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.

Just Call Him Prince

In the wake of Scott Weiner’s “retirement” as CEO of the Schools Development Authority, State Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri has been tapped to head this scandal-ridden juggernaut with a budget of $12.5 billion.

Kolluri will now be responsible for supervising the construction projects in the Districts-Formerly-Known-as-Abbott. (The State has been under court order to fund these 31 deeply-impoverished districts to the level of Jersey’s most affluent ones. Under the new state funding formula, which is being challenged in court, we’re not supposed to call them “Abbotts,” which is probably fair since there are now other districts equally poor. But that’s another lawsuit.)

The Star-Ledger reports on the SDA’s wretched history:

a series of critical audits found the program had wasted tens of millions of dollars in unnecessary professional fees, had purchased millions of dollars worth of homes and property for schools it did not have the funding to build, and had few management controls in place.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mountain-Climbing in Jersey

In a memo released Monday, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy announced that the U.S. Department of Education had approved some New Jersey slippage in our nation’s indefatigable climb toward 100% proficiency among American schoolchildren known as “No Child Left Behind” or, in some circles, as the “Lake Wobegone Effect.” You know: all our children are strong, good-looking, and above average.

Over the summer the NJ DOE ramped up the definition of “proficiency” by changing the tests and raising the bar for passing scores. In order to tamp down the pending widespread failure among our school districts, Davy then petitioned the US DOE for some leeway. From the memo:
“These changes were necessary because of the redesign of our grade 5-8 tests this year,” Commissioner Davy explained. “The new tests measure higher order skills. In addition, the standards for proficiency were raised, which means that students have to answer more questions correctly in order to be deemed proficient. It would have been extremely difficult to compare 2007 to 2008 in a fair and equitable manner without these adjustments to our federal workbook. We needed a new system that would have more appropriate targets while recognizing progress.
So only an additional 66 schools will fail to make “adequate yearly progress,” though we still have to make 100% proficiency by 2014. But no worries. The DOE probably feels safe in assuming that NCLB will implode over the next six years as more and more schools in every state fail to make the proficiency levels set by the Feds.

Here’s our conundrum. Despite the bit of slack we’ve just received from the U.S. DOE, more and more schools in NJ will fail to progress “adequately.” (It’s not just us – this will happen all over the country. If all it took to make kids learn were more tests, we’d be in the catbird seat, Cheshire grins and all.) To add to the headwind, the New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee has recently announced that high school graduation requirements will be significantly raised. Reports My Central Jersey,
The New Jersey High School Redesign Steering Committee released these findings last April after dismal surveys and statistics showing nearly eight out of every 10 students entering the community college system require remedial courses; only one out of every four New Jersey students earns a bachelor's degree; and 99 of 100 large state employers surveyed characterized high school students as under-prepared for the work force.

The group calls for immediate curriculum changes beginning with the current class of high school freshmen, requiring more challenging math, science and language arts literacy courses, and 10 additional academic credits, which would raise the state minimum requirement to 120.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that a number of schools, mainly those in poorer districts, don’t have adequate lab facilities, or that we don’t have enough highly-qualified teachers in chemistry and physics, or that NJ’s already high dropout rate will likely increase. Where do we go with the double-whammy of higher demands from both the State and the Federal government? Add to that the diminished capacity of NJ to fund schools in the current economic meltdown, new expensive initiatives like mandated preschools (though Corzine is getting fuzzy on that), local school boards’ inability to keep teacher salary hikes within COLA, or even within budget caps, and it seems like we’re running out of oxygen.

Maybe it’s not so grim. President-Elect Obama is rumored to be open to essential changes like merit pay for teachers and the escalation of the charter school movement. We’ve got rising stars like Mayor Cory Booker of Newark (see this post) who seems to have the guts to take on the NJEA. But we really need to stop pretending that our kids’ educational ascent can be engineered by shifting numbers around on a government document.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The People Speak

With the rampant governmental infighting about consolidation of school districts, resistance from local school boards, and fiats from the Department of Education, we rarely have the opportunity to get a sense of the mood among actual people. Here’s our chance: the Burlington County Times published an article about the Willingboro public schools that provoked a striking number of responses from readers.

(Caution: the comments include much errant hearsay, particularly that a consolidation with Willingboro and various other districts is in the works, or that merging K-12 districts could be done without a vote from all residents. In fact, Governor Corzine has backpedaled on his original plan for county-wide districts and is now focusing only on non K-12 districts.)

The article itself recounts a new amendment to a policy issued by the Willingboro School Board that restricts extra-curricular programs at the high school to students who attend the school. As Willingboro’s academic reputation has declined, more and more students have started attending Burlington County Institute of Technology, with Willingboro footing the tab. The tweaked policy intends to “entice” students back to Willingboro High School, especially through their popular “Heritage” theater program. The Board president voted against the short-sighted motion, which passed anyway:

Gordon said he felt the board should not penalize the children for decisions made by parents. Instead, he said the district should work to improve its curriculum and use that to entice students back to the high school.

“I think it's a very dangerous thing for us to be so myopic. If we really want our children to come from BCIT back to Willingboro, taking Heritage (drama program) away is not the way,” Gordon said. “If we want to attract children back to the district, we need to improve the curriculum.”

Scroll down to the bottom of the article and read through the comments; you’ll see the full panoply of arguments both for and against consolidation. We have the Not-In-My-Back-Yard-ers, the racists (Willingboro is largely black and surrounding districts mostly white), anxious types fretting about higher tax rates, academically-oriented advocates of curricular improvement to Willingboro, disparagers of government interference, lower-income residents hoping for school choice. Here we have a microcosm of the battle playing out at every level of New Jersey: home rule vs. consolidation.

The discussion attached to the County Times piece instructively depicts the harsh odds against any intrusion into local control of school districts. Meanwhile, the children unlucky enough to live within the boundaries of Willingboro must now choose between attending the township high school where 63% of the eleventh graders fail the HSPA, or attending the county technical school and doing without extracurricular activities.

New Jersey has the fourth most segregated school system in America. At the heart of this grim truth is our legislative and cultural inability to move beyond the mythology of home rule.

Monday, November 3, 2008

So Sue Me...

The Record reports today on the lawsuit pressed by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators against the Department of Education.

After the negative media generated by the case of the Keansburg superintendent (see this post) who retired with a whopping package of about $740,000, the State Legislature passed a bill limiting sick-day buyouts to $15,000. The DOE wrote the regulations, which NJASA claims are “vague and unconstitutional.”

The Record piece lists a variety of pending buyouts in Bergen and Passaic counties: for example, the superintendent of Bergen County Special Services, Robert Aloia, is due $190,206, Business Administrator Andrew Nemec will get a check for $116,000, and the principal of Passaic County Technical Institute, Joseph DiGise, will fetch $85,602. The plaintiff in the case, Lyndhurst Superintendent Joseph Abate, reportedly will garner $168,106 in accrued sick days and vacation time.

One of the co-sponsors of the bill, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner of Paramus, said,

Sick time is to be used when you are sick; it should not be used as a savings account. It's time to protect the taxpayer … boards of education have to take more responsibility.
Fair enough. And how hard could it be anyway to attach lucid and logical regulations to a reasonable bill? Not so fast:
The new state regulations have generated a fair amount of confusion among administrators, some of whom are unclear about how much time is still eligible for cashout. Even state officials provided differing interpretations following the rules change.
Here we go again. Some egregious lack of oversight flashes in the phosphorescence of local districts, state legislators howl, and the DOE screws up. Said Richard Bozza, Executive Director of NJASA,

It's clear that the commissioner [of education Lucille Davy] has exceeded her authority.

It's a numbingly familiar pattern as New Jersey struggles with the lack of professional oversight engendered by home rule, the growing scarcity of superintendents (who'd want this job anyway?), and an incompetent DOE. The sequelae will be equally predictable: whatever the result of the lawsuit, the flawed regulations will end up back with the DOE for another stab at what should be a streamlined process, Lucille Davy will lose yet more credibility, and New Jersey will be no further along in resolving profound problems in our educational system.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Feverish Atlantic City

Here are two vignettes from the NJSBA convention. The first one: it’s Tuesday afternoon, and the Atlantic City Convention Center is way below capacity: school board members are still arriving and the exhibition hall doesn’t even open till Wednesday morning. But one meeting hall is overflowing with people and resentment, specifically “Getting Closer to Core Requirements,” which is advertised as a discussion on the new regulations attached to the School District Accountability Acts and the potential consolidation of school board districts.

John Donahue, Executive Director of New Jersey Association of School Business Officials, attacks the Department of Education for going “beyond law” in writing regulations that diminish the authority of local districts through the creation of the new office of Executive County Superintendent (ECS). The ECS has immense authority: to mandate consolidation, to veto budget items, to push shared services. The audience’s temperature? Mercury closing in on rampant indignation. Donahue argues against “the perception that 600 (districts) are too many,” and claims that the county offices are “undermanned.” The likelihood that the DOE will figure out how to implement the new regulations? “I give the Alamo a better chance.”

The audience buzzes with questions about the impact on state aid, contract negotiations, the rights of taxpayers in to-be-eliminated districts. Donahue counsels, “if you’re going to consolidate, don’t do it to save money.” And, later, “This is not about education. This is about taxes.”

Let’s move on to our second vignette. It’s Wednesday morning and the Atlantic City Convention Center is hopping. Actually, it’s hopping mad at “Everything You Wanted to Know About Consolidation/Regionalization, But were Afraid to Ask.” Gwen Thornton, a rep from NJSBA, gives a more measured estimation of consolidation, conceding that while “there’s no research that consolidation saves money,” there are “potential benefits for students and also lowered tax rates.”

Michael Kaelber, the Director of Legal and Policy Services for NJSBA, walks the packed room through the “very fragile process” of voluntary regionalization. First, the districts have to pay for a feasibility study that represents all stakeholders, then each board must pass a resolution, and then make a recommendation to the ECS. If the Great and Powerful ECS approves, then there must be a special election held the last Tuesday in September, and voters in each constituent district must approve the consolidation.

And how would the districts divvy up costs? Says Kaelber, “when you shuffle the deck, typically there are winners and losers in school tax costs.” One example: what if two districts merged and there were an excess of tenured teachers? Too bad – the receiving district MUST take the teachers from the smaller district, regardless of need. In fact this deck is so stacked against consolidation in large part because such merging requires “much political will and capital.”

Where’s the benefit, then, in consolidation? According to everyone but Corzine and the DOE, we won’t save taxes, increase efficiency, or improve education. On the other hand, you’re talking to the people whose job security and/or elected office is bound up in New Jersey’s massive educational inefficiency.

Perhaps the problem is not just the schools. Perhaps we can only achieve efficiencies (and better education for our kids) through consolidation at a municipal level. Why is the target drawn on the backsides of school districts and not, say, on the buttocks of towns? I guess we’re at the wrong convention.