Friday, June 24, 2016

A Few Corrections to Dana Goldstein's Slate Piece on Christie's School Funding Proposal

Dana Goldstein has an article in Slate today called “Chris Christie’s Education Plan is Shocking.” While there’s much to like about her criticism of Christie’s state school aid proposal, which would allot a flat amount of $6,599 per child, regardless of zip code (special education students would be exempt), here are  a few corrections and quibbles.

Goldstein writes,
With this plan, the governor hopes to lower taxes and end a state program that sends extra money to schools that educate at-risk children. Lest you have any doubt about whom Christie is trying to protect with his “equalization” plan, consider the fact that although his proposal would cut supplemental funding for poor children and English language learners, it would continue to send extra money to children with learning disabilities—a group, unlike the other two, that is majority white.
Actually, N.J. shares a disproportionality problem common to states throughout the country: we overclassify kids of color, especially African-American boys, for special education.. For example, 40% of pupils at Camden High School are designated “students with disability.” Talk about shocking: this deftly cloaked expression of the belief gap common in low-income traditional schools translates into something like "these kids can’t learn because they’re neurologically deficient."

Goldstein continues,
 Today, thanks to a revised funding formula crafted by both Democrats and Republicans, the state sends extra per-pupil dollars not only to those 31 “Abbott districts” but to students in any district who are poor, learning to speak English, or disabled. Cities and towns with large groups of those kids receive additional money to compensate for the challenges that come with concentrated poverty, such as the need to hire social workers or bilingual teachers.
Not really. While our "revised funding formula" called the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) is supposed to supplant outdated Abbott lists, the amount of money required to fund it is unsustainable and profligate. No governor has managed the trick. So the state was ordered by the court to revert back to Abbott funding. The result is that a fairly substantial number of non-Abbott N.J. school districts are poor and under-funded. And some of the Abbotts (Jersey City and Hoboken jump to mind) are over-funded because the list of “Abbott” districts  (named for the first plaintiff in the case, Raymond Abbott, a student in Camden)  is obsolete and doesn’t account for trends of gentrification and rising wealth.

For example, as Jeff Bennett reports, Clifton Township Public Schools (Passaic County), largely Black and Hispanic, has a free and reduced lunch eligibility rate of 56%  -- about the same as Hoboken -- and only $11,837 to spend per pupil, well below adequacy and about $3,000 below the state average. Yet the state only kicks in $2,300 a student.

In contrast, Hoboken schools, with a similar socio-economic profile, has $23,250 to spend per pupil, more than twice that of Clifton.

Next, Goldstein says that while children  in districts like Camden and Newark “continue to struggle,”  student outcomes are better than in other states. And if  their performance isn’t up to par “the person ultimately accountable...is Chris Christie.” (Mark Weber makes a similar argument in today's NJ Spotlight.)

First of all, Newark has been under state control for 21 years, so Christie is merely the last in a long list of culpable governors. Goldstein also fails to mention the impact of charter schools on student performance. These innovative public schools, fueled by ever-more-empowered parents, are changing N.J.'s educational landscape.

Currently over 30% of students in Newark are enrolled in charter schools. At KIPP’s TEAM and Uncommon’s North Star campuses in particular, student outcomes far exceed those at the traditional district schools, even though the charters get less money per student.

The same narrative applies to Camden, where  new hybrid traditional/charter schools called “renaissance schools” (enabled through a bipartisan bill in the Legislature called the Urban Hope Act)  are flourishing. Parents continue to line up for seats and student outcomes are rising.

But before the advent of expanded school choice in Camden through the renaissance program, student performance was dismal. That was after 15 years of sky-high pupil spending.

When the State Supreme Court created the Abbott school funding system, Justice Robert Wilentz wrote
We note the convincing proofs in this record that funding alone will not achieve the constitutional mandate of an equal education in these poorer urban districts; that without educational reform, the money may accomplish nothing;and that in these districts, substantial, far-reaching change in education is absolutely essential to success.
In other words, money is necessary but not sufficient. But Goldstein presents the story of N.J. school funding as if money alone closes achievement gaps.

I’m no fan of Christie’s “reverse Robin Hood” school funding plan (check out my blog entries this week) which would take money away from poor districts and send them to wealthy suburban ones. But the Abbott formula is outdated and its hypothetical replacement, SFRA, is unsustainable.

 I agree that Christie should be ashamed of himself (if he’s still capable of self-reflection) for presenting an inequitable and unethical school funding plan that is so unconstitutional that it would require an voter-approved referendum. But let’s not pretend that Abbott worked either. Asbury Park Public Schools, the poster child for Abbott failure, currently gets $33,109 per student, almost all in state aid, and has been meteorically funded for twenty years, Last year 2% of Asbury Park High School students met the bar for proficiency in math. Average SAT scores were 328 in reading, 358 in math, and 321 in writing.

Money is necessary but not sufficient.

What’s made the difference for students in some of N.J.’s poor cities who, as Goldstein writes, do indeed outperform demographically-similar students in other states? Three strategies: New Jersey’s early adoption of the Common Core standards, an emphasis on data transparency and accountability, and the expansion of school choice. The latter, in particular, increasingly offers low-income parents access to higher-performing schools that no funding formula, no matter how generous, will ever achieve.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Under Christie's School Funding Plan, State School Aid to His Home Town Would Increase by 1335%

In today's Record, Charles Stile reflects on Gov. Christie's proposal to place a referendum on the 2017 November ballot to amend the New Jersey Constitution's mandate to provide a "thorough and efficient" education for every student to a new clause that would mandate equal funding for every student. Christie's banking that he can resuscitate  his subterranean approval ratings by pandering to suburban voters' discontent with high property taxes that pay for local schools. 

For example, Mendham Public Schools, Christie home district, has a median housing price of $592,000 and a median household income of $158,750. The average annual property tax bill in Mendham is $18,040, with between 50%-60% of that going to the district, which has one middle school and one elementary school. The students are almost all white. One percent of the student body is English Language Learners and 0% are economically-disadvantaged. . Mendham Public Schools annual operating budget is $16,216,033 for its 709 students, with an average cost per pupil of $19,600. State aid is $430,042.

Under Christie's proposal, under which the state would send a flat rate of $6,599  to each student regardless of economic status,  Mendham Public Schools' state aid would increase by 1335%.

In comparison, Camden's state aid would decrease by 78% and Newark's by 69%.

Here's Stile's take:
Christie’s plan also reflects another striking change. As he ramped up plans for a presidential run, Christie fashioned himself as the champion of progressive urban education reform. He virtually camped out in Camden, touting reforms and determined to prove that he was a compassionate conservative, one who could care about underprivileged, minority children in failed urban schools. He wanted to prove that Big Tent Republicanism could win in a November contest against Democrat Hillary Clinton. 
But Christie is now Trump’s lieutenant and working for a candidate who captured the nomination by tapping white voter anger at government spending, Latinos, and the perceived decline in American prestige. Christie’s education funding plan also taps white suburban disgust and frustration with the cities. 
Christie now argues that the cities have been operating on “autopilot” expecting a generous state subsidy each year. Now they could have to survive with far less, including his favored Camden. Under his plan, Camden would face a 78 percent cut in school aid. 
That will be a steep price for the one of the nation’s poorest cities. It also is a price Christie appears willing to pay for his own legacy. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Two Conflicting Views on School Integration

Nikole Hannah-Jones in the New York Times Magazine:
The [Brown vs. Board of Education] ruling made clear that because this nation was founded on a racial caste system, black children would never become equals as long as they were separated from white children.
Derrell Bradford in The Catalyst:
Is the world a better place when we are closer to those who are different than we are? I think the answer is yes. Should black and brown kids need to be in rooms with white kids to make sure they are well educated? That may be another matter entirely.

Question of the Day: What Could Christie Possibly Be Thinking?

Why would Gov. Christie propose a school funding reform plan that hasn’t a ghost of a chance of passing through the Legislature?

That’s the question that stumps me. I have a few guesses. First a little background.

Yesterday our esteemed leader went to Hillsborough, NJ, a not-so-overtaxed suburb, and called for a dramatic reversal of the state’s school funding plan called SFRA. Now, let’s be fair: SFRA is unsustainable. No governor has ever been able to squeeze enough cash from state coffers to fully fund this exorbitant formula. (Jon Corzine did so in 2008, SFRA’s fledgling year, but only by using ARRA money, a one-time, unrenewable revenue stream from the feds.) So, yes, we need a new school funding plan but Christie’s “Fairness Formula” -- a flat $6,599 per pupil (with exceptions for kids with disabilities) -- is blatantly discriminatory against districts with low tax bases like Newark, Camden, and Trenton. Rutgers law professor Robert Williams said that it "flies in the face of the core requirements of the New Jersey Supreme Court over the years.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz issued a joint statement that said in part, "we want to pursue excellence in education, not limit it to those who already possess the advantages."

But not according to Christie. "This is huge," he said. "Huge.” Actually, he didn't say that but he did say "it will be a big focus for me and a lot of my time will be spent on it."

Here’s reactions from NJEA, Star-Ledger columnists Tom Moran and Paul Mulshine (the only commentator who liked the idea, mostly because he said he thought of it first), NJ School Boards Association, and Jeff Bennett. Here’s news coverage from the Wall St. Journal, NJ Spotlight, Star-Ledger, Philadelphia Inquirer, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Press of Atlantic City, My Central Jersey, and the Asbury Park Press. Education Law Center's David Sciarra is quoted in most of these stories.

Now, let’s be clear. SFRA is dead, created in boom times when money grew on trees and the endgame was to eliminate Abbott-based school aid. (Talking to you, NJEA and ELC.). With apologies to Monty Python, if we  hadn't nailed SFRA to the perch 'it would  be pushing up the daisies." However, while Asbury Park Public Schools shouldn’t be funded at $33,699 per student,  Camden Public Schools shouldn't have its funding cut by 78%, which is what would happen under Christie's plan.

We need some other progressive school funding formula that is based on realistic revenue streams, codifies the need for multiple supplementary services for poor students, and recognizes that all state taxpayers are responsible for providing public schooling for New Jersey's children, regardless of personal zip codes.

Christie’s “Fairness Formula” meets none of these criteria and will never pass muster in the Legislature, let alone the courts.  He’s not stupid. He knows this. So why propose it in the first place?

Here are some guesses.

NJ Spotlight editor John Mooney: “Almost Donald Trump-like in both concept and execution, the plan looks as if it is going nowhere fast -- immediately drawing criticism and rebuke from Democrats who will in all likelihood control the outcome. But it’s sure to garner headlines and a lot of talk, maybe that was Christie’s plan all along.”

Star-Ledger editor Tom Moran: "He has been watching Donald Trump with a cold and cynical eye. And he's learned that whipping up resentment against "the other" can be a winning political strategy. Trump is focusing on Muslims and Mexicans. Christie, with his polls in Nixon territory, is going after urban school children.”

Montclair State University professor Bridget Harrison:  "Mr. Christie hoped the move would deflect some of the scrutiny from the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, especially as he could be under consideration for a high-level appointment with Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Here we see a heavily damaged Gov. Christie attempting to remain politically relevant both in the state and nationally."

Here’s some other guesses. Feel free to offer your own.
  • Christie is stricken by criticism that he’s abandoned N.J. to pick up Big Macs for Donald Trump and so he is using this proposal to create the perception that he’s actually in town.
  • He thinks that upper and middle-class suburbanites are selfish enough to rally around a school funding scheme that decimates poor urban districts but lowers their own tax bills. (This is actually the scariest scenario because it might work: after all, lots of people voted for Trump, right?)
  • He's lost his social conscience (which I do believe he once had).
  • It’s all a game. He’s going to announce tomorrow that he was really just kidding.
  • He’s suffering from trauma after Sunday’s “Game of Thrones” episode and mourning the impaling of Rickon Stark or, alternatively, grieving Ramsay Bolton’s metamorphosis to dog food.
  • The “Fairness Formula” is part I of his plan. Part 2 is that he’s going to build a wall around Princeton (home of the Governor’s mansion) and wealthy, white, suburban Mendham Township (home of the Christie family) and residents of Camden, Newark, and Trenton will pay for it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

QOD: Kofi from the South Bronx Tells Brian Lehrer Why He's "Baffled" at De Blasio's Charter School Opposition

Every weekday morning WNYC host Brian Lehrer hosts a radio show on "what matters most now in local and national politics, our own communities and our lives." The first segment of Friday's show, with guest Jimmy Vielkind of Politico New York, was called "Albany's Big Ugly," a reference to the last-minute scramble of state legislators to pass bills that have piled up before the end of the session. One bit of unfinished business on Friday was how long to extend New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's control of the city school system. (See my write-up here.)

About 11 minutes into the show, a gentleman named Kofi from the South Bronx called in. Here's my transcript of the conversation.

Brian: Now we have Kofi from the South Bronx.

Kofi: Yes, Brian, this question should actually go to Mayor de Blasio.   I live in the South Bronx besides the White Plains Road. I know that when he was running as mayor he was so much against charter schools even though it is the most important thing that has ever happened to poor people who live in the poor neighborhoods. Everyone knows that the schools in poor neighborhoods, in the inner city, are not good. So how can he be so much against charter school which are building schools in poor areas and now he wants control of the school system? How can that be fair?

Discussion ensues between Brian and Vielkind about "being fair to the bigger political picture." Research, says Lehrer, shows that charter schools don't do much better than district schools. [Note to Mr. Lehrer from a big fan: take a look at Democrats for Education Reform's testimony to the DNC, which clears up "misconceptions about charter schools," including this: "In 11 states, public charter students made greater academic progress than their traditional public school counterparts in both reading and math: District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Tennessee."]

Brian: I'm just curious. Is this personal for you? Do you have children in charter schools?

Kofi: Fortunately for me, three of my daughters went to charter schools and my first one went to Swarthmore College on a full scholarship. My last one is at Stonybrook [a SUNY university] on a full scholarship and the other is on an out-of-state scholarship.  From my own experience, knowing I couldn’t afford private school, I know what a charter school could do and what it did for me. So when I see these people who are against charter schools even though it is the best thing that happened to poor people in the poor neighborhood, it baffles my mind.

Parsing NJEA's Tax Filings & Considering NJ's Fiscal State if Christie Wasn't Governor

Jeff Bennett at New Jersey Education Aid asks this question: if Jon Corzine had won another term or Barbara Buono had beat Christie in New Jersey's 2013 gubernatorial election -- in other words, if N.J. had a “dream progressive governor” -- would state finances be better than the current morass?

For his answer (spoiler: it’s “no”) look to Connecticut’s governor Dannell Malloy, who did everything in Connecticut that Democrats wish Christie had done in N.J.: raise taxes and impose Combined Reporting, which treats wholly or majority-owned companies as single entities for tax purposes. And now Connecticut is in worse shape than N.J.

Whatever you think of Christie’s questionable ethics and new gig as Trump puppet, Bennett explains that “the notion pushed by groups like the NJ Policy Perspective and Education Law Center that all Chris Christie has to do is govern like a Democrat and New Jersey will be a-okay doesn't seem plausible to me.”

Read his whole post to get the details. But one aspect jumped out at me: those two groups that “push this [flawed] notion” that N.J.’s finances would be hunky-dory with un-Christie leadership rely on funding from the New Jersey Education Association. According to 2014 tax filings (the most recent available on Guidestar), NJEA contributed $553,500 to Education Law Center and $125,000 to N.J. Policy Perspective. NJEA has a long list of contributions, but that list is dwarfed by the union’s generosity towards two groups that share their agenda on school financing and pension contributions.

The National Education Association, NJEA's mothership, contributed an additional $75,000 to ELC in 2014. That combined $628,500 is more than a third of ELC's total contributions and grants.

ELC, of course, is a strident advocate for shutting down expansion of charter schools, a primary planks of NJEA’s agenda. In addition, Stan Karp, ELC’s Director of the Secondary Education Reform Project, is a member of FairTest, the group that advocates opt-out (“Just Say No To Tests!”) and opposes the use of student outcomes in teacher evaluations, another big focus of NJEA's lobbying efforts.

One other item from NJEA’s 990: its largest contribution in 2014 (accrued from mandatory teacher dues) was  $9,298,172 to Garden State Forward, NJEA’s super PAC that finances campaigns for legislators friendly to its agenda. In 2013  Jeffrey Brindle, executive director of ELEC told NJ Spotlight, “This is unprecedented. When you combine NJEA’s lobbying and campaign spending, no single interest group has ever come close.”

Monday, June 20, 2016

N.J. Principal: PARCC Tests Tell Us What We Need to Know

When New Jerseyans hear “Bergen County,” they think “rich and white.” That perception is mostly true, but not entirely. For example, 45% of the students who attend Washington School, a pre-K-5 elementary school in Lodi Township, are Hispanic, 10.5% are Black, and 55.2% are economically-disadvantaged. Their principal, Emil Carafa, has an op-ed in today's NJ Spotlight that explains that his students benefit from PARCC tests because “it’s refreshing to see an educational tool do exactly what it was designed to do -- without the exaggeration or qualifiers” and the PARCC assessment “is actually telling us whether students are ready for college or to enter the workforce.”

He writes,
Here at home, the PARCC assessment has been heavily criticized as a graduation requirement. As a parent, I can’t understand why we wouldn’t want students to take a test that tells us whether they’re ready for college. As a principal, I am at a loss to explain how we expect students to matriculate to higher education without knowing whether they’re prepared. New Jersey spent nearly $34 billion on education in 2015; in 2013, we spent almost $19,000 per student. Despite all that money, we still send students into the world unprepared for what they will encounter. But the PARCC assessments gives me, as both an educator and a parent, hope that we can all do better. 
The anti-PARCC movement is filled with misinformation, rumors and innuendo. This does a great disservice to parents and students. Here’s the truth: we want every student to succeed. We also want to determine as quickly as we can when students go off track so that we make course corrections at the earliest moment instead of waiting grades later to find out they’ve fallen behind. 
Mr. Carafa is an a board member of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.