Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reinventing the Abbotts

Here’s a must-read from Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, published in the New York Times this week. Money quote:

Local control of schooling — which means local financing of schools — is an injustice, masked as a virtue, so deeply ingrained in the American mind that no politician in either party dare challenge it. But America’s obsession with local finance, which made perfect sense in the 19th century, is now sinking us morally and economically.

Miller argues that we ought to steal an idea from, of all people, Richard Nixon, who proposed in 1972 that we move from our outdated (even then!) system of funding public schools through property taxes and substantially increase the federal contribution. We thereby alleviate the tax burden on local communities and allow opportunities for reform, like tenure deferral or elimination and higher pay for high-poverty schools. He also describes the imbalance in a city like Chicago between “dilapidated” districts that spend $10,000 a child, yet “twenty minutes up the road you’ll find suburban schools that sport Olympic-quality pools, Broadway-style (or maybe Off Broadway) theaters and the best teachers in the state. Those schools spend more like $17,000 per pupil.”

But not in New Jersey. Here, the state courts have addressed that equity insult through a mandate that our poorest districts get funded at the level of our richest ones, i.e., the Abbott decisions. So we all chip in to create educational balance, thus righting the inequities of a school system that depends on local revenue for school spending.

In fact, we’ve taken this logic a step farther: right now our highest-funded districts are our Abbotts. We spend, on average here in New Jersey, between $12,000 and $13,000 per student. Our most expensively funded Abbott district, Asbury Park, spent $23,572 per student, and the others are pretty close. (See here the audits for the Abbott districts.) What does this mean? We spend about $10,000 more per student in Abbott districts than on students in the rest of New Jersey.

Certainly many of our kids in Abbott districts need the extra services that the money often provides because they have higher rates of learning disabilities, ESL needs, etc.. But let’s think about that for a second. Our courts have mandated a fiscally egalitarian system. In fact, we’ve moved even more progressively in that our Abbotts, which are now only an urban subset of our poorest districts, are “richer” per child than our wealthy communities. It’s well-known in NJ that a lot of that extra money never gets to the kids. From the New York Times this past May:

New audits of New Jersey's most troubled school systems question more than $83 million in spending by the heavily state-subsidized districts -- from excessive travel expenses and legal fees to Christmas parties and food.

While 71 percent of all purchase orders examined were found to be "reasonable," the auditors concluded more than 25 cents of every dollar spent by the districts was unnecessary, excessive or lacking documentation.

So, what if we took that extra $10K per poor kid per year and did something else with it? Like a 10 week summer/vacation time program at a private school with huge doses of attention, cultural exposure, intensive classes, high-performing role models? Or what if we took that annual $10K and gave a poor kid a one-on-one highly-qualified tutor in necessary subject areas? Let’s see…a NJ certified teacher usually gets about $35/hour for additional work. Let’s call it $50 for overhead and to make the math easy. That gives our hypothetical needy kid 200 hours a year of intensive education. Or what if we took that $10K, multiplied it by the number of years that kid stays in school (13, and we’re not counting preschool), got to $130,000, and put the money towards a new house for the whole family? Heck, if there were three kids in that hypothetical family they could move to the suburbs. The possibilities are endless.

We delegate the educational equity of these children to the State, which has shown us in every possible way that it is incapable of properly administering these make-it-fair dollars. Isn’t it time to reexamine this?

Monday, December 29, 2008

NJEA's "Outrageous Statement"

In “The Monopolist Turns Free-Marketer,” Gregg Edwards describes the new legislation that establishes a program for low-income kids in seven failing urban school districts to get scholarships to attend other private of public schools. Edwards assumes that many parents of these kids would choose to send their kids to local parochial schools, which are non-unionized and often struggling because parents can’t afford the tuition. The NJEA is opposing the bill, and Edwards takes them to task for “an argument so intellectually dishonest that it profoundly discredited the profession it represents.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Quick Break

Seasons greetings to all -- and a note that blogging will be extremely light over the next week. But we'll be back shortly, fully refreshed and ready to continue the conversation.

Thanks for reading.

New AYP Numbers Out

The DOE has just issued this press release trumpeting an increase in the number of schools that made Adequate Yearly Progress based on last spring's test scores. Of the 2210 schools tested, 71% made AYP, which is higher than two years ago and slightly lower than last year. Commissioner Lucille Davy said,

There has been a considerable increase in the number of schools meeting AYP standards since the 2005-06 school year, when only 62 percent of our schools made it. While the number of schools achieving AYP this year is slightly lower than last year, when 73.6 percent of schools met the standards, much of this is attributable to the increase in proficiency targets this year.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Ethics of Home Rule

There’s a great piece in the New York Times today
by Peter Applebome that profiles a seventy-year-old retired T.V. journalist who haunts school board meetings in the wealthy, white district of Blind Brook, Westchester. Dick Hubert, one of those pesky yet eloquent community members whom school board members dread, has accused Blind Brook of fostering a racist school system by refusing to merge with the comparatively poor and minority district of Port Chester. Applebome comments,

But that aside, it’s not easy to see many roads out. Rich districts won’t be merging with poor ones, no matter how much this region’s stratospheric taxes are exacerbated by our crazy quilt of boutique school districts, each with its own layers of administration and bureaucracy.

He might as well be talking about New Jersey; substitute Blind Brook and Port Chester for Princeton and Trenton or Moorestown and Willingboro and you have the same scenario of privileged, elite school districts next door to impoverished, struggling ones. Continues Applebome,

And anything that even hints at a merger of a wealthy school district and a poor one virtually anywhere in America is dead well before its arrival.
New Jersey distinguishes itself by two elements: first, we fund our school districts almost entirely through property taxes, so the advantages to a larger tax base augment the contrasts in curriculum, class size, and assorted services provided to children. Secondly, the involvement of our State courts through the Abbott decisions mandate that the State pick up the slack for an arbitrarily-designated 31 districts. Thus, we have created a three-tier system: the rich districts that comfortably fund their own high-quality programs, the very poor, urban districts that receive enormous amounts of State aid, and everyone else.

As the State wields a catalogue of mandates intended to rectify the inequities, school districts stuck in the “everyone else” category struggle to navigate the rutted endless loop of poorly-conceived DOE regulations. Expensive mandates like full-day preschools and advanced laboratory science courses that all our kids deserve are easy for rich districts that can afford them and Abbott districts that get piles of cash. (Okay – not easy for disadvantaged kids in Abbott districts, but at least there’s the money to try.) But the districts in that third tier, which include the majority of school districts in New Jersey, get mired in all the detritus strewn in their path.

So here’s to Mr. Hubert, an insightful crusader for equity among our schoolchildren. Someone tell him that it’s even worse in Jersey.

Reality-Check for Preschools

The directive from the DOE to establish public preschools for all economically-disadvantaged 3-5 year-olds has hit a wall: while school districts are still required to hand in comprehensive roll-out plans, there seems to be a general acknowledgment that the directive is going nowhere fast because the there's no money.

Today’s Sunbeam reports that the Pennsville School District is backing off of a plan to redesign their facilities to accommodate an estimated 41 preschoolers because, contrary to initial reports, the State will not require a September ’09 start-up date. In addition, said Superintendent Dr. Mark T. Jones,

Negatives of this mandate - and I think every other superintendent in the county would agree with me - is the lack of funding. I'm for this program. I believe in early intervention of our children, but to go ahead with it, I think the state needs to provide funding.

Currently, the State provides funding for at-risk preschoolers only in Abbott districts. The preschool initiative, announced with great fanfare by Corzine, was intended to address the elephant in the room: that New Jersey has many young children with equally desperate needs as those who reside in our poor, urban districts. But New Jersey is too broke to give them the same opportunities we give to kids in Trenton and Camden, so the burden falls on the individual backs of local school districts. Meanwhile, poor kids in Pennsville, which doesn’t even provide full-day kindergarten (also provided in Abbott districts), will stay home.

Rumor Has it...

... that the bill to move school board elections to November has stalled in the Senate and currently resides somewhere in legislative purgatory. Meanwhile, the Courier-Post jumps on the bandwagon:

Moving school elections from mid-April to the traditional Election Day, the first Tuesday in November, makes sense and ought to be approved by the state Legislature. New Jersey has too many obscure election days that draw few voters to the polls, and school election day in April is one of them.

Update: NJSBA just issued a press release that states that the bill "did not come up for a vote."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Proponent for November School Board Elections

The Press of Atlantic City advocates moving school board elections to November. Their editorial today takes on the specious argument that November elections would politicize the process:

The issue of moving school elections to November has been around for years. Former Gov. Christie Whitman proposed it back in 1996. If anything, it is a sign of the political clout of the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey School Boards Association that the April vote has hung on so long. Maybe the real question is who has the most political clout, special-interest groups or the voting public.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Teacher Tenure

All of a sudden, teacher job tenure, typically the third rail of education politics, is a heightened topic for discussion. Is it Barak Obama’s rumored openness to meaningful school reform? Is it the auto industry’s nosedive largely due to fiscally unsustainable retirement benefits? Is it D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee’s loud determination to overturn historical tenure models? Is it that teacher salary increases leave cost-of-living adjustments in the dust? Is it NCLB, with its hard-nosed emphasis on student assessment and, its logical correlative, teacher performance?

Whatever it is, we’re having like-minded debates in New Jersey where there’s an active attempt to untangle the strands that conflate job protection for teachers with an anachronistic assembly-line model more suited to, say, the auto industry. A recent piece in North Jersey sets up the argument nicely, juxtaposing the NJSBA and the NJEA.

"It does nothing to ensure the quality of teachers," said Mike Yaple, New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman.

"It can do just the opposite. Because it's so extremely expensive and takes so long to remove tenured teachers, only the worst of the worst offenders are removed."

Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, said that without tenure "You would be creating potential for a massive patronage system."

"Tenure takes politics and whims of the administration out of the process," Baker said. "It's not a job for life: It's a fair process for dismissal."

So let’s unpack this a bit. We give teachers lifelong tenure after three years of employment. Ideally, administrators (local school boards just rubberstamp the administrators’ recommendations) ensure the quality of teachers through early due diligence. But NJEA’s stance -- that without tenure teachers would be haplessly subject to a school board’s political predilections and wanton whimsy is -- well, flimsy.

First of all, according to the recently mandated Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures, every school board in NJ is required to have a strict anti-nepotism policy. (See 6A, Chapter 23, Part 6.2). In addition, the School Board Code of Ethics clearly establishes that board members must recuse themselves from any personnel decision that might compromise their judgment. (“I will refuse to surrender my independent judgment to special interest or partisan political groups or to use the schools for personal gain or for the gain of friends.”)

The bottom line is that, contrary to the NJEA spokesman, there is no risk of a “massive patronage system.” It doesn’t happen. It can’t. In fact, school boards know that any attempt to dismiss a teacher, short of proof of physical abuse of students, is a no-win. It’s cheaper to pay the teacher for doing nothing for years than to fight the NJEA. The patronage argument is a straw man, and insulting to professional educators.

Teacher tenure is a dusty relic of an industrial mindset that equated public school employees with interchangeable factory workers, much like our 180-day school year is an artifact of an agricultural economy. How about seven-year renewable contracts? How about differentiated pay tied to performance and area of expertise? How about a new model reflective of the professionalism of teachers, individual talents, and performance? Our teachers are not assembly-line workers, and NJEA needs to have a little respect for its members.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Afternoon Leftovers

The Star-Ledger's Editorial Board agrees that school board elections should be moved to November, even though "those running the schools like it when fewer voters show up."

The New Jersey School Boards Association reports
that on Tuesday New Jersey gave a thumbs-down on almost 60% of the $659 million in school-construction projects, which is the largest number of local school board proposal failures since we started tracking this stuff.

Freehold Regional Public Schools continues to uncover more cases of staff members using a diploma mill called Breyer State University to jack up their salaries. The Asbury Park Press reported this week that an English teacher and a teacher's consultant both filed paperwork last year claiming legitimate doctoral degrees and had their compensation raised accordingly. The Press's report also depicts boisterous and angry school board meetings, a clear sign that times are ripe for a turnover in school board members, whenever the election is.

Know hope: The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers has agreed to a one year salary freeze, reports the local Enquirer. And the Washington Post says that "Montgomery County teachers and other school employees have agreed to give up a 5 percent pay raise next year, a concession that saves the school system $89 million and allows Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to balance the budget." Ohio and Maryland have managed to harmonize the cognitive dissonance between the economy and teacher salaries; is it a trend or an atonal aberration?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Staying in the Slow Lane

The Press of Atlantic City reports that three districts neatly positioned for consolidation will take a pass. The School Boards of Northfield, Somers Point, and Linwood, all small K-8 districts in Atlantic County, discussed the possibility when Northfield’s superintendent resigned, but decided that time was on their side. In an interview with the Press, Vice President of the Northfield School Board Steve) Wynne explained,

True consolidation requires referendums in each district and thus requires a "big timeline.” Looking past the possible benefits of outright consolidation - one set of specialists, curriculum developers, etc. - even sharing a superintendent "makes sense" as a cost-saving measure, Wynne said. "Down the road, it's certainly a viable option."
As we ease on down that road, we’ll note that Northfield has two schools with enrollments of 665 and 413, Somers Point has three schools with enrollments of 550, 689, and 63, and Linwood has one school with an enrollment of 501: 3378 kids in total, a fine size for a school district. Right now the superintendents of each district make $136,655, $140,608, and $127,586 respectively. Grand total: $404,849, not including three hefty benefits packages. Could we possibly rev it up a bit? Saving tax payers around $250,000 is not chump change.

But, of course, school board members would potentially lose their seats, the three districts would have to negotiate tax rates and debt structure, and the three towns would have to approve the merger through a formal vote. Just get used to the scenic route.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Camden County, Bergen County

The Courier-Post
had an editorial yesterday urging the consolidation of five school districts in Camden County, specifically Hi-Nella, Laurel Springs, Magnolia, Somerdale, and Stratford. Seems reasonable: add all the kids together among the districts and you get a grand total of 3,100 students. Right now, with separate administrative offices in each district, four superintendents are paid $507,289 and four business administrators are paid $263,607. Do the math. How much extra do the taxpayers get stuck with if we operated efficiently with one superintendent and one business administrator? Says the Courier-Post,

We can only hope, for the sake of taxpayers, that consolidations being studied, such as this one, actually come to fruition. This state has far too many school districts, and with high taxes driving lifelong residents out of this state in droves, it’s time we gave up the expensive luxury of home rule and started combining public entities such as school districts to save money.

Talk about low-hanging fruit. Where do we sign?

On the other hand, an organization up in Bergen County called Dollar$ and Sense is advocating a different sort of consolidation. Organized by Board members and administrators from the Demerest, Ramsey, and Ridgewood school districts, this group challenges the State funding formula because rich districts get much less money than poor communities. (FYI: Demerest and Ramsey are listed in the DOE database as having DFG’s of I and Ridgewood is a J. These are the two richest designations on a scale from A – J.) Dollar$ and Sense recently issued a 9-page analysis on the NJSBA’s Special Education Report, which is almost painful to read because of its attempt to both advocate for the preservation of Bergen County’s highly-localized and high-performing schools and yet remain politically correct. While the Courier-Post editorial itemizes clear potential savings through consolidation, Dollar$ and Sense disputes the notion that there would be any savings at all:

There is currently a strong belief that regionalization results in meaningful cost savings. Our experience shows that this is not always true.

So, what’s the right answer? Forget about consolidating school districts and typical kids. Instead, let’s just consolidate our kids with disabilities, suggests Dollar$ and Sense. Hmmm. Isn’t that just a tad dicey? Not to this bold Bergen County consortium:

There has continually been a reluctance to look at special education. It opens topics for conversation that most are uncomfortable talking about. It shouldn't be. Our goals are consistent. We want to do the best for our children and we want to be fiscally efficient. We want to get to the point where we can offer more for less.

Aha! The reason we’ve been reluctant to talk about the monkey on our backs – our special ed kids – is because it makes us “uncomfortable.” Give the man a shingle and call him Dr. Freud. Now that we’ve been liberated from our psychic load, we can cut to the chase. Special Education in NJ costs too much. Special Education parents in NJ litigate too much. So Dollar$ and Sense takes us through their analysis of how we can emulate other states that provide cheaper models for educating students with special needs and pass laws that curtail due process. For instance, Pennsylvania has, like New Jersey, many schools districts – over 600 – and many kids – 1.8 million.

Proportionately, they are not so different from New Jersey. They also are very committed to home rule, again, not so different from New Jersey.

Special education services done cooperatively can balance the needs of children and the dictates of law in an economically practical and hometown friendly manner.

Now, let’s be fair. They’re not completely wrong. Special Education costs in New Jersey are impossibly high, mainly because most of our districts are so small that they can’t achieve efficiencies of scale. It’s a microcosm of our home-town school problems. The problem with Dollar$ and Sense’s answer to our school funding problem is its self-righteous disregard for any negative impact it would have on our children with disabilities for the purpose of preserving local governance for our children without disabilities. Let's try to sort this out while remaining "hometown" and "friendly" to everyone, not just those without handicaps and with Bergen County addresses.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Black Ministers for Merit Pay and Repeal of Tenure

The Associated Press reports that the Black Ministers Council in New Jersey is "fed up with disparities in the public education of white and minority students," claiming that the State fails struggling students by allowing them to graduate high school by alternative assessment. They are also pressing for merit pay for teachers, repeal of lifetime tenure, and school choice.

Ahearn's Beef

James Ahearn of The Record has a column in which he lambastes Democrats in Trenton for supporting Corzine’s creation of the position of Executive County Superintendent to push school consolidation. His opposition to this plan is based on the premise that even non-operating districts, those without schools that pay tuition to send their kids to other districts, are waste-free, efficient, and allow towns to maintain local control.

But what’s his real beef? He acknowledges that all mergers would be subject to voter approval; even one district giving a thumbs-down would be enough to quash the deal. Then Ahearn adds,
For example, northeast Bergen County is now served by the Northern Valley Regional High School District, which operates two high schools. Seven elementary districts, plus Rockleigh, feed students into the high schools. Each district is independent. In place of this system, there would be a single district.

Results would be similar with sending-receiving high school districts like the one in which Maywood and Rochelle Park, largely white, middle-class elementary districts, send students to racially diverse Hackensack High School. The separate sending-receiving and elementary districts would be merged in a single pre-K to Grade 12 district that would also include South Hackensack.

So the “largely white, middle class elementary districts” with "woodsy estates, with big houses and many horses,” would be coerced to integrate their kids with “racially diverse” Hackensack, which presumably doesn’t have big houses and horses? Is that his problem?

We hope not.

Let’s leave any latent racism aside. Ahearn bases his argument on the somewhat tautological assumption that there are examples of fiscal efficiencies in the tiny districts he describes, Teterboro (total population 50) and Rockleigh (total population 400). But the efficiencies exist only because the districts do. Sure, the part-time business administrator and the secretary are a bargain, but only because Teterboro and Rockleigh have to hire them at all.

Consolidation proffers many problems with its solutions: negotiating variable tax rates, distributing debt service, managing transportation, combining collective bargaining agreements, etc. But one of those problems is not the consolidation of woodsy idylls and “diverse” dens of iniquity. New Jersey is that oxymoronic union, and we serve all our children better – those in Rockleigh and those in Hackensack – by serving them together.

Monday, December 8, 2008

School Board Election Bill Barely Passes Committee

PolitickerNJ reports that the Senate Education Committee voted 3-2 this afternoon in favor of S-1861, the bill that would move school board elections to November and eliminate public votes on school budgets that come in below cap. Senator Shirley Turner, who sponsored the bill, said,

Taxpayers want to see some concrete steps taken to eliminate unneeded spending at all levels of government. Switching low-turnout school board elections in the Spring to the November general election will be a win-win for taxpayers and those concerned with local education issues.

Sheesh. If the bill only passed by one vote with the Education Committee, what are the odds of it passing the full Senate? Count on major high-fiving from NJEA, NJSBA, and other lobbyists committed to business-as-usual.

Special Education v. DOE

ASAH, the organization that serves private special education schools and agencies in New Jersey, is gearing up for a battle with the DOE over the newly-issued 178-page draft of regulations called the School District Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures. This hefty document broadens the sweeping authority of Executive County Superintendents (ECS's) and includes specific rules that attempt to infringe on the ability of Child Study Teams to place special education students in appropriate placements.

Can you really blame the DOE? New Jersey has the highest rate in the entire country -- 9% -- of students placed in “out-of-district placements,” i.e., schools and programs not within the home school district of the child. The average across the country is 3%. Typically, these programs cost much more than in-district placements, ranging from $30,000 to over $100,00 per year, and that doesn’t include transportation.

ASAH argues, however, that according to the Federal law IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), placement decisions must be made by the Child Study Team, and the insertion of the ECS is violates Federal law. (For the full scope of their objections see here.)

It’s not that hard a stretch to figure out why we send so many kids out of district: home rule. Let’s say you have a kid in an average-sized New Jersey district who is hearing-impaired or multiply-disabled or autistic. In order to put together an appropriate classroom, you’d need about 6 of these kids. But the small size of our local schools precludes a large enough population to garner the appropriate numbers, and Federal law demands that schools provide FAPE, or a Free and Appropriate Education. Solution? Send the kid to an out-of-district school at a much higher cost than educating the child within the home district, sacrificing any sort of inclusive model.

If our districts were larger, we’d have the cohorts to put in-district special education classes together. But we don’t, and the DOE’s attempt to control costs through the intrusion of the ECS probably won’t survive a court challenge.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday Morning Leftovers

Bob Ingle points out that U.S. News and World Report just released the top 100 high schools in the nation and New Jersey had (only) one listed: High Technology High School in Lincroft.

If you're interested in such ratings, Newsweek published their list of the top 1300 high schools in the U.S.. We had one in the top 100: McNair Academy in Jersey City.

G. Jeremiah Ryan, former president of Raritan Valley Community College, has a piece in North Jersey extolling County Executive Dennis McNerney's proposal to offer incentives for shared services in Bergen County and explaining how we can be faithful to our “love affair with home rule” while painlessly finding efficiencies.

From our Department of "What's Next": on This Week, the ABC news show with George Stepanopoulos, pundits predict this morning that President-Elect Obama will not back away from his teacher merit/pay-for-performance predilections and that this will be a key fight "within the Democratic Party." Also, David Brooks in the the New York Times reviews Obama's choices for Education Secretary and considers the ramifications.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Move School Board Elections to November

The State Legislature is set to vote on bill S-1861 on Monday which contains three items: eliminating public votes on school budgets that come in below the 4% cap, reducing the super-majority (60%) required for second questions to a simple majority, and moving school board elections to the standard Tuesday in November. The bill is sponsored by Senator Shirley Turner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, and was originally called A-15 because 15% is considered the highest voter turnout possible when you have school board elections in the third week of April and no one besides school boards and teacher unions are paying attention.

Predictably, the New Jersey School Boards Association issued a statement praising the first two elements of the bill but slamming the third element:

Many legislators support the idea as a way to bolster voter turnout for school elections, which traditionally hovers around 15 percent. In addition, lawmakers contend that consolidating elections would save tax dollars. However, school boards members maintain that November board member elections would result in partisan politics dominating local education issues on a wide scale, in spite of best efforts to prevent it from occurring. NJSBA will seek amendments to have this provision removed.

We beg to differ. Moving school board elections to November is a smart, balanced move that is consistent with N.J.’s professed efforts to streamline our floundering educational system. First of all, it costs each school district somewhere in the neighborhood of $40K to run a separate election in April, which is about the salary of a teacher (well, okay, maybe 80% of a brand-new teacher excluding benefits). Yes, it might make the school board candidates stoop to “partisan politics,” but it would also diminish the impact of unions and special interest groups whom are accustomed to hand-picking allies, which is merely partisanship by a different name.

April school board elections impose a degree of parochialism on our public schools (no pun intended) which is, in some ways, perfectly consistent with home rule. Not only does each district have its own set of administrators, officials, budgets, programming, and facilities, but the election of its governing members is chronologically distinct from those of, say, municipal officials or governors or senators. This both artificially diverts the major driver of taxes – public schools – from the full attention of the public but also bypasses the necessary strategic integration of school-based issues and State-wide concerns. Sure, school board members represent the public, but perhaps it’s time to recognize that our extreme form of local governance fosters separatism, segregation, and inefficiency. If our goal is to create an equitable and accountable model of public education, then we need to move beyond insular local concerns and embrace all the children of our State, not just the ones within our small-town provincial borders.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Educational Lemons

It’s a bad press day for our beleaguered Abbott districts. In Camden, an elementary school principal pleaded guilty yesterday to billing the district for more than $25,000 for meetings that never took place. Last week the Philadelphia Inquirer unveiled a “paperwork snafu” in which Camden has to give back almost $400,000 in Title 1 money intended for educational services for poor kids. And in Trenton, the Times reports today that the district’s general fund balance, $5.1 million last year, is now a paltry $100,000, mainly due to using the balance to pay off debt for food service. They are looking at laying off staff, cutting programs, reducing supplies. Translation: their fiscal incompetence is hurting kids.

Now, there are plenty of other Abbott districts that manage their finances just fine. But Camden and Trenton, with annual budgets of, respectively, $341 million + and $271 million + and annual costs per child between $16,000 and $17,000, sub-basement test scores and skyscraper high dropout rates, seem to struggle with the most basic sort of educational and fiscal accountability. With all due respect to the many devoted and talented teachers and administrators in these impoverished towns, this level of failure begs for an analogy with the auto industry’s current debacle. Now, let’s state the obvious: children are not cars. But stay with me here: we have a multi-million dollar industry with profligate waste, untenable labor agreements, huge government subsidies, and an inability to compete with other manufacturers. Today the New York Times reported that Nancy Pelosi said that Congress needs clear benchmarks and structural changes in order to approve a bailout:
We want to see a commitment to the future. We want to see a restructuring of the approach, that they have a new business model, a new business plan. There has to be compensation reform.
Couldn’t we say the same thing for Trenton and Camden, both (mis)managed by our troubled overseers, the New Jersey Department of Education? How about compensation and tenure reform for the NJEA? Shouldn’t New Jersey taxpayers, especially parents and children in Camden and Trenton, have a right to demand the same “commitment to the future” as we continue our decades-long experiment in educational bailout?

Update: Robert Reich gets the auto industry/public school connection here.

NJASA Goes to State Court over DOE Regs

The Star-Ledger reports today that the U.S. District Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by NJASA, the union that represents New Jersey’s school administrators. The suit was filed in reaction to DOE regulations that gave the State authority to limit buy-outs, sick pay, and other kinds of compensation. The regulations were enacted after the hysteria generated by the case of Superintendent Barbara Trzeszkowski of Keansburg who retired to the tune of $740,000.

The NJASA, which claims that the new regs amount to an unconstitutional infringement on administrators’ rights to negotiate their own contracts, cites KYW Radio on their website:

Judge Joel Pisano decided that delaying state reviews of contracts for superintendents and top deputies would interfere with New Jersey’s goal to reform property taxes and school funding. The change followed word that some administrators received huge perks in their deals that the public knew little, if anything about.

NJASA’s official stance is that this judgement is a good thing, because Judge Pisano “hasn’t found anything on the merits.” Next step: state court.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Some Solutions, For Better or Worse

Jerry Cantrell of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association chimes in today on the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on the Abbott districts. In a Times editorial he criticizes the NJEA and the Education Law Center for perpetuating the myth that more spending equals more achievement, trashes the Abbott districts, and announces the answer to all our ills: charter schools.

Let's do the math. Should the Legislature let the court continue to override it (the new State funding formula) while funding an expensive, largely failing educational bureaucracy that taxpayers can't afford, and students can't afford to stay in? Or should it expand the lower-cost, more accountable charter sector -- home to many of the state's highest-performing schools, urban or suburban -- in addition to leveraging available capacity in local private schools for k-12 and preschool?

Charter schools may very well be part of the answer to our educational conundrum here in New Jersey. However, a solution that ignores the main driver of the problem – the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of our home rule school system – is ornamentation at best. The Asbury Park Press recently ran a set of statistics culled from the DOE Report Card data and compared the cost per child in elementary school. Sea Isle City in Cape May County spends $33,805 per pupil and Hamilton Township in Mercer County spends $8,787 per pupil. Now, these districts are fairly disparate. Sea Isle City’s DFG is “B,” so it’s poor, and the whole district, one K-8 school, is 93 kids (no, that’s not a typo). Hamilton Township has 14,000 kids K-12, including 17 elementary schools; while not wealthy, it has a DFG of FG. Newsflash, folks: encouraging charter schools barely nibbles around the edges of our problem.

The Abbott decisions were noble and brave, demanding educational opportunities for our poorest children who decades ago largely resided in our large urban areas. But now this court-ordered infusion of money and government management has become an expensive anachronism. Our poor children live all over the state, including rural and suburban areas. The State government and the DOE have proven themselves incapable of managing our schools educationally and financially (some would argue ethically). The pending Bacon case (this NJEA Finance report lists the plaintiff districts on the second page) argues that 16 rural districts around the State are as needy as the 31 Abbotts, and will force the Court’s hand. The Justices will either have to rule that the logic underlying their original decisions is flawed and that there are children who live in non-urban areas who need increasingly expensive support. Or the Justices will have to concede that local administration of schools leads to local funding variation and the taxpayers have to pony up the differences, live with inequity, or take home rule and…

Lucky for us, there's a serendipitous Wall Street Journal editorial today by Louis V. Gerstner, a former chair of the Teaching Commission and a former CEO of IBM. Mr. Gerstner’s solution?

I believe the problem lies with the structure and corporate governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection, classroom rules and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing a program of fundamental change. While we have islands of excellence as a result of great reform programs, we continually fail to scale up systemic change.

Therefore, I recommend that President-elect Barack Obama convene a meeting of our nation's governors and seek agreement to the following:

- Abolish all local school districts, save 70 (50 states; 20 largest cities). Some states may choose to leave some of the rest as community service organizations, but they would have no direct involvement in the critical task of establishing standards, selecting teachers, and developing curricula.

At least he's thinking big.

Is He Being Ironic?

Assemblyman Joseph R. Malone III, R-Burlington, regarding a new bill mandating recess for all children:
We have so many mandates now. Maybe if we stop mandating out of Trenton, kids would get a real good education.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ingle on Abbotts

Bob Ingle, Trenton Bureau Chief for Gannett New Jersey newpapers, gives us his take on the Supreme Court's recent non-decision on maintaining Abbott districts or moving to a different way of allocating money to poor kids:

Given a chance to relegate the wasteful Abbott school district funding to the waste basket of history with other coo-coo ideas, the state Supreme Court instead punted. OK for this year, ruled the court, but it remanded proceedings to a special master to determine whether the formula can be applied permanently. Corzine proposed in 2007 a new formula that aimed to base funding on children’s needs, not districts’ wealth. The $7.8 billion plan, up $530 million from what was spent the previous year, raised aid for all districts between 2 percent and 20 percent. That makes more sense than the failed Abbott experiment. The Education Law Center, which likes to sue the state so that the so-called Abbott districts get more than 50 percent of the state’s education dollar, which keeps your property taxes high, filed a legal challenge to the formula. Of course it did. If the money were based on need, what need is there for the Education Law Center? Over the years the Abbott district funding has nothing to show for itself except billions wasted. Teachers and students did not benefit. Nowhere in the discussions are results discussed. There isn’t a definable goal beyond throwing more money at the districts. With a couple of exceptions, the NJ Supreme Court remains a collection of political hacks.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Hint: Don't Use Sarah Palin to Buttress an Argument

An editorial this week in the Record serves as a sort of rebuttal
to Gordon MacInness’ Star-Ledger piece. MacInness argues (see post below) that the State Supreme Court should back up the DOE’s claim that Abbott designations are no longer necessary because our poor kids live all over the state, not just in 31 districts, and that the new school funding formula (SFRA)will adequately address educational inequities. Emily Goldberg asserts, however, that

In considering whether the Abbott districts can, as a practical matter, make up the shortfall created by SFRA, the special master must also ask: Are the districts-formerly-known-as-Abbotts continuing to experience municipal overburden?

The answer is, as Sarah Palin would say, "You betcha!"

Goldberg, a law professor at the Center for Social Justice at Seton Hall Law School, bases her opinion on some data on housing foreclosures from an organization called the Reinvestment Fund:

The available data show that the link between foreclosures and declining property tax revenue is being felt disproportionately in the Abbott districts. According to the Reinvestment Fund, a group recognized for its research on foreclosure rates, New Jersey experienced an average foreclosure rate of 6.95 foreclosures per 1,000 owner-occupied households in 2005-2006.

So, can we link the rate of foreclosures to educational neediness based on poverty? Let's try. Here’s a list of the Abbott districts, and here’s a chart showing the rate of foreclosures across the state. Is it bad in the Abbott districts? Sure. But it’s also bad in districts that are non-Abbotts. For example, the chart shows a particularly bad rate of foreclosures in Salem County, but the only Abbott district there is Salem City. There are 13 other school districts in Salem County that don’t have the extra subsidies. Taking a different perspective, Monmouth County appears to be holding its own, but there are 4 Abbott districts in that county.

The correlation between educational need and foreclosures seems a little sketchy. In addition, many poor people don’t even have a mortgage on property; is this the best method to evaluate how we subsidize our poorest children? Goldberg goes on to say,

It goes without saying that this tremendous loss in property tax revenue will be disproportionately felt by poorer urban areas, where foreclosures occur at double and even triple countywide averages.
These numbers suggest that our political leaders are ignoring the disproportionate effect that the economic downturn is having on New Jersey's poorest cities, and the fact that Abbott districts will be incapable of making up the budget gaps that will be SFRA's short-sighted legacy.

The issue is not whether Abbott districts will be able to make up budget gaps. The issue is how many other districts in addition to Abbotts – urban, suburban, and rural – will be incapable of adequate funding. Forget about financing a poor district to the level of our wealthiest towns, which the Abbott decisions mandate. How about maintaining current programs way below that level?

New Jersey seems genetically wired to segregate itself into superficial divisions, whether it be urban vs. suburban or Abbott vs. non-Abbott. The truth is that our impoverished kids are all over the map and defy such specious distinctions.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Delusions of School Funding Fairness

Gordon MacInnes, a former Assistant Commissioner at the DOE and now a lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School, has a scathing editorial in the Star-Ledger called “The Supreme Court’s Abbot Delusion.” Last week the Supreme Court voted 5-0 to overturn the State’s new school funding formula (at least temporarily – the case got delegated to a “Grand Master” for further review), and MacInnes labels this a “crushing blow” for Corzine and the Legislature:

The court's decision effectively kills the plan to improve educational opportunities for poor children who happen not to live in the 31 Abbott districts recognized by the court.

MacInnes is obviously a big fan of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, which effectively ends the court-mandated practice of heaving huge amounts of cash at 31 designated “Abbott” districts, which are believed (here’s the delusion) to house New Jersey’s poor:

Abbott is supposed to be about inequities that constrict the educational opportunities of poor children residing in poor districts. Unhappily, 50 percent of New Jersey's poor children reside outside the Abbott districts. Moreover, Abbott districts like Hoboken, Burlington City, Phillipsburg, Neptune Township, Pemberton and Garfield are much less disadvantaged than many non-Abbott districts.

He goes on to advocate preschool for poor kids, calling it “the gap that most districts never close,” and to malign other Court-ordered educational remedies, the omission of services for poor Latinos (our fastest growing group in Abbotts and other poor districts), and the lack of distinction made between successful Abbott districts like Elizabeth, Union City, and Perth Amboy, and unsuccessful Abbotts like Camden (which “increased per student spending from $8,300 to $15,400 without any improvement in performance”).

While MacInnes’ idealization of the SFRA seems premature (as well as his confidence in its demise), he’s right about the Court’s slavish devotion to the obsolete division of New Jersey into Abbott and non-Abbott, as though all our poor residents are sloughed off into pre-designated school districts. To be fair, everyone from the Education Law Center to the NAACP adheres to this myth, and we're sure that all those amici briefs put pressure on the jurists. Nonetheless, the Court's adherence to a flawed and outdated model means that the poor kids in the non-Abbotts will continue to lose funding, oversight, and, now it appears, pre-school, which is, according to MacInnes, the cornerstone of educational achievement.

So, if you are a poor kid in Elizabeth or Neptune, you get your funding. If you’re a poor kid in Willingboro or Lodi you’re stuck. The Court’s Abbott decisions, including this last one, pretend to ameliorate the inequities of a school system that relies on local funding, perpetuating the myth that we can retain home rule and still offer all our kids an adequate education.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ye Of Little Faith

The Asbury Park Press had an editorial yesterday urging the State to pull the preschool mandate, calling it “a misguided mandate that’s far too extravagant for these troubled times.” This sentiment seems to be gaining traction as Corzine telegraphs uncertainty about the funding (about $11K per child) promised for this ambitious program. This leaves local districts in a quandary: be good little soldiers and move ahead with plans for full-day preschools or take the cynic's path and wait on the DOE to announce its intentions.

Toms River Regional Schools is keeping the faith. According to an article in the Asbury Park Press, they are consulting with other districts about sharing services and facilities. On the other hand, the more cynical Bayonne Board of Education, reports the Jersey News, “plans to expand its preschool program next September – but only if it gets the cash to pay for it."

(Business Administrator Cliff) Doll cautioned, "We hear rumblings that any new programs are questionable under state budget constraints," adding, "If the money doesn't come, we're not going ahead with the program."

Meanwhile, local districts are eyeball-deep in budgeting for the 2009-2010 school year and are faced with the choice of either faithfully spending time and money preparing for preschool classes or casting lots with the growing number of agnostics who doubt whether the State will actually hang tough. The irony (one of them, at least) is that just last week the State DOE issued the next 178 pages of the School District Efficiency and Accountability Act. Any chance we could get a little efficiency and accountability from the State?

You Get What You Pay For?

While we continue to wonder about the State’s fiat regarding mandatory preschool for underprivileged three and four year olds while it hedges on the promised funding, here’s a remark from the Rutgers' National Institute for Early Education Research:

New Jersey continued to lead the nation in preschool education funding, ranking first in per-child spending ($10,494). By enrolling 25 percent of its 4-year-olds it ranked 13th. For providing pre-K to 15 percent of its 3-year-olds, it ranked third, out of 38 states that fund preschool. Abbott district preschools met nine out of NIEER’s 10 quality standard benchmarks, with two other preschool programs meeting 8 and 6.

In other words, our Abbott district preschools are doing a fine job at an exorbitant price.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Rumor Has it...

...that Corzine is pulling the $11,000 per pupil funding for public preschools intended for poor children, slated to start this September. We'll keep you posted.

Board Members Blast DOE

New Jersey School Boards Association had their Delegate Assembly on Saturday, including a panel discussion called “The Challenges, Opportunities, and Future of School District Regionalization.” The moderator, Michael Aron of NJN News, did his best to protect DOE Assistant Commissioner Dr. Gerald Vernotica from the two hundred or so outraged school board members in the audience. No need to belabor the obvious – mandated regionalization and consolidation is unfunded, poorly conceived, doomed to Nowheresville – but here’s a few samplings:

From one of the panelists, Assemblyman Scott Rumana, who had a fine time playing to the bleachers:

“I believe in local government.”
“I don’t believe the State should be directing you how to run yours.”
“I’m firmly committed to what we do being in the hands of local communities…Small government is the most efficient arrangement.”

Mandated consolidation is the “ultimate unfunded mandate.”

From Vito Gagliardi, a school board attorney:

“Since 1966 there has been 3 instances of consolidation. The law as it exists will never allow for savings.”

Question from Aron: “Is the consensus that short of forced regionalization there will be no regionalization?”

Michael Vrancik, NJSBA Director, Government Relations: “There will be no forced regionalization

“New Jersey has been a home rule state forever.”

Here’s a fun one: DOE sacrificial lamb Vernotica is asked if the government is committed to compensating a district during a consolidation when it loses money due to having to pay more taxes or higher salaries:

DOE S.L. :”Yes, (we are committed to the compensation) absent the dollars.”

So what exactly is going on here? The State can only force regionalization or consolidation on districts after each district votes in favor of such a measure (the 23 non-operating districts don’t get a vote) and there is neither political will nor fiscal logic to force the issue. The DOE’s endless eruption of regulatory minutiae on consolidation (178 pages just this past week) seems doomed to rot in the Dead Regulation Office.

So, why is the DOE putting its energies into a pointless exercise? Is it a back-end run around the Abbott district funding, which sinks the State deeper and deeper into financial debt and bad press? Is the point to create a new educational structure that overturns home rule and excises Abbott districts from running the show?

Corzine originally intended to consolidate our 600+ school districts into 21 county districts. He's given that up. At best, these new initiatives will rid New Jersey of the 23 non-ops, and there was even opposition to that on Saturday morning. What could account for the DOE's investment of time, political capital, and printer ink? Any ideas?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Tilting at Windmills

New Jersey’s noble quest to give kids equal educational opportunity regardless of economic circumstance skitters along. This quixotic journey, otherwise known as Abbott v. Burke, hit a pothole when Corzine flailed about with his new School Funding Reform Act over the summer, which attempted to eliminate the designation “Abbott” from our fiscal vocabulary. But this week the Supreme Court ruled that they didn’t have enough information to tell if the SFRA would supply poor districts with as much money as rich districts and told Bergen Superior Judge Peter Doyne to figure it out. In the meantime, districts-formally-know-as-Abbott -and-once -again-called-Abbott get to hold onto their sweet allocations and even ask for more.

The astonishing thing here is that New Jersey is constitutionally bound to give our most impoverished kids an education equivalent to that bestowed on children who live in our wealthiest communities. Beginning in 1997 the State started generously subsidizing these 31 urban communities and over the last 10 years has spent $3.5 billion. A year ago the New York Times reported that

Asbury Park spent $23,572 per student, according to the census, while the highest-ranking non-Abbott district, Wildwood City, spent $19,912. The state average was $13,613, and the national average was $8,315.

The equation is Circe-like in its appeal. Spend equal amounts of money and you get equal amounts of academic achievement.

We can argue about whether or not this works (it doesn’t), but more interesting is the entire oxymoronic enterprise. New Jersey is defined by its endless infatuation with local control. This means that school districts as well as municipalities have their own values, agendas, priorities, what have you. This town pampers its parks. That town touts its historical monuments. But the moral dimension of this differentiated governance is offensive when you’re talking about impoverished children. So we try to square it by throwing money at the poor towns in a heroic attempt to equalize opportunity within an unequalized system. Or, more recently, by passing legislation that turns the DOE into a wild geyser recklessly spewing out misbegotten regulations.

Here’s a sampling of some of the reactions to this week’s court decision:

The Star-Ledger cautiously applauded:

There are flaws in Abbott. For years, the state was lax in keeping watch over the billions spent. That is one reason the judicially inspired garden is only now beginning to sprout. With better application of what the court ordered, Abbott districts might be in bloom.

Bill Baroni, State Representative from Hamilton in Mercer, is less sanguine:

“It is clear that the Abbott funding system hasn’t worked — we are spending some of the largest sums of money in the country in those schools, but we are not seeing the full effect of it,” said State Representative Bill Baroni, a Republican from Hamilton in Mercer County. “In some districts we have seen real academic success, and in others we haven’t.”

The Education Law Center high-fived in a press release:

In a unanimous opinion, the New Jersey Supreme Court today stepped-in to protect the educational rights of the State’s most needy school children by ordering a remand in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case to fully vet the constitutionality of the Legislature’s new school funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.


Abbott v. Burke is widely recognized as establishing a national model for educational equity, and the rulings are considered the most significant in the advancement of equal educational opportunities since Brown v. Board of Education.

Paul Mulshine compared Corzine to Stephen Garcia
, a University of South Carolina quarterback who was tackled near the goal line - by a referee(!):

It's been 35 years since the court first took from the other two branches of government the control of school funding. Over the years, the 31 so-called "Abbott districts" - named for the decision in the infamous Abbott vs. Burke case - gradually took more and more of the state's school aid. Those districts now get to eat up more than half the state aid while the remaining 580 districts fight over the crumbs.

Mulshine also quotes a “livid” Ray Lesniak:

The Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds and gone too far," he said. "We're going to have to do something about it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hot Off The Press...

The DOE just released all 178 pages of the second section of 6A, School District Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures. Here it is for your reading pleasure.

Supreme Court Rules for Abbotts

The New Jersey State Supreme Court yesterday rejected the State Legislature’s attempt to declassify Abbott districts by enacting the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which claimed to fairly distribute aid to poor students regardless of where they live.

(For a synopsis of the ruling, see here.)

Back in May 1997, the Court ruled that so-called Abbott districts – the 31 poorest urban school districts in New Jersey – had to be funded at the level of the most wealthy districts in the state. The two sides have spent the last 20 years in court, one side charging a lack of adequate funding and the other side charging too much funding, in addition to corruption and waste. Last January the Legislature passed SFRA, claiming that the Abbott designation was no longer necessary because the spending gaps between rich and poor districts didn’t exist any more.

According to an article last April in the Daily Journal,

Over the past decade, per-pupil spending in the Abbott districts rose 72 percent from $9,559 to $16,407, while that spending in the two wealthiest class of districts rose 53 percent from $9,026 to $13,703.

However, David Sciarra, Director of the Education Law Center and lead attorney for the Abbotts, argued,

The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly that urban children are entitled to equal and adequate school funding, and that funding must reach the classroom for their benefit. The new formula is not new at all. Sadly, it brings back unequal funding, with no accountability for how school funding is spent.

What exactly is “equal and adequate?” It sounds a lot like what we guarantee special education students: FAPE, or Free and Public Education. But it’s not. The line parents of special needs kids hear is, “we have to give you a Ford, not a Cadillac” (true story, though with the recent Detroit travails…). But the courts ruled over twenty years ago that poor urban kids in NJ deserve an education equal to that of kids in wealthy districts: a Cadillac.

Not that this is a bad thing. But with demographic changes in NJ, poor kids live all over the place. Just for a reality check we surveyed the DOE’s list of district DFG’s (the State’s designation of socio-economic level, which ranges from a low of A to a high of J) and counted all the school districts that are labeled either A or B. Grand total? 109. In other words, about 15% of school districts in NJ are poor. What to do about educational equity in a state that funds schools through property taxes? Give lots of cash to poor districts. The rest is history.

It might be useful for our esteemed legislators and lawyers to unearth the real problem here. As long as NJ clings to the mythology of home rule – that our State’s character is defined by addiction to the opium of small, locally-controlled towns – our educational system will be inequitable. Corzine’s solution, SFRA, which was supposed to distribute money not through district designation but through number of impoverished kids, was a nifty if hastily executed solution. But it doesn’t come close to the magic wand needed to erase the inadequacy engendered by our municipal madness.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


The New York Times reports today that the President of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, is willing to consider tenure and merit pay.

Why do we care? The vast majority of New Jersey teachers belong to the National Education Association, AFT’s 600-pound beer-guzzling brother who’d sooner flatten you than flatter you. And AFT has traditionally been, well, untraditional. This is, after all, the union in New York City (it's called the UFT there) that sponsors its own charter schools, supports ousting incompetent teachers, and participates in high-level debates about educational policy.

But we care nonetheless, even out in the wilds of unenlightened New Jersey. Weingarten’s openness is a spark of light in a discussion that’s been conducted in a dark closet. In a speech in D.C. yesterday, she said that due to the economic crisis, her 1.4 million member union would consider new options.

In the spirit of this extraordinary moment, and as a pledge of shared responsibility, I’ll take the first step,” she said. “With the exception of vouchers, which siphon scarce resources from public schools, no issue should be off the table, provided it is good for children and fair to teachers.

Dare we hope that NEA sees the writing on the wall and agrees to start being part of the solution instead of being part of the problem?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Growth Models, Shmowth Models

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post reports today on national opposition to using growth models to evaluate teacher performance, i.e., measuring each student’s progress instead of using average improvement from year to year. One guess as to whom is voicing opposition.

I asked two National Education Association officials, Joel Packer, director of education policy and practice, and Bill Raabe, director of collective bargaining and member advocacy, why we couldn't test students in September and May, calculate how much they improved and use that information in deciding whether to keep particular teachers and how much to pay them. Raabe said that would only work if the distribution of students in classes was randomized. I understood his point but did not see why good teachers couldn't show some progress no matter what sort of students they have. Raabe and Packer sent me more quotes from experts who weren't any clearer.

Here's the whole piece.

Preschool Opportunity?

Dr. Rich Noonan, Superintendent of Madison Public Schools, posted a letter last week complaining about the new preschool mandate that all New Jersey districts must provide full day preschools to low-income kids:

Is the State of New Jersey in a position to fund such a costly new endeavor at a time when it cannot meet its present financial obligations, and when housing foreclosures and layoffs are significantly eroding our economic vitality? When concerns over New Jersey’s property tax burden have yet to be fundamentally addressed and alleviated, does it make sense to potentially add to that burden by imposing additional costs at the local taxpayer level?

With all due respect to Dr. Noonan, let’s put his complaint in context. First of all, Madison, in Morris County, is an “I” district, which means that the average income places this district in the second highest category for resident wealth. If the initiative goes through (Corzine’s been sounding a bit iffy on this lately), Madison will have a grand total of 22 kids to serve once the program is fully functional in 2014, far less than most other districts. So we’re talking two or three classrooms for a wealthy district. Dr. Noonan correctly estimates that the State projected aid will cover only 2/3 of Madison’s costs for transportation, curricula, preschool certified teachers, and free breakfast and lunch. However, its outlay is minimal compared with a larger, poorer district that will have to provide many more classes for many more children. We should all have such problems as Madison’s.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. The State and the DOE have passed a number of new initiatives intended to diminish local governance through standardizing curriculum, high school graduation requirements, and budgeting throughout the State. The preschool initiative places the education of low-income 3-5 year olds who don’t live in Abbott districts (they already have full-day preschool) directly back under local control. So Madison sets up its own classrooms, buys its own materials, negotiates its own salary guide, provides its own bussing. So does every one of the 600 districts in New Jersey. Why aren't we taking advantage of a ripe opportunity to try a little bit of efficient consolidation?

And let’s go a little bigger. The preschool mandate is an acknowledgment on the part of the State, finally, that our impoverished students live not only in the 31 urban Abbott districts but are, in fact, scattered all over the state. This concession may have been cattle-prodded by the Bacon lawsuit working its way through the State courts, which claims that there are 16 rural New Jersey districts just as poor as the Abbotts who should receive comparable State funding. They’re right.

No educator would argue with the importance of providing free preschool to poor children, regardless of where they live. But is such a fractured, economically inefficient, and philosophically inconsistent approach really what we need in New Jersey? County-wide preschools would give us an opportunity to pilot a program that provides consistency, integration, and efficiency. Can we get past our knee-jerk genuflection to home rule and try something new?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Is It Time to Trade Up to a Better Model?

Here’s two “must-reads” for you. Andrew Rotherham, who runs the thinktank Education Sector and blogs on Eduwonk, has a piece in US News and World Report on accountability and No Child Left Behind. As long as we’re on our merit pay/teacher accountability tear, we’ll pull out this quote:

Shortly after the law now called No Child Left Behind was first passed in 1965, a frustrated senator remarked, "I want to change this bill because it doesn't have any way of measuring those damned educators.... We really ought to have some evaluation in there, and some measurement as to whether any good is happening."

The speaker? Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Also, Megan McArdle, who writes for the Atlantic Monthly has a great piece on the auto industry. Stay with me here – there’s lots of parallels between the UAW and the teachers’ unions. After all, the National Teachers Association was modeled after industry unions at a time when teachers were poorly paid and treated. Now, decades later, NEA’s industrial mindset – all employees are interchangeable like workers on an assembly line – has morphed into robust resistance to merit pay.

Teachers are professionals, right? They have Master’s degrees, pursue annual professional development, use sophisticated technology, synthesize massive amounts of material, and have the awesome responsibility for educating our kids. Perhaps the industrial model was once suitable; it’s not any more. Like other professionals, higher productivity – in this case, student achievement – should be rewarded by higher compensation.

McArdle writes,

I also really loathe and despise the way the unions use work rules and featherbedding to make their companies and industries less productive than they otherwise would be. Salary and benefit negotiations seem to me to be neutral; there's a zone of possible agreement, and I don't care if the unions claim all or most of the value in that zone. But the way economic growth happens--the way we become a richer, more productive society--is to produce more stuff with the same amount of people. The union goal is to keep the number of people at least even, and if possible increase it, regardless of the level of production.

Nor am I a fan of seniority rules and job protection. Most of us function perfectly well without these, and I don't think that advancement solely by time-in-grade, or protecting everyone who does not actually set the plant on fire from being sacked, is either reasonable, or economically desireable. I understand that people want these things, but I would also like to be able to force other people to buy me dinner at will; this does not mean that I should be given that right. I too, would enjoy being protected from ever losing my job no matter what, and having all my raises based on my ability to keep my butt in a chair. But I don't think this would be good for my employers, my readers, or for that matter, me.

Think about this in terms of New Jersey and NJEA. (And it doesn’t hurt this analogy to throw in the new bill introduced yesterday in the State Legislature guaranteeing employment for school aides, regardless of school needs.) We recognize that all the programs and technology in the world are meaningless without the conduit of a good teacher and that the key to teaching children is the art and skill of an enlightened educator. However, the engine driving NJEA (sorry) is the goal of keeping as many teachers employed at the highest possible level of salary, benefits, and job protection. Why is it unreasonable to incorporate teacher accountability into the equation?

Star-Ledger Advocates Merit Pay

The Star-Ledger gets behind merit pay for teachers in today's editorial, arguing that the typical union denunciation -- that a differentiated pay system would harm collegiality -- is unpersuasive.

It is not, we suspect, the fact that some teachers will get more money that makes so many in education nervous about merit pay but the prospect that all teachers will be evaluated. Yet teachers routinely administer tests and score and judge their students.

Teachers must begin to ac cept the same for themselves.

Is it our imagination, or is there some momentum behind this movement?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Aides Over Kids?

The State Assembly Education Committee is expected to release a new bill, A-420, which gives job protection to paraprofessionals employed in Title 1 districts, i.e., more than 75% of the school districts in New Jersey. Sponsored by Assemblywomen Amy Handlin and Joan Voss, the legislation, among other things, forces districts to extend employment to school and classroom aides by May 15th for the upcoming year. Typically, districts make these decisions in August and September when they have quantified their needs.

Bully for the aides. More interesting is the reaction of the New Jersey School Board Association, which immediately issued a furious press release, claiming that the legislation is “an unnecessary exercise that would impede educational accountability.” Continued John Burns, NJSBA lobbyist,

NJSBA views the current lifetime tenure granted to certificated employees as a restriction on local school district efforts to improve education. Extending the benefits of lifetime tenure to paraprofessionals in an effort to protect their employment rights would further impede the ability of school management to make personnel decisions in the best interests of the education program.

No wonder they’re in a panic. Who can blame them? School boards and administrators are drowning in expensive mandates and flawed DOE regulatory minutiae, budgeting is getting tighter, districts are cutting programs and raising class sizes, all in the name of accountability and efficiency. Now the Legislature says, “Accountability? Efficiency? Fuggedaboutit.”

In a serendipitous bit of counterpoint, one of the lead stories in the New York Times today was the efforts of D.C. Superintendent Michelle Rhee to dramatically overhaul tenure. Her unorthodoxy and – may we say it? – courage have produced outcries from union leaders and praise from most everyone else. What does it say about Jersey that our leading-edge law-making moves us further and further away from research-driven innovation?

It’s all well and good to offer protection to hard-working aides. But during budget time this Spring, 513 Title 1 districts in N.J. will cut services to children because they have to make premature job offers to lunch aides. Is this really the way we want to go?

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

County-Wide Preschools!

New Jersey’s public schools, under a new state mandate to provide free preschool to 3, 4, and 5 year-olds from low-income families, are in a pickle. Oh, heck – let’s call it a whole deli platter. While few dispute the advantages of pre-school for poor kids (well, a few do: see here and here) administrators and schools boards worry about finding suitable space and about whether the State’s promise to fund the programs is reliable. We already have free public preschools in the 31 districts formerly known as Abbotts but, in an acknowledgment that our poor kids are scattered around the map, all school districts must provide the programs for their impoverished populations. New Jersey districts have just a couple of weeks left to file 5-year plans with the DOE explaining exactly how they plan to roll out the pre-schools, which under order from the State Legislature must begin next September for 20% of these children. However, Corzine has been repeatedly telegraphing that he may back off.

The Star-Ledger recently reported,

Corzine is grappling with a revenue shortfall of at least $400 million in the current state budget and a hole of up to $4 billion in the spending plan he will present to lawmakers in March. He acknowledged that has led to concern that the state will defer providing $50 million next year to begin expanding preschool to communities with high concentrations of needy students.

And The Record adds today,

Although Governor Corzine hinted last week at the New Jersey School Boards Association conference that the budget crisis could delay the state-mandated expansion, districts are still facing deadlines to craft preschool plans for next year.

So school districts are in a bind. They have to move forward with pre-school plans, but anyone reading the tea leaves can tell that the odds are high that this may be, at least for now, an intellectual exercise.

There’s also a fair amount of wariness about the DOE’s ability to manage this laudable project, given the circus at Lucille Davy’s office, with regulations issued, rescinded, reissued, corrected, etc. Now we’re going to educate an additional 30,000 toddlers by 2013?

Here’s an idea. Hold onto your hats. County-wide Preschool.

1)We’re already struggling with managing equitable and effective education for our kindergarten-12th graders.

2) We've just hired 21 new Executive County Superintendents -- one for each county --who pull in a nice chunk of change: $120,000 a year plus, since most of them are retired superintendents, an additional annual check of $48,000 to $135,000 a year. (What exactly do they do, anyway?)

3) One of the biggest challenges for districts in implementing these pre-schools is finding adequate space. Many are looking at portable trailers, leasing space, raising class size to accommodate the extra children.

4) We do this already with our preschool handicapped kids, unless their home district can accommodate them.

Why can’t we make our preschools county-wide? Find a couple of districts within a county that happen to have extra space and put the classes there. Or everyone in a county go in together to lease space. Think of it as an experiment in overcoming the limitations of home rule and local governance. We have been presented with a ripe opportunity to reinvent the artificial way we segregate our children. Any takers?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Joe the Lawyer

The Press of Atlantic City has an article today about the negative reactions generated by the new graduation requirements recently issued by the DOE. At the Vocational-Technical Schools Open Forum at last month’s New Jersey School Boards Annual Convention, representatives from both vocational and academic high schools lit into the High School Redesign Steering Committee’s new set of graduation requirements, which mandates that all graduates complete biology, chemistry, algebra 1 and 2, economics, four years of college-prep English, and also pass six new high-stakes tests.

One of the panelists, Frank Gargiulo, President of New Jersey Council of County Vocational-Technical High Schools, said

It is just unconscionable for the state to think that every kid is the same. Vocational schools have more choice. But under the high school redesign plan, they will be crushed, especially the shared-time programs.

And it’s not only the vo-tech reps who take umbrage at the newly prescribed curriculum. Apparently the New Jersey Math and Science Education Coalition opposes the algebra 2 requirement. Speaking for that group, Rutgers math professor Joseph Rosenstein said,

Most students take algebra II because colleges require it. What many students need is better mastery of algebra I and four years of math that includes actual applications so they don't forget it by the time they graduate.

So what exactly is the DOE’s strategy? Are they pandering to the suburban voters who seek more rigorous high schools? Are they trying to eliminate vo-tech schools? What will this mean for our lower-performing schools where the vast majority of kid fail less stringent tests?

If the DOE’s interest is in consolidation of school districts, then standardization of graduation requirements eases the way a bit. If a course of study is preordained, then one could argue that location is less meaningful. What’s the difference what district you’re in if everyone is taking the same courses? And it’s politically correct right now to broadcast that every single child, regardless of ability or aspiration, is college-bound.

What’s that joke? A lawyer is at home one weekend and his toilet overflows. He makes an emergency call to his plumber, who unclogs the toilet in 20 minutes and hands the lawyer a bill for $200. The lawyer, astonished, says, “I don’t even get $600 an hour!” The plumber replies, “Neither did I when I was a lawyer.”

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Where Would Malia and Sasha Go to School in NJ?

Eduwonkette has a great piece up called “Where Will Malia Ann and Sasha Obama go to School?” Says the author,

Odds are that the Obamas will send their daughters to a private school in DC. Like most parents, they will likely want to ensure that their children get the best schooling they can. Few parents would be willing to risk sacrificing their children’s futures to make a point about the value of public schooling. We live in an era in which schooling is seen primarily as a vehicle either to move up the social ladder or to maintain the social standing that a family has achieved. ..David Labaree argued in his book How to Succeed in School Without Really Learning, two once-prominent goals of American schooling—producing citizens prepared for life in a democracy and efficiently allocating individuals to work roles, both of which view schooling as a public good—have been overtaken by the objective of schooling as a means for vaulting over others, which construes schooling as a private good. This privatization of the purpose of schooling, Labaree argues, has resulted in a commodification of schooling, and a decoupling of genuine learning from the credentials that so many individuals chase after.

Go to the Eduwonkette link for a demographic study that shows unequivocally that in Washington, D.C. rich kids go to private schools and poor kids go to public schools.

It’s interesting to look at this premise – that American schools, once intended to produce good citizens who can get good jobs to support the public good, are now essentially springboards for individual achievement – from a New Jersey perspective. Forget about private schools for the moment. If we just look at our 600 school districts, which differ enormously in facilities, curricula, and opportunities based on the wealth of the particular town (think Willingboro/Moorestown or Princeton/Trenton), families who have the financial means can easily move to a different district that can support this new paradigm of the purpose of education. So in Jersey, districts with the highest DFG’s can serve the purpose of private schools and districts with lower DFG’s can serve the purpose of public schools. Families all over the nation will “move to a better school district,” but here at home it is absurdly easy, often just a distance of a few miles.

This reality, of course, is anathema to the equalization that public schools are assumed to provide. So we have the DOE, the Legislature, and various legal teams trying to overturn the way we do education here by siphoning off large amounts of property taxes to Districts-Formerly-Known-as-Abbotts, creating state-sanctioned curricula so that all schools offer the same courses, setting a standard amount of money-per-kid that districts should spend, and appointing Executive County Superintendents who have the authority to slash budgets of districts that attempt to spend more than deemed “thorough and efficient.”

All these new regulations are a noble attempt to equalize our districts so that kids in Trenton or Willingboro get the same opportunities as kids in Moorestown or Princeton. But if Eduwonkette is correct, then we’ve missed the boat, or we’re trying to board an anachronistic ship. Public education no longer is the Great Equalizer because, for many families in Jersey and elsewhere, education is the Great Individualizer.

Hence the philosophical inconsistencies we see at the State level. The High School Redesign Steering Committee, for example, purports to turn all public high schools in New Jersey into college-prep incubators. All students, the Steering Committee mandates, will pass the courses necessary to go to college. Anything less than a college education is tantamount to failure. It’s the new model of education as a private good.

Simultaneously we have a statewide drive, announced by Corzine as the New Jersey High School Graduation Campaign: Keeping Kids in School, intended to lower our 20% dropout rate, one of the highest in the nation. That’s the old model of education as intending to prepare children for life as a servant to the common good.

Ideally we can strive to create an educational system that incorporates both models: education that prepares our children for independent life in a democratic society, and education that prepares our children to move up the social and economic ladder. But if N.J'.s schools remain as segregated as they are currently – low-income districts settling for the former and high-income districts striving for the latter -- it’s unlikely that we will succeed in chipping away at the segregation inherent in New Jersey’s school system.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Change We Can Believe In

It’s mid-November, so it must be time for the NJEA Teacher Convention! A week after school board members partied in Atlantic City, 35,000 members of New Jersey’s teaching corps headed down to the boardwalk; according to the Star-Ledger’s John Mooney, there was much chatter about the impact of President-Elect Obama’s victory.

Primary Gripe: Obama’s support for merit pay and charter schools. Joyce Powell, President of NJEA, said delicately, "We may have our differences of opinion on some things.” And, less delicately,

"If they are going to broach that, why not let us also negotiate class sizes or textbook selection?" she said. "They have to understand that when we put an idea like that on the table, other things come with it."

We love teachers. But this knee-jerk response to innovation gets to the heart of the oxymoronic stance of NJEA. On the one hand, its members function under the old industrial model of paying people based on seniority. On the other hand, they insist that they are professionals, who hypothetically earn more money for increased proficiency. In fact, more and more communities are experimenting with merit pay – think Michelle Rhee in D.C. (see this piece from the Washington Post) – and there is growing evidence that charter schools, under the right conditions, help kids learn.

C’mon, teachers. It’s time for change we can believe in.