Friday, August 29, 2008

Good read

Here's some worthwhile reading from Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Monthly, who muses about teacher unions' resistance to any sort of merit pay, the incongruity of tenure and accountability, and the way the unions' industrial model ends up hurting kids.

Union Fist-Bump

A piece in the Star Ledger today delves into a bill that never got signed. In June, the NJ Legislature voted to scale back pension benefits for school teachers beginning this school year. However, after the teachers' union, NJEA, complained that they didn't have time to notify the teachers of the changes over the summer, Corzine didn't sign the bill. The Star-Ledger explains,

The reforms, adopted over heated opposition from the state's most influential public employees' unions, would eliminate the Lincoln's Birthday state holiday, raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 and bar public employees from using time worked in other states to reach the 25 years of employment needed to qualify for lifetime health benefits from New Jersey.

While no one knows the total cost of the delay, state and local governments could lose at least $1.42 million in 2011 -- the first year of estimated savings. Supporters of the reforms said they would cut retirement costs by $300 million over 15 years.

NJEA President Joyce Powell and Corzine both confirmed the sequence of events. Said Powell,

Since it happened in June, we wouldn't have had any way of telling people. So we had to have the beginning of the school year to inform people.

Happy Labor Day!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Doomsday for 6A

New Jersey School Boards Association has a piece by Ray Pinney today, whose title at NJSBA is “Grassroots Coordinator and Lobbyist.” Pinney, in “Regionalization: Is the Wrong Solution Better Than No Solution,” recounts a conversation with a Warren County School Board member who tried to explain to a family member why consolidating NJ school districts would raise taxes. The family member’s response was something along the lines of “I believe your math but I still think regionalization is a good idea.”

Pinney’s criticism of the DOE’s clumsy new regulations on consolidation, fondly known as 6A, is bang-on. However, one is well-advised to consider NJSBA’s agenda, which is to protect the thousands of school board members who owe their titles to the number of spots available via home rule. Pinney concludes that the new efforts will yield no savings and will be subverted by the power of the teachers’ union, school boards, and taxpayers. He quotes a private conversation with Lucille Davy: ”I have heard that the Commissioner herself has said she knows that it will not save money.”

The accepted wisdom is that it is typical New Jersey residents – not the NJEA members, not the school board members, not the DOE – who value home rule and condemn regionalization. Is it the other way around? Is it the average citizen (whoever that is) who is willing to give it a try and the politicians whom, legislation to the contrary, are committed to the continuation of home rule run amok?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

And the Next Pitch...

The frenzy over superintendent compensation packages continues unabated. By far the loudest chorus is from those who bewail this financial fraud perpetrated on the backs on New Jersey tax payers by overpaid and unscrupulous district superintendents. Several local papers (The Bridgeton News, Today’s Sunbeam ,Warren County News) reported today on new legislation to be proposed in September by Patrick Diegnan, Jr., an Democratic Assemblyman from Middlesex. This bill would standardize superintendent contracts by having the State issue a boiler-plate version, thereby removing much local control. Said Diegnan,

There is absolutely no reason that superintendent contracts should vary so greatly from district-to-district. A standard contract template would level the playing field across districts and stop the end-run abuses of tax dollars meant for the classroom.

Seeing the writing on the wall, New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio caved: "Standardization is not necessarily bad, as long as it's not overly rigid.”

But the New Jersey Association of Superintendents and Administrators, which has already filed a federal lawsuit against the State for interfering with their constitutional rights, charged that Diegnan's bill was overkill and would unnecessarily restrict school boards' authority to negotiate. Richard Bozza, New Jersey Association of School Administrators executive director, said

School board members are elected to govern their schools, which includes the obligation to negotiate with employees based on the needs of the system and the community's expectations.

In the midst of all this bluster, James Ahearn, writing for The Record, lends a bit of perspective, noting that in the past superintendents were tenured, effectively given lifetime appointments. The only recourse for unsatisfactory performance was a wildly expense buy-out. To provide more accountability, superintendent tenure was abandoned in 1991 (during the Florio administration) and replaced with three, four, or five year contracts. The results, says Ahearn, is that “Superintendents … have become contract players, like pitchers and infielders.” He continues,
The Record reported in 2004 that superintendent turnover statewide had reached 20 percent. Every year, one in five districts had to recruit a new superintendent. There were fewer qualified and willing candidates than formerly, resulting in longer searches for replacements, leading to the development of a new education specialist, the interim superintendent.

The State Commission of Investigation issued a report two years ago on unpublicized benefits granted by districts to superintendents. The commission treated the matter as a scandal. However, if such benefits are forbidden, the cash equivalents will be wrapped into higher base salaries in subsequent contracts. The market will see to that.

The market is pretty clear -- sometimes superintendents are worth a lot of money. The State of New Jersey, flailing at bad press, rising taxes, and declining test scores, begs to differ, using the bludgeon of legislation to annihilate a couple of outliers. So, in fact, the State is trying to circumvent the free market by standardizing these market-based contracts. Noteworthy omission: nobody here is talking about performance or education. The whole issue now revolves around money.

Here's an irony: the State has created a whole new level of management, the "Executive Superintendent," who has the power to overturn much of the authority of local school boards and superintendents anyway. So, if we work on the assumption that this is all about money, how do we cost this out? What exactly is the monetary value of running a district? Is that a district of 100 kids or a district of 20,000 kids? Is that a wealthy, quaint, homogeneous, leafy suburb in Bergen County or are we talking an impoverished inner-city like Camden? How much do we add to that per-district cost with our Lord High Executives? (NJ has functioned with County Superintendents for many years, but they run cheaper.)

Standardizing New Jersey -- there's an oxymoron for you.

Cory Booker on Teachers' Unions

Mickey Kaus of Slate is attending the Democratic National Convention in Denver, and reports back that he attended an event called “The Ed Challenge for Change,” fully expecting to hear all those buzzwords like “change” and “accountability” without reference to what he calls “the elephant in the room, namely the teachers' unions.”

To his surprise, there was a strong anti-union sentiment there. Reports Kaus,

Then Cory Booker of Newark attacked teachers unions specifically--and there was applause. In a room of 500 people at the Democratic convention! "The politics are so vicious," Booker complained, remembering how he'd been told his political career would be over if he kept pushing school choice, how early on he'd gotten help from Republicans rather than from Democrats. The party would "have to admit as Democrats we have been wrong on education." Loud applause!

Is the tide turning?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Large Nuts

Today's Jersey section of the New York Times reviews the current excitement over the few NJ public school superintendents who are due to receive inordinately high salaries and retirement packages, and the lawsuit by the NJASA (New Jersey Association of School Administrators) against the Education Commissioner, Lucille Davy. The suit claims that limits on school boards to set compensation packages arbitrarily denies administrators of their constitutional rights of equal treatment and due process.

Lost in much of this foofaraw, but touched on in the Times piece, is the instrument for all this new oversight, fondly known as 6A or, more formally, "Fiscal Accountability, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures." In a nutshell (okay, a large nutshell -- the first part comes in at 84 pages) attempts to standardize the finances and academics for all of our 603 school districts. One of the key pieces of this legislation creates the position of Executive Superintendent, one for each of the 21 counties in New Jersey, and one of their responsibilities is to review and approve all new or renewed contracts for school superintendents, assistant superintendents, and business administrators.

Steve Edelstein, lawyer for the NJASA, gets the money quote. According to Mr. Edelstein, this oversight "flies in the face of a strong tradition of home rule in New Jersey."

Friday, August 22, 2008

Casting Call for Crash Dummies

Local school boards and DOE mandates continue to collide as the Jersey papers wax on about limits on superintendent perks and, the latest, administrators who get hefty pay raises by listing degrees from diploma mills on their resumes.

So we have stories this week like the Star-Ledger’s update on James Wasser, Superintendent of Freehold Schools, who got a $2,500 raise after buying a Ph.D. from Breyer State University.

Here's Wikipedia's description of the unaccredited school:

Breyer State University, also called Breyer State University-Alabama, is an unaccredited distance education university with an office in Birmingham, Alabama.[1] It has been described by The New Republic magazine as a diploma mill that used a "claimed official-sounding accreditation to attract hundreds of people to obtain degrees".[2] Breyer State University disputes this categorization.[3][4][5]

In June 2008 Breyer State's license to operate in Alabama expired and was not renewed. The Alabama Department of Postsecondary Education reported that the school had moved to Idaho.

In response, the Home News quoted Senate President Richard Codey, who fumed, “it’s completely and utterly ridiculous that people at the top of our educational system are being paid — rewarded, in fact — for a degree that for all intents and purposes comes from a fake university.”

To add a tad more tsuris to our beleaguered NJ administrators, the local media is pelting the New Jersey Administrators and Supervisors Association for suing the State on the grounds that attempts to limit their compensation are “arbitrary and unconstitutional.” According to the New Jersey Record,

The suits come in response to new state Department of Education regulations that allow for more oversight of top school administrators' contracts, setting limits on payouts and allowing state officials to rein in excesses. The day before it was filed, the Department of Education released new data on the six-figure salaries and perks of New Jersey's school administrators, with packages ranging well past $200,000 and even $300,000 among the best compensated superintendents in Bergen and Passaic counties.

These stories highlight the inequities inherent in a the NJ public school system, which slices up education into 603 districts that range from elite to impoverished. The Record continues,

As one might expect in a state with more than 600 school districts, each figuring out its own way, the data revealed considerable chaos. Superintendents running tiny districts are making as much as those responsible for 10 or 20 times as many students and staff. The lack of even a loose correlation between district size and superintendent salary is a sign that there's little logic behind the pay packages being set by many school boards.

We’ve got a headlong collision of home rule and State governance, worthy of a Hollywood action movie. Local school boards hire superintendents and negotiate salaries and benefits. But as the State takes on a growing role in setting standards, both academic and financial, the long history in NJ of local control is undermined. Add the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind and, well, just picture a Corvair and a Humvee in a crash derby. Is Ralph Nader in the house? And which is the lemon?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NJ on the Short Bus

The New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities reports that a Federal District judge refused to dismiss a case filed by the Education Law Center, the Arc of New Jersey, the Statewide Parents Advocacy Network, et. al. against the NJ Department of Education. The suit alleges that the DOE has failed to implement broad systemic reforms to address the high rates of segregation of students with disabilities, often placing them in either disabled-only classrooms or out-of-district placements, i.e., private or county schools for students with disabilities.

Nationally, 3% of students with disabilities are segregated. New Jersey segregates 9% of these kids.

Part of the lawsuit addresses the IDEA, or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that children with disabilities be placed in the “least restrictive environment.”

As part of the ruling, the judge remarked, “the administrative process is powerless to address Plaintiffs’ claims here, which concern New Jersey’s policies and practices…and…require structural relief.”

A fundamental reason for the sky-high segregation of special needs kids in NJ goes right back to home rule. Let’s say a district wants to create a classroom for kids with hearing impairments, or kids with autism, or kids with behavior problems. No problem if you’re dealing with enough scale to identify a cohort of kids with a specific disability. Big problem if your district is so small that there are only a couple of kids with a particular disability requiring differentiated curricula and instruction. The solution? Send them out of district to one of the many private schools in New Jersey that cater to this population. It’s more expensive and it restricts these kids from participating in their own community, but what's a state of 603 school districts to do?

There’s a reason why disability law grew directly out the Civil Rights movement. Where’s Pete Seeger when you need him? A chorus of “We Shall Overcome,” anyone?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Home Rule Goes to School

The local Jersey papers continue to feed ravenously on the “scandal” regarding superintendent compensation packages. The Times of Trenton headline today reads “Many School Administrators in Jersey due Six-Figure Deals.” And, boy, is the public outraged – check out the indignant comments attached to some of these articles. Scroll down for yourself at the end of this Star-Ledger piece.

Lost in the lather is that the job responsibilities of a superintendent are comparable to running a multi-million dollar corporation. Public school superintendents are on call 24/7, manage vast minions of employees, kowtow to school boards, are responsible for political ties to municipal and state agencies, etc. In 2002 New Jersey Monthly rated the job of school superintendent as one of the 14 worst:

Tight school budgets, no job security, modest salaries and board of education meetings that run past midnight are just a few of the complaints that have New Jersey’s school superintendents retiring in droves.

Free market, anyone?

There are many excesses in New Jersey State gov’t. We’re not sure this is one of them, once you weed out the couple of egregious overplays, like the Keansburg superintendent who retired with a $740K package.

Meanwhile, the group representing NJ superintendents, New Jersey Association of School Administrators, filed a federal lawsuit yesterday contending that the DOE’s attempt to limit compensation and retirement packages is arbitrary and unconstitutional.

A lawyer for NJASA, Stephen Edelstein, commented to the Star-Ledger,

The government can't create arbitrary classes, and to regulate the salaries of 1,400 administrators and not 200,000 other school employees doesn't make a lot of sense. She (Lucille Davy, Commissioner of Education) is trying to treat school district employees as state employees, and they are not. There is a strong home rule tradition in this state.

This issue is much bigger than school superintendents, and cuts to the pith of the recent spew of regulations issued by the DOE.

The first part of this bureaucratic emission, “School District Accountability, Efficiency, and Budgeting Procedures” comes in at 83 pages and represents only a section of the legislation. (The DOE will disgorge the rest later this month). This document, which regulates everything from whether school board members can take leftovers home from refreshments served at public meetings to bidding processes for choosing budget auditors, is an attempt to overturn the tradition of home rule by setting State-wide standards, forcing district consolidation, and mandating shared services.

So, can a poorly regarded and understaffed DOE set State-wide standards? Can it overturn that scourge and delight of New Jersey, centuries of home rule? Not likely, but stay tuned.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Paging Norman Rockwell

The papers and local radio stations are splattered with stories today on some new data issued by the State regarding retirement packages for school superintendents. It's practically a Jackson Pollock painting out there, from the Star-Ledger from to the Courier-Post to the Press of Atlantic City to the North Jersey Record.

Here's the Star-Ledger's lede:

More than 30 New Jersey school administrators could be due six-figure retirement packages at a time the state is trying to rein in administrative costs, according to data the state released Wednesday.

Much of this journalistic eruption stems from an admittedly mind-blowing settlement to a retiring Keansburg superintendent. Keansburg, a small Monmouth County district of 1800 children, is one of the 31 Abbott districts. 81% of the district’s total budget comes in the form of state aid, about $28.9 million. Superintendent Barbara Trzeskowski, a 38 year employee, is awaiting her retirement deal, which comes to a whopping $740,876.

The State’s reaction has been to issue new regulations that limit superintendent compensation and to publish a data base of all superintendent contracts in New Jersey. (Reality check: average retirement payments are slightly over $10K and the typical salary is $108K.)

However, the data is riddled with errors.. The Trenton Times article lists incorrect salaries just for Mercer County, and the Star-Ledger reports that the State’s own monitor in Paterson, Mark Kramer, was listed as due for a $178,750 retirement package on top of his $165,000 yearly salary. Kramer is, in fact, not entitled to any retirement package. When the Star-Ledger challenged the DOE on the accuracy of the numbers, a staffer replied,

This is the first time we have done this and don't expect it will be 100 percent perfect," said Kathryn Forsyth, communications director of the state Department of Education.

Here’s a fact: the NJ Department of Education is woefully understaffed and overwhelmed. Ms. Trzeskowski’s contract has been sitting in the DOE office since 2006, so her hefty retirement package is old news, or at least it would be if the State were able to keep up with its paperwork. Unfortunately, the errors embedded in the database are emblematic of the DOE’s inability to oversee NJ’s public school system.

Here’s another example. Kids across the New Jersey took their standardized tests in March. It’s now mid-August, 5 months later. Districts have yet to receive test scores, except for the 11th grade HSPA’s. The NJ Department of Education released the third grade ASK scores a few weeks ago, but pulled them back when districts detected a plethora of errors. Meanwhile, class assignments proceed without assessment information.

Striving for economic efficiency is wonderful. But we’d prefer a little less splatter and whole lot more due diligence.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Down on Skid Row

The Trenton Times reports today on the trial of Priscilla Dawson, a Trenton Central High School principal accused of altering transcripts of 126 students who attended an annex of the school, one of the many scandals that have rocked this rock-bottom district over the last few years. Also implicated in this particular case, currently before the Office of Administrative Law, is James Lytle, the former Superintendent in Trenton who cut and ran last year to take a professorship in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania (the State is going after his Superintendent’s License) , and two other administrators still employed by Trenton Public Schools.

Trenton is one of the 31 Abbott districts in New Jersey. This means that this central Jersey city, long-plagued by gang violence and economic woes, has achieved the lowest possible socio-economic rating (the State calls it DFG, or “District Factor Group”) and shows evidence of systemic educational failure. The Abbott Decisions mandate that the State fund these districts at the average rate of schools ranked in the highest DFG, reasoning that educational inequities are solely based on the amount of money available for each student. Non-Abbott districts rely mostly on property taxes for school costs. Abbott districts rely on State money. So, in Trenton, cash abounds. Education doesn’t.

A look at the State report card for Trenton gives a glimpse of the grim prospects for kids unlucky enough to attend school there. All 11th graders in New Jersey take a standardized test in math and language arts – the HSPA. In math, for example, the average failure rate across the State was 24% in 2006 and 26.6% in 2007. How about Trenton? In 2006, 68.8% of eleventh grade students failed the math portion of the HSPA. In 2007, 79.8% failed.

Bop down Route 206 about ten miles and you’ll arrive at Trenton’s neighbor, the bucolic school district of Princeton. Same state, same standardized test, and (per the Abbott decisions) similar funding. Yet in Princeton, 7.2% of the kids failed the math portion of the HSPA in 2006 and 9.5% failed in 2007.

Memo to State hacks: it’s not working.

Meanwhile back in Trenton, the courts slog through a multitude of administrative bumbles, which include running a high school without any (mandatory) science courses, forcing kids to retake courses they had already passed, and enrolling tenth graders in ninth grade. The befuddled School Board (one of only 21 districts in the State where Board members are appointed by the mayor) is trying to revoke Dawson’s lifetime tenure and the defense is arguing for dismissal on procedural grounds (the school board, according to Dawson’s lawyer “didn’t obtain proper signatures for the tenure charges”).

If the goal here is to make educational opportunities equal in Princeton and Trenton, we've got a long way to go.

Monday, August 11, 2008

What's Wrong with New Jersey Education?

New Jersey public schools are broken.

Want to talk about fiscal inefficiency in a state that’s going broke? We spend more per student on education -- $14,630 – than any state but New York.

Why? For starters, our history of home rule has rendered our 603 school districts massively inefficient, yet the last time there was any consolidation was in 1952 when Vineland Boro and Landis Township merged to form the city of Vineland. State government has tried to rein in this monster through recent legislation but these new statutes only increase costs without preventing fiscal accountability.

Want to talk about educational inequity? The Abbott decisions, intended to reverse inequities inherent in a funding system dependent on property taxes, have created a powerful imbalance: 23 percent of New Jersey’s 1.45 million public students receive 58 percent of state dollars.

Want to talk about substandard curriculum and instruction? Okay, we’ve got the federal No Child Left Behind legislation to use as a whipping boy, as it punishes districts that attempt any sort of creativity or focus on anyone but the lowest performing kids. But we’re not off the hook: the engine driving school curricula is solely powered by flawed State assessments and definitions of “pass” and “fail” (oops! Excuse me – “proficient” and “partially proficient”) that change like the tides off Cape May.

Want to talk about hamstrung administrators and school boards? The powerful New Jersey Education Association has bitch-slapped districts into granting lifetime tenure to teachers after three years while fighting performance incentives or differentiated pay.

Here’s an example of our problems. Last month’s Hunterdon County Democrat details a story of two school districts deep in serious negotiation to share services, consolidate offices, and merge various functions. One of the districts, Delaware County School, has 490 students. Stockton, the other district, has a total of 37 kids, grades kindergarten through 6th grade. Yet this district, one of 603 in New Jersey, has its own school board, its own superintendent (whose salary comprises one sixth of the district’s total budget), its own building. (To be fair, the two districts do share a single business administrator who makes over $100K a year.) The mind swoons at the fiscal and educational inefficiencies. The victims are the children and the taxpayers.