomfield, Guttenberg, and nearly all of suburbia languish underaided and must choose between having extremely high taxes or underfunded schools.

If New Jersey had billions more to spend on education, low-aid districts like Bloomfield and Guttenberg would gain more than high-aid districts like Hillsborough and Jersey City.  The Department of Education has not publicly released uncapped aid levels since 2009, but in that year the state projected that Bloomfield should get over $5,800 per student, versus $5,300 for Hillsborough.  Guttenberg should get $9,500 per student.  Jersey City is already overaided and should get no increase but retain its current $418 million aid level.

Assigning Blame?

The Education Law Center, the proponent of the Abbott cases, places a huge amount of the blame for underaided schools at Chris Christie’s feet.  “The Governor’s refusal to fund the SFRA formula has resulted in an accumulated funding shortfall of almost $4.5 billion during his first term in office....” and “Over the last four years, through a combination of aid cuts and minimal increases, Governor Christie has created a cumulative aid deficit of $5 billion statewide” being representative statements.

What this ignores is the recession and the fall in state revenue.  SFRA was signed in January 2008, at New Jersey’s employment and revenue peak, when New Jersey had 140,000 more jobs than it has today.  From 2008 to 2010 New Jersey’s Sales Tax, Business Tax, Income Tax, and Casino Tax revenue alone declined from $24.4 billion to $20.4 billion.   New Jersey also began to awaken to the $90 billion gaping hole in retiree benefits funds.  To simply say that Chris Christie has “refused” to fully fund SFRA is wrong; he cannot fully fund SFRA.  If Christie hadn’t decided to underfund state pensions by over $2 billion education aid would probably have been cut in 2014-15.   New Jersey’s history of underfunding its aid formulas has happened repeatedly in recessions and economic stagnation.

New Jersey’s economic recovery is so weak and our debt so high that the optimistic economic assumptions of 2008 have to be reviewed.  New revenue is needed through economic growth or tax increases, but we also have to allow money to move from where need is less to where it is more acute, i.e., redistribute aid. When 150 districts get less than half of the (uncapped) aid that SFRA promises, how can we allow districts to receive over 100% of what SFRA recommends through Adjustment Aid?

In the last two aid cycles Christie has refused to let any district lose aid, meaning he has treated overaided districts like Hoboken and Ocean Township the same as he has treated underaided districts like Bloomfield and Guttenberg.  Christie should be criticized for this, but Christie has been supported in this by groups like the New Jersey School Boards Association, the Education Law Center, and the legislature as a whole.  The fault is not Christie’s alone; the fault is the whole education establishment.

Communities constantly change.  They become wealthier, poorer, grow, and shrink.  Fairness in funding depends on an acceptance that New Jersey does not have unlimited resources and we can’t districts that have become wealthier or lost student population to hoard aid.  As communities change so must state aid.

(Jeffrey Bennett is a member of a Board of Education in Essex County. His views are his own and not those of his Board of Education.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

New York's Lakewood

The Wall Street Journal and the N.Y. Times both report today on the East Ramapo school district in Rockland County, where the school board is comprised entirely of Orthodox Jewish men who have “ripped the heart out of the academic program” in the public schools in order to pay the costs of transporting 24,000 children to yeshivas and and, also, to cover the costs of special education services in yeshivas, or Jewish day schools.

Sound familiar?

Taking N.J.’s lead, the State has appointed a fiscal monitor which, according to the Journal, amounts to “the strongest state intervention in a New York district in more than a decade.”
More from the Journal:
New York State Education Department officials have said in recent years that the district broke the law by placing too many Orthodox and Hasidic special-needs children in private religious schools at public expense. 
The district, which has a $211 million budget this academic year, has run serial deficits. Since 2009 the board made sharp reductions in public schools, such as cutting 400 teachers and other staff, slashing sports and arts and eliminating advanced courses, the report found. In the past, the board president blamed the cuts on the recession, property tax cap and the state-aid formula’s inability to meet his district’s unique needs. 
Mr. Greenberg said the board violated open public meetings laws by spending most of its sessions behind closed doors, and district officials frequently branded critics as anti-Semitic, exacerbating tensions between the private and public school families. He said seven out of nine board members represent the private school community.
Meanwhile, Lakewood remains, well,  Lakewood. In other words, a lot like East Ramapo. It is currently facing investigations into fiscal and ethical malfeasance by the ACLU, the NAACP, and the FBI while the almost entirely poor Hispanic enrollment gets by with bupkes.

More trivially, Lakewood's school board, controlled by the Orthodox Jewish community, continues to violate OPRA laws by failing to disseminate public meeting minutes within 30 days, although it’s better than it used to be. For example, the most recent meeting minutes available now is from this past August. On that agenda the board approved about sixty placements at a Jewish special education school called SCHI (School for Children with Hidden Intelligence).  Lakewood usually sends about 120 kids there a year, or the entire enrollment of the school, SCHI also happens to have one of the  highest tuitions in the state for private special education schools. The costs of those 60  placements, which don’t cover transportation or required summer programming, will cost Lakewood about $4,783,968, because each day’s tuition is $442.96.  Also, 21 of those students require a one-on-one aide, per diem $133.33, or another half a million dollars per year. But whose counting? (Hopefully, the fiscal monitor.)