Friday, September 26, 2008

Grim(m) Fairy Tale

The national journal Science just published a report on how the No Child Left Behind academic benchmarks will lead to a “widespread failure” among California’s elementary schools. Education Week picked up the story, though there is no new news here for New Jersey’s school boards and administrators: lest a deus ex machina intervene, many NJ public schools will fail to meet federal and state benchmarks. Here's the list of sanctions (courtesy of the NJ DOE), which escalate each year:

NCLB/Title I
School Improvement Continuum Chart

Year Status Interventions for Title I Schools
Year 1 Early Warning – Did not make AYP for one year None
Year 2 First year of school in need of improvement status. Did not make AYP for two consecutive years in the same content area. Parent notification, public school choice (or supplemental educational services), school improvement plan, technical assistance from district.
Year 3 Second year of school in need of improvement status. Did not make AYP for three consecutive years in the same content area. Parent notification, public school choice, supplemental educational services, school improvement plan, technical assistance from district.
Year 4 Third year of school in need of improvement status – corrective action. Did not make AYP for four consecutive years in the same content area. Parent notification, public school choice, supplemental educational services, school improvement plan, technical assistance from district and state, corrective action, participation in CAPA.
Year 5 Fourth year of school in need of improvement status – school restructuring plan. Did not make AYP for five consecutive years in the same content area. Parent notification, public school choice, supplemental educational services, school improvement plan, technical assistance from district and state, development of restructuring plan (governance).
Year 6 Fifth year of school in need of improvement status – implementation of restructuring plan. Did not make AYP for six consecutive years in the same content area. Parent notification, public school choice, supplemental educational services, school improvement plan, technical assistance from district and state, implementation of restructuring plan.
Year 7 Sixth year of school in need of improvement status – implementation of restructuring plan. Did not make AYP for seven consecutive years in the same content area. Parent notification, public school choice, supplemental educational services, school improvement plan, technical assistance from district and state, implementation of restructuring plan.

As both Science and the Edweek article point out, one of the main reasons for failure is test scores of two specific groups: new English speakers and economically disadvantaged kids. (The special ed kids are a whole other story.)

It is all a strange kind of shell game. NCLB mandates 100% of all children – regardless of socio-economic background, disability, preschool attendance, whatever – will demonstrate “proficiency” through standardized testing by 2014.

And New Jersey marches in lock-step, creating monitoring standards that mirror the Feds.

Here’s the game: you’re not allowed to say that some kids, regardless of intervention, will not pass.

So, what do NJ districts do? The same as anyone else forced into a game of gotcha. You put your energy where you have the best chance of increasing your score, even though you know in the end you’ll lose. Administrators and school board members huddle in rooms endlessly recalibrating test scores, searching for the overlooked point, whispering to each other, "we're never going to make this number." Everyone knows it's true, at least in the districts that have larger numbers of those kids who tend to do poorly, like the cohorts mentioned in the Science article: new English speakers and the kids from poor homes.

I haven't met a board member or teacher or administrator who doesn't want to improve achievement for all kids. But the NCLB laws, and the NJ DOE's blind deference to those laws, puts districts in the odd position of focusing their resources on a particular kind of kid, that gem who will move scores in the right direction.

Who is that gem? Not the high-achievers, because they are already labeled "proficient." There's no extra points for raising their scores.

The kids way at the bottom of the heap? Too much of a gamble though, to be fair, most districts really try to work with them.

But it’s those kids “in the bubble” who get districts drooling, those kids who come close to passing but miss by a few points.

Here's how it works: NCLB and New Jersey statute requires local districts to label kids by certain attributes:

Students With Disabilities
Limited English Proficient
Asian/Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander
American Indian/Native American
Other Race
Economically Disadvantaged

Your district only has to report the cohorts comprised of more than 20 kids in a school. So if you’re in a mostly white district and you have less than 20 kids of a particular ethnicity -- think Saddle River or Robbinsville -- their scores don’t count. No worries. But if you’re in a district that has some diversity, you have to count all the kids in that group. Economically disadvantaged kids tend to do more poorly on the tests, so your best chance at the NCLB game is targeting those kids. But not all of them – it’s the kids who fall a few points below proficiency that offer you the best chance at raising your score. And there’s even bonus points. Because if your economically disadvantaged kid is also African-American, he or she gets counted twice. And if that kids also is classified as having a learning disability, he gets counted 3 separate times. And if he also demonstrates limited English proficiency – well, forget it. We’re getting greedy.

Maybe it's not a shell game. Maybe it's more like the fairy tale of the Emperor without Clothes. But New Jersey school districts are spending vast resources on a game that has no winners.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Turnover at SDA

Scott Weiner, CEO of the School Development Authority, announced yesterday evening that he was resigning. Said Weiner,

I just felt we had reached a point in the evolution and the turnaround of the program it was an opportune moment to bring in and recruit a long-term CEO.

The School Development Authority is the new moniker for the School Construction Corporation. In its earlier incarnation the SCC was plagued by reports of waste, corruption, and poor planning. Weiner has generally received good marks for his leadership in meeting the requirements of a state Supreme Court order to build new buildings in Abbott districts, which were labeled the 31 most impoverished districts in New Jersey.

According to the Star-Ledger

Weiner was brought in as a special counsel to Gov. Jon Corzine in the wake of a series of critical state reviews that found the schools program had been mismanaged and wasted millions of dollars in its rush to launch school projects. The program spent hundreds of millions of dollars acquiring property, razing neighborhoods and creating architectural plans for schools the state has no funds to actually build.

We’ve got no shortage of educational disparity in New Jersey. Facilities, textbooks, extra-curricular activities, you name it -- wealthier districts offer a lot more opportunities to kids than poorer district. NJ’s court-mandated solution, otherwise known as the Abbott decisions, is to sink billions of dollars into poor neighborhood school programs and facilities under the pretense that money can compensate for the disadvantages derived from, say, growing up in a non-English speaking household, or having no parents around to supervise homework because they’re desperately working two jobs, or going to daycare instead of preschool.

Money helps. But it doesn’t erase inequity.

In another blow to our flawed solution -- free-basing cash to poor districts to compensate for a plethora of disadvantages -- the people representing the Abbott districts got bitch-slapped in court yesterday. David Sciarra, head of the Education Law Center, argued heatedly with Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto over whether the State can institute a new funding formula which would recalculate how much money goes to Abbott districts. The Star Ledger reported today that

Sciarra argued the state has failed to prove that the new formula will not undermine the special services and increased state aid the court has demanded in prior Abbott rulings. He said those rulings should stand until the new formula is proven to be adequate.

On the other hand, when Sciarra was asked for examples of services that have been cut from Abbott districts because of the new funding formula, he couldn’t come up with any. The money is still flowing freely, and certainly there must be some strategy to overcome the vast disparities among school districts. A redistribution of wealth -- the essence of the Abbott decisions -- may be part of the solution. But all the new buildings in the world won't allow a high school in Trenton to offer the same educational opportunities as a high school in Short Hills.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Consolidate This!

Here’s a couple of other relevant tidbits from the Ghost of Journalism Past as the State DOE makes a concerted effort to slink by home rule fanatics by overturning local school district control through state mandates.

From the New York Times back in March:

Gov. Jon S. Corzine’s latest budget proposes cutting $190 million in aid to municipalities, with the sharpest reductions aimed at towns with fewer than 10,000 people, an effort to get some of them to consider consolidation.

About 180 of those small towns stand to lose all their aid, while others will see their funding slashed by half. More than 300 mayors and other local leaders gathered in Trenton recently to complain loudly and passionately about the cuts, in what is most likely the opening act of a months-long battle with the governor, who told them the idea of small-town governments may soon be a thing of the past.

In a video message to the mayors, the governor said New Jersey’s 566 municipalities, 616 school districts, 486 local authorities and 186 fire districts or companies are too expensive in today’s grim budget reality.

“The size of government, and often home rule, is hurting taxpayers and raising their cost of living,” Mr. Corzine said.

And whistling even further back, from February’s Star-Ledger:

Gov. Jon Corzine's proposed budget drastically reduces municipal aid to the 323 towns of less than 10,000 residents, but offers them a share of $32 million in grants to help them consolidate with other towns or share services.

Towns with populations of less than 5,000 would receive no state property tax relief aid and those between 5,000 and 10,000 people would see their aid cut in half.

"The effort is to make them more efficient and move toward consolidation," Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Joseph Doria said. "The incentives are we have the grants for shared services and working toward consolidation. That's the carrot. The stick is not receiving the aid."

And here’s a piece from the Washington Post worth reading in full. Here’s the link. Money quote:

Corzine, who presided over mergers and acquisitions as chairman of Goldman Sachs, is telling hundreds of New Jersey's smallest towns and boroughs that they are too small to exist. Multiple layers of government are financially wasteful, he says, and the littlest towns and boroughs need to merge with their bigger neighbors to achieve economies of scale.

Corzine's incentive -- more like a hammer -- is a threatened cutoff of state aid. Under the governor's proposed budget, the state's 323 towns with populations of fewer than 10,000 people would face drastic cuts if they do not consolidate. Towns with populations between 5,000 and 10,000 people would see their aid sliced in half. Those with more than 10,000 would have their aid frozen at 2007 levels. And those such as Moonachie, with fewer than 5,000 people, would get zero state funding. Zilch….

"We're not a town; we're a home town," said Edward G. Campbell III, the mayor of Gibbsboro, with 2,500 people and 840 homes on 2.2 square miles. "Home rule is deeply rooted in New Jersey."

Mud Wrestling

As we witness the current wrestling match between home rule advocates and consolidation converts, it’s useful to move a few feet back from the ring and consider the big picture. Back in March Steve Kornacki wrote an insightful piece for the New York Observer in which he reviewed Corzine’s initial intentions regarding creating efficiencies in New Jersey (education included). Kornacki writes,

Corzine came to office as only the latest New Jersey governor to promise a solution to the state’s onerous property tax burden, the top complaint of most residents for decades. And he spoke of the professionalism and integrity that would mark his stewardship, assuring voters that his no-nonsense corporate background would yield a government whose ethical conduct would – at long last – make them proud. He dangled other enticing prospects before the public too, like a universal health coverage program.

“Hold me accountable,” he declared in his inaugural address.

The problem is that most of his sweeping proposals, harmless as planks in a campaign platform, would have required the same establishment forces that had backed Corzine to surrender much of their power and influence if they were ever enacted. Most realistic solutions to the state’s property tax mess, for instance, would require a radical change of the state’s home-rule tradition, in which individual towns – some of them microscopic – administer an array of costly services on their own. To alter this tradition would be to dis-empower an entire layer of government and bureaucracy.

Do we have the political will to overturn centuries of local control? We’re not feeling optimistic.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Corzine Takes on Locals

Here’s the Star-Ledger’s take on Corzine’s proposal yesterday to raise high school graduation requirements in New Jersey. The bottom line is that kids would take more standardized tests, have more required high-level courses in math and science; in addition, each student have a “personalized learning plan.”

Local school districts are accustomed to State-mandated minimum graduation requirements, but those requirements have been low enough to allow individual districts to augment the basics with their own imprimatur. More required courses will erase that bit of local charm, anathema to home rule zealots. The Ledger's John Mooney reports,

Education Commissioner Lucille Davy and her staff acknowledged that much work remains in laying out the latest version of the plan to the state Board of Education. They said there could be a full year of discussion before any final action and as many as eight years before the most stringent requirements are in place.

"It's going to be an ongoing conversation with all of you," Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer told the state board. "This is just the kickoff, ladies and gentlemen, and the decision whether we want to start that."

Skepticism abounds. The NJ Department of Education's reputation is sullied by a lengthy series of gaffes and poor management, and getting buy-in from stakeholders is going to take more than a "kick-off." The larger question is whether NJ can embrace a system that undermines its passion for local control.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Casting Call for Moses

Lucille Davy, Commissioner of Education, will depict her “vision of the future” today for New Jersey’s high schools, in spite of strident opposition from the Education Law Center, the County Vocational Schools, and other opponents to a “one size fits all” approach, i.e., state standardization.

The Times of Trenton gives a preview today
of Davy’s speech to the State BOE:

Corzine unveiled the broad concepts last spring, with an emphasis on math, science and what he called "21st-century skills." The push is part of a national campaign known as the American Diploma Project that is being pursued for high schools in more than two dozen states.

It includes required classes in biology, chemistry, advanced algebra and geometry, each with statewide end-of-course exams that would be a big shift from New Jersey's current testing. The biology requirement started last year, and Algebra I is being required this year.

The new curricular changes also include mandatory classes in personal finance and world history, although Davy will not address the most controversial element of this mandate: that high school students will be required to pass standardized tests in every subject in order to graduate.

There will be no additional state money to finance this mandate.

It’s very No Child Left Behind-ish. All our children are good-looking and above average. (Where’s Garrison Keiller when you need him?) All our children will be proficient in every subject by 2014, the drop-dead date for NCLB, and this includes children with cognitive disabilities, severe behavior problems, new English speakers, children from impoverished and deprived backgrounds.

High standards are great. What's not to like? Other states have successfully implemented state-wide subject testing; New York State began its Regents program in 1865, though it offers the option of a "local" diploma with less stringent standards and fewer tests.

Here's the rub. The NJ DOE is fumbling the implementation of a myriad of legislation already. For example, the new QSAC district monitoring system (formally titled Quality Single Accountability Continuum -- who makes these up?), which is intended to increase efficiency and accountability, is so mismanaged that corrections are issued regularly and confusion reigns. It's fine to announce a "vision for the future" from a mountaintop, but these universal high standards issued by a department flummoxed by the simplest sort of implementation seem an odd sort of willful blindness, a mandated myopia.

Our home rule system in New Jersey is extreme. But so is this urgent push for standardization without the structure, staff, or political capital to bring it off successfully. If we're going to do this, let's get it right.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sea of Troubles for NJ superintendents

Slings and arrows continue to pierce the sore hides of New Jersey's superintendents. The Star-Ledger reports on a business administrator at Delaware Valley Regional High School who sued the superintendent and the school board there over charges that she was fired for being a whistle-blower. Apparently, Christina Sharkey, the B.A., told the board that Superintendent Robert Walsh funneled district funds to his own wallet.

"Thereafter, plaintiff (Sharkey) was subjected to harassment and a hostile work environment," according to the complaint.

More evidence that local governance leads to inefficiency and corruption as the zeitgeist of New Jersey hammers home rule?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Apples and Oranges

Yesterday's Star-Ledger has a piece about Newark's high school graduation rate, and New Jersey's lack of any standard formula for calculating this data. According to the Star-Ledger,

the National Governors Association developed a standard method to determine the number of students who successfully complete high school in a four-year period. Governors from all 50 states signed the association's Graduation Counts Compact in 2005, and agreed to start using it as soon as possible.

Excellent. We applaud statistical integrity. As Commissioner Lucille Davy says in the article, "Measuring apples-apples is always important." However, for reasons that remain murky, New Jersey won't begin using this standard method until 2010.

The superintendent of Newark public schools, Clifford Janey (recently in the news for the gasps inspired by his $300K+ salary), is impatient and will therefore implement the National Governor's Association's rubric this year. But here's the rub: last year's graduation rate for Newark was 87%. The new formula brings it down to 63.4%.

Says the Ledger,

For the past few years New Jersey has ranked at the top of the nation when it comes to graduation rates. If Newark's fall means anything, the state average could drop once every district begins using the new formula.

Hmmm. On the one hand, the State DOE seems to be feeling quite leisurely about implementing the Governor's Association's formula for calculating graduation rates, a change that will, at least judging by Newark's results, radically reduce an important measure of success for NJ's public high schools.

On the other hand, the State DOE is so eager to adjust the way districts calculate Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) that just this summer, after all standardized tests were taken, they changed the scoring rubric, causing many more schools to fail to make the cut-off and making administrators and school boards apoplectic.

Who's running the fruit stand? Can we speak to the manager?


Megan McArdle, a blogger for the Atlantic Monthly has a thoughtful description of the dysfunction within education, specifically unions vs. bureaucrats:

The school system is dysfunctional on all sides. On one side, you've got a bureaucracy so terrified that a teacher will make a mistake that it sets up "everything not compulsory is forbidden" rules. I'm not talking about forcing people to do things that they may not want to do, but which actually further the institution's goals, like implementing Direct Instruction. I'm talking about detailed rules specifying how many bathroom breaks a teacher can take. And the fact that each school is complying with so many state, federal, and local regulations that it's a wonder they can ever take a break from filling out forms to teach a class. We're treating educated professionals like they're would-be criminals who need to be watched every second lest they steal the chalk.

On the other side, you have an equally bureaucratic union, and a set of job protection rules that make it virtually impossible to fire anyone for poor performance, or reward them for good. I don't think anyone who has actually gone through the school system thinks that length of service is a good measure of teaching effectiveness, but that's how they're paid--seniority, and accumulation of usually thoroughly worthless educational credentials. And unless they start molesting their charges, it's basically impossible to fire them.

We need to start treating teachers like professionals. We need to start paying them like professionals. And we need to start holding them accountable like professionals. Doing one or two out of three won't improve anything, except perhaps some teacher bank accounts.

Friday, September 12, 2008

NJ School Boards Musketeers

Marie Bilik, Executive Director of New Jersey School Boards Association, has been busy defending the honor of NJ's 4800 school board members as our public schools wilt under poorly-rendered legislation from the State, bad press from sketchy contracts, school construction controversies, and rising school taxes. In an "Open Public Letter" this week she quoted NJSBA President Harry Delgado, who neatly sums up the home rule/state rule dilemma:

Local school governance is under attack. State officials are diverting the blame for New Jersey's fiscal crisis away from their own actions and toward local school boards. Part of the state's game plan is legislation and regulation that is far more intrusive, far more illogical, and far more micro-managing than anything we've seen before.

In the Record today, Ms. Bilik has an editorial
which defends the NJSBA's resources and oversight, and points out that the case of the Keansburg superintendent is not representative of local school boards' governance. She writes,

IN RECENT MONTHS, virtually every media outlet covered the case of the Monmouth County schools superintendent who retired with a $740,000 severance package. Reaction from the public and lawmakers was heated, and school superintendents have been vilified.

These reactions desperately need a sense of balance.

The fact is, news reports and state investigations of other superintendent contracts across New Jersey found nothing of the magnitude of the Keansburg agreement. Even an Associated Press review of dozens of superintendent contracts led to headlines: "Excessive Superintendent Perks Rare."

So let's not diminish the important role superintendents play in the education system, and the responsible manner in which local school boards carry out their obligation to the community.

So, the current mess is not the fault of the school boards. It's not the fault of the superintendents. Hmmm. I don't see anything thing here about the State Department of Education...

Bad Case Law

The North Jersey Record gives some more details on the lawsuit filed by NJASA against the State for unconstitutionally infringing on its members' right to negotiate contracts. Judge Joel A. Pisano of U.S. District Court delayed any court ruling until October 3d in the hopes that the two sides will come to a resolution. From the Record:

In District Court on Wednesday, Judge Joel A. Pisano called the case "a very hot issue," referring to taxpayers' anger about the severance deals.

"The perception, correct or incorrect, is that the store is being given away," Pisano said.
He said he would delay any ruling until at least Oct. 3, his deadline for both sides to reach an agreement.
"I'm uneasy because it seems to me however I rule, the problem is not solved," he said.

True enough. This whole uproar stems from one poorly negotiated contract -- the Keansburg case -- and the State seems to have forgotten that bad cases make bad case law.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Feds Take a Pass

Last night a federal court ruled that the State DOE had indeed overstepped its power by trying to regulate superintendents' contracts. The suit against the State was filed by NJASA, the group representing superintendents and administrators in New Jersey, which held that such regulation was unconstitutional. Right-0, said the Feds. But the US District Court held open the option of giving the State some oversight.

The DOE had been responding to a plethora of bad press, mainly from the widely publicized retirement package of the superintendent from Keansburg. Lucille Davy, Commissioner of Education, had recently released regulations that gave the State the right to reject contracts negotiated between local school boards and superintendents.

I'll post details when they are released.

UPDATE: The AP has issued a story that reports that U.S. District Court Judge Joel A. Pisano has postponed ruling on on the motion "to ensure the oversight rules don't violate tenure laws."
We confess bewilderment: NJ superintendents don't receive tenure. Stay tuned.

Here's a factoid from the AP piece:

A recent state analysis showed that New Jersey taxpayers will shell out more than $36 million in coming years to cover retirement payments to more than 30 school administrators who are due six-figure retirement packages.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Easy Come, Easy Go

The New York Times reports today on an ongoing dispute about the economics and politics of school construction in New Jersey, specifically the allocation of billions of dollars to renovate old buildings rather than addressing educational shortcomings.

On the side of home rule, we have Steven Lonegan, state director of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that advocates limits on government, who has sued to block the sale of bonds to finance school construction. Mr. Lonegan harumphs,

Local governments built their schools in New Jersey for over 200 years, As soon as the state got involved, costs skyrocketed, corruption ran rampant and taxpayers suffered.

On the side of State control, we have the newly-overhauled and newly-monikered Schools Development Authority. This state agency is charged with cleaning up the corruption and waste that has marked school construction since the Abbott decisions ruled that poor districts deserve the same facilities as wealthy districts.

(Here's a sense of the (mis)management of the earlier permutation of this agency, which was called the Schools Construction Corporation: The Times quotes a 2005 audit by the state's inspector general, which noted “mismanagement, fiscal malfeasance, conflicts of interest and waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars.”)

In defense, Scott Weiner, CEO of the Schools Development Authority since 2006, explains,

We like to think of ourselves as a better-evolved, turned-around school construction program.

Meanwhile, Corzine has just signed legislation authorizing another $3.9 billion for school construction.

Check Your Blind Spot

New Jersey’s 615 school districts weep inefficiency. So it’s old news that the State is pushing hard on mergers of smaller towns. The Burlington County Times reports on a proposed merger of Pemberton Borough and Pemberton Township, and if any merger is going to be easy, this should be the one. First of all, all of the kids in Pemberton Borough already attend the Pemberton Township schools, and have been doing so for two years. Pemberton Township transports all the Borough kids and the only employees of the Borough district are a part-time business administrator and a clerk. Pemberton Regional School District, here we come.

But now things get tricky. Pemberton Township has much higher ratables than Pemberton Borough, and the amount of ratables in a town determines the contribution rate in a regional school district. Therefore, Pemberton Borough will end up paying considerably less per household in school taxes than the Township.

Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, explains:

What the state's really asking schools to do is regionalize, and with regionalization there is usually a change in tax apportionment where one side's tax burden increases. That's traditionally been the major obstacle and it may be up to the state to come up with a way to remove that disincentive.

In other words, when two districts consolidate, one or the other ends up paying higher taxes than before the merger. How to solve that inequity? Should the State offer incentives? Do we revise the ratables formula? Do taxpayers suck it up? We've got more questions than answers.

Have They Tried Craigslist?

A report in the Atlantic City Press on a new superintendent in Atlantic County takes note of the high turnover rate of superintendents in NJ. According to the Press,

In school year 2007-2008, almost 22 percent of superintendents left the job in New Jersey, double the rate the year before, and the highest since the No Child Left Behind legislation took effect in 2001, according to data provided by the New Jersey School Boards Association. More than 40 of those who left retired. Almost half of all current superintendents are expected to retire within the next decade.

Park Place or Baltic Avenue?

Word has leaked out that the DOE will soon be issuing a boiler-plate contract for local districts to use for their superintendents. Reportedly, the State will also direct salary ranges based on region. It's unclear how this will work. For example, Atlantic County has about 30 school districts, from little Absecon School District with about 800 kids to much larger districts like Egg Harbor and Atlantic City, with respectively augmented responsibilities. And how about Newark, where the superintendent there, Clifford Janey, gets over $300K in salary and bonuses? Does this mean that districts which are geographically close to Newark will be fighting off superintendents eager to profit by geographical proximity? Stay tuned.

Friday, September 5, 2008

More on School Board liability

The Star-Ledger reports on the liability of the Newark School Board in the case of the survivors of three college students who were fatally shot in the playground of the Mount Vernon School in Newark's Ivy Hill neighborhood on August 4th, 2007. Relatives of the slain students filed a civil suit "alleging that the school board failed to provide adequate security in the playground, despite knowledge of serious criminal threats arising from nearby streets." The murders occurred during the summer and late at night when, of course, the school was not in session.

From the Ledger:

Superior Court Judge Dennis Carey denied a motion by the Board of Education that it be dismissed as a defendant in the suit filed by surviving shooting victim Natasha Aeriel and relatives of three slain college students.

Keansburg update

The Asbury Park Press reports today
that the DOE’s case against the Keansburg superintendent, who is due to receive $184,586 in unused sick days and vacation time and another $556,290 in severance pay, has been sent to State Superior Court in Monmouth.

The DOE’s case is against both former superintendent Barbara A. Trzeszkowski and the Keansburg Board of Education, and seeks to revoke the severance pay.

The Attorney General's brief explains:

For a school board to so outrageously enrich a former superintendent through this type of "golden parachute' at the expense of the children of Keansburg and the state's taxpayers is not only contrary to public policy and unconscionable, it violates the fiduciary duty that the board owes the public

Fair enough. Those damn school board members should know better -- after all, they are entrusted with multi-million dollar budgets, oversight of educational curricula, hiring of hundreds of teachers and administrators. Pretty high-level stuff. Now, what are the requirements for being a school board member in New Jersey?

A Board Member must:

  • Be able to read and write
  • Hold citizenship and one year's residence in the school district
  • Have no interest in any contract with, or claim against, the board
  • Not hold office as mayor or member of the governing body of the same district.
  • Be registered to vote in the district and not be disqualified as a voter under N.J.S.A. 19:4-1.
Ah, New Jersey, in all its glory and absurdity. We love our populism, our faith in the common man, our idealistic framework for representational government. Who better to ensure that a community's values are vividly reflected in a school district than a group of resident volunteers?

It's an ethos at the very heart of our current educational conundrum.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Poached Eggs

The Star-Ledger reported yesterday that three Freehold Regional School administrators were ordered to strip the “Ph.D” from their titles after news broke that they received raises because of doctorates received from an unaccredited diploma mill called Breyer State University.

This edict came down from the NJ Commission on Higher Education, which sent “cease and desist” letters to the egg-faced administrators.

(No joke. The Asbury Park Press reported the following anecdote back in July:

Wasser has been adamant about being called by his title.

In April, Wasser admonished a student who had addressed him at a school board meeting. Wasser interrupted 17-year-old Colts Neck High School student Mark Cosentino and insisted that Cosentino address him as "Dr. Wasser" before he could continue speaking. Cosentino complied.

Wasser wrote in a response to further questions that he will "absolutely" continue to use the doctor of education title. He also wrote that he will not pursue a degree from an accredited university.)

Yesterday Lucille Davy, Commissioner of Education, sent a letter yesterday to all NJ superintendents and charter school leaders. The missive begins,

Recently there have been serious concerns raised regarding the use of degrees from non-accredited institutions by New Jersey educators. As you know, the Department of Education does not permit the use of such degrees when issuing certification credentials. In addition, under state law individuals are not permitted to use titles or degree references unless the degree was obtained from an institution duly authorized by the State of New Jersey. Given these concerns, I though it would be helpful to provide you with the applicable statutory information as well as information with respect to how you can determine if an institution is an institution duly authorized by the State of New Jersey.

Davy then goes on to cite N.J.S.A. 18A:3-15.3, which regulates appending letters to titles based on academic degrees and refers back to a database of approved accredited institutions.

So, where’s the local governance? The local volunteer school board has been silent on this matter and, apparently, a bit lax on its due diligence. On the other hand, the total pay-out to the three administrators was $8700 in tuition and an increased payroll of $7500, $2500 for each administrator for the last year. To put it in perspective, that’s about the cost of a benefits package for one teacher for one year, or one year’s salary for a classroom assistant. Peanuts.

The DOE’s response? Perhaps a little over the top. But it gets to the heart of the current battle over home rule that informs this dust-up. The School Board in Freehold blew it. The State came down with a sledgehammer (and probably spent more than $16,000, the total tab on this debacle, when you factor in the time, red tape, distribution costs of Davy’s memo). Where is the proper balance? We're still looking.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Booker and Friends

The Los Angeles Times has an op ed co-written by John Doerr, partner in a venture capital firm, Ted Mitchell, chief executive of NewSchools Venture Fund and president of the California Board of Education, and our very own Cory Booker, mayor of Newark.

Booker, a rising star in politics, attended a meeting last week at the Democratic convention where he reminisced ruefully about fierce blowback from NJEA when he advocated school choice. In the LA Times piece, “Better Education Through Innovation,” he and his co-writers make the case for charter schools, Teach for America, and an expanded federal role in setting high national education standards. They write,

Beyond new funding, the federal government must use its influence over state and local policy to sweep away regulations that hamper innovative thinking, such as caps on the number of public charter schools allowed and excessive restrictions on how teachers are trained and credentialed. In addition, it can use the power of the purse to direct competitive funds to states that embrace urgent innovation. States control 70% of public education funding; a push for state support of entrepreneurial education efforts could have a huge effect.

It's heartening that a major player like Booker can come out of the closet. Here's to some more fresh air.