Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reinventing the Abbotts

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

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

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argues that we ought to steal an idea from, of all people, Richard Nixon, who proposed in 1972 that we move from our outdated (even then!)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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 29, 2008

NJEA's "Outrageous Statement"

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

Friday, December 19, 2008

Quick Break

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

Thanks for reading.

New AYP Numbers Out

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

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

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Ethics of Home Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality-Check for Preschools

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

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

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

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

Rumor Has it...

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another Proponent for November School Board Elections

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2008

Teacher Tenure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday Afternoon Leftovers

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Staying in the Slow Lane

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Camden County, Bergen County

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Black Ministers for Merit Pay and Repeal of Tenure

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

Ahearn's Beef

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

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

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

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

We hope not.

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

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

Monday, December 8, 2008

School Board Election Bill Barely Passes Committee

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

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

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

Special Education v. DOE

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday Morning Leftovers

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Move School Board Elections to November

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Educational Lemons

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

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

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

NJASA Goes to State Court over DOE Regs

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 1, 2008

Some Solutions, For Better or Worse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At least he's thinking big.

Is He Being Ironic?

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