Friday, October 31, 2008

Some Q & A

The State Legislative Update panel at the NJSBA convention might have been standing-room-only because of Corzine’s last-minute appearance (see here), but the crowd, mainly comprising school board members, was all ears for Assemblymen Joseph Cryan and David W. Wolfe, and State Senator Jim Whelan. What was on everyone’s minds? The DOE’s voluminous regulatory output, funding, new initiatives, and overuse of testing.
Here’s a few tidbits.

Question: Any chance that the State would step in to assist local school boards in negotiations with the strongest union in NJ, NJEA? Or, even better, would the State negotiate for the districts?
Whelan: It’s “politically impossible.”
Wolfe: The “political reality” is that all changes have to be negotiated.
Cryan: It’s “foolish to negotiate 600 different contracts.” I support “county-wide contracts” or “DFG-wide contracts” (District Factor Groups, or the method by which NJ school districts are divided up based on socio-economic factors).

Question: We graduate 20% of our kids using the SRA, or the alternative assessment designed by the DOE after a kids has failed the 11th grade HSPA three times. But the State is working on a bill that eliminates the SRA and raises graduation requirements so that every kid has to take biology, chemistry, physics, Algebra 2, etc. What’s the deal?
Wolfe: I’m “anti- social promotion.”
Cryan: The overuse of the SRA is “ridiculous,” “an abuse,” “absurd.” It should be reserved for ELL (English Language Learners) and special education. “I’m not sure that everyone has to take Algebra 2.” “The DOE has fallen off a cliff.”

Brief pause while the audience breaks out into applause and semi-dignified hooting.

We need a “rational approach to upgrade standards.” And, “the hidden cancer in New Jersey is the drop-out rate… One in four New Jersey adults don’t have a high school diploma.”
Whelan: “I don’t agree” with Cryan on the SRA. Legislators shouldn’t micromanage districts.

Question: Does standardized testing drive education in New Jersey?
Wolfe: Yes. It’s part of the accountability. We spend $21 – 23 million on education.
Whelan: Tells a story that ends “you can’t fatten a hog by weighing it.”
Cryan: “We are one of the most segregated school systems in the country.”

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Davy Plays Defense

The New Jersey School Boards Association annual convention is normally a staid event: long days wandering through the vendors’ exhibits and picking up free pens and rulers, plowing through sessions like “Between Board Micromanagement and Board in the Dark: Navigating the Balance of Power” and “Lessons Learned in Conquering Mold: A Proactive Approach for School Districts,” bantering with colleagues about turf fields and assessment models.

This year’s convention was a bit different. While the usual wandering, plowing, and bantering occurred, the zeitgeist seems to have shifted from staid to steamed. Chock it up to a combination of State budget shortfalls, new expensive mandates, the threat of consolidation of school districts, and, mostly, to the Niagara of regulations gushing forth from Lucille Davy and the Department of Education.

The annual panel, NJSBA State Legislative Update, usually attracts only the more militant school board members and lobbyists. Originally scheduled in one of the lecture halls, the panel was moved to the largest ballroom when word came that Governor Jon Corzine would make an appearance.

About 2000 people listened attentively through a question and answer session manned by Assemblymen Joseph Cryan and David W. Wolfe, and State Senator Jim Whelan (more on that later).

Corzine came in mid-way to a few muted catcalls but mostly respectful applause and did his usual pro-education stump speech: the State has increased education spending by 23% since his election, 55% of property taxes go to schools (remember, this audience loves this), and the last thing he’ll cut will be education funding. School district consolidation is simply “macro-economic change,” a systematic effort at economies of scale and efficiencies.” And he backtracked on the timeline for mandated full-day preschool programs. "I know there's some consternation at the timing of this initiative,” he said sympathetically. The timing will be “reviewed, but certainly not the commitment.”

Time for a few questions. A Board member asked how it was mathematically possible to stay within the State-mandated 4% annual school budget increase when, in fact, just about all NJEA-negotiated annual salary increases ranged from 4.5% to over 5%. Laughs and groans from the audience. Corzine muttered about shared services, breakage (hiring new teachers at lower salaries than retiring teachers), and consolidation.

Corzine is apparently well aware of the scorn reserved for Lucille Davy, Commissioner of Education and Aquarian of Regulation. The Press of Atlantic City reported today that after his speech he and Davy were shanghaied by a group of “livid” school board members fuming about both the flood of new accountability regulations and the push for consolidation.
"Do you think I want to be reviewing regulations about buying water and lunch?" she asked. "But taxpayers are saying they can't afford to live here anymore. Legislators don't get up in the morning and think what can we do to wreak havoc on schools. They are hearing this from taxpayers.

Later at a meeting of the Garden State Coalition, she defended the DOE:
"It's not my fault," she said. "It's your colleagues who have taken advantage of the system. When there is a retirement package that makes people embarrassed, then it becomes a public issue."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Live-Blogging from NJSBA

We're live-blogging from the New Jersey School Boards Association annual convention in Atlantic City -- 10,000 school board members, business administrators, superintendents, vendors, NJSBA reps. The mood? A mite defensive, in light of the onslaught of regulations recently issued by the DOE limiting local authority and pushing consolidation. We're somewhat technically limited, but here's a few highlights that we'll delve into shortly.

The button issued by NJSBA for all members to wear on their lapels:
"We're Not Irrelevant"

Commisioner of Education Lucille Davy's new title derived from her seemingly unlimited authority to order consolidation and hamstring local governance:
"The Queen"

On the DOE's ability to figure out how to implement the new regulations:
"I give the Alamo a better chance."

On one superintendent being in charge of two or more districts:
"You can't be the general manager of Lowe's and Home Depot at the same time."

On district consolidation:
"This is not about education. This is about taxes."


"If you're going to consolidate, don't do it to save money."


"It's a shotgun marriage. It won't work."

On New Jersey's 4% annual cap on school taxes, in spite of the fact that collective bargaining agreements with NJEA are rarely lower than 4.5%:
"We leave our efficiency at the bargaining table."

On Corzine's initial determination to create 21 county districts:
"The DOE figured out that this idea would lead to an increase of $300 to $400 million dollars a year. They shared that figure with the Governor and now he acknowledges that this is probably not the way we're going to go."

On Commissioner Davy's instruction to Executive County Superintendents to mandate consolidation of non kindergarten-12th grade districts:

"It's a barometer of her political will. Will the Commissioner be willing to step into small districts and take on the NJEA?"

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Jets and the Sharks?

There is a somewhat inspiring piece in The Record today regarding two north Bergen County high schools, Indian Hills High School and Ramapo High School. Back in the late 1990’s, parents of children from Franklin Lakes were given the choice of sending their kids to either one, and a survey revealed that Ramapo was vastly more popular, boasting slightly higher test scores and students from wealthier families. In fact, Franklin Lakes parents said that they would choose Ramapo over Indian Hills by a margin of 12-to-1.

It looked bad for Indian Hills, in spite of $53 million of construction poured in, the movement of the board offices from Ramapo to Indian Hills, and a careful equalizing of the curricular opportunities. A few years later, the result has been a pretty equal distribution between the two schools.

Money quote:

Scott Belsky, who grew up in Franklin Lakes and graduated from Indian Hills last year, said he believes the district has moved away from the old model of two schools that draw students from separate and distinct towns and tax brackets.
"The old prejudices of geography and socioeconomics won’t matter anymore," he predicted.

It’s a story with a happy ending: two high schools separated by class, socio-economics, and different tax rates find an acceptable balance. Everyone wins! Is this our panacea for New Jersey’s inequitable school system writ small?

Let’s not get carried away. The Record piece describes the class struggle in this way:

The parking lots told part of the story: Cars at Ramapo tended toward the high end, while students at Indian Hills had mid-range rides.

Well, okay, this is not exactly Daddy Warbucks and Orphan Annie. It’s one thing to offer a choice between two highly performing high schools in a wealthy part of New Jersey as opposed to offering a choice within a far more disparate model. Indian Hills vs. Ramapo is not quite the same choice as, say, Trenton vs. Princeton or Willingboro vs. Moorestown. Still, it may be that we’re too dismissive of the possibilities. Can we queue up the soundtrack from "West Side Story," please?

Grant Graft

We are shocked and dismayed to learn that there was a lack of transparency in the distribution of State legislature–issued grants across New Jersey.

Seriously, the Burlington County Times reports that about 128 million bucks was stuffed into various wallets during the period of 2004, when McGreevey started the program, and 2006, when Corzine stopped it. This article highlights grants to the Lenape Regional High School District, which received two grants totaling $850,000.

Happens all the time. According to the Burlington paper, the grant to the Lenape High School failed to list which lawmaker asked for the grant, which is standard procedure. The only name listed is “Fiordoliso,” the surname of the then-deputy chief of staff for Dick Codey.

In fact, the Democrats were concerned enough about unequal distribution of funds that they tried to cover by throwing a few crumbs the way of the Republican districts:

“We had cover on the last few lists because we have had Republican projects — I have none on the next list,” Rousseau wrote in an e-mail to Codey. “You might want to consider something for (Republican lawmakers) like either Lance, Martin, Ciesla, Blee, maybe even Alex DeCroce.”
And it gets bigger:
Additional revelations emerged this month during the federal corruption trial of former state Sen. Wayne Bryant of Camden County. During the trial, a former Democratic aide and the current state Treasurer, David Rousseau, testified under oath that the grant program was largely controlled by Bryant, Senate President Richard Codey and then-Senate Majority Leader Bernard Kenny.
Think there’s some inequity in the way we fund our schools in New Jersey?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lake Wobegone Begone

Brace yourselves. The new scores for the state assessments are coming out and they’re not pretty. Two distinct elements contribute to the lack of glamour: first, the AYP cut-off by the federal legislation of No Child Left Behind jumped up about an average of 12 points. (Translation: the percentage of kids required to make Adequate Yearly Progress spiked because, if you remember, by 2014 all our children will be 100% proficient in everything. Thank you, Garrison Keillor. ) In addition, the NJ Department of Education changed its definition of “proficiency:” previously, some tests only required a score of 33% to pass, and now passing percentage is over 50%.

NJ’s public schools were caught off guard because the DOE”s adjustment came over the summer, after all tests had been taken and schools had made assumptions based on their understanding of “proficiency.” The official word from the DOE, reported by the Star-Ledger yesterday, was

"This is all part of the department's efforts to raise the rigor in all of the tests, including in high school," said (Barbara) Gantwerk, the assistant state commissioner. "And you need to start this in the early grades if we are going to move ahead."

The inside word is that Lucille Davy, Commissioner of Education, had some sort of epiphany about outrageously low proficiency rates and unilaterally adjusted the numbers.

At any rate, most school systems will see their passing rates fall by about 20%. The Star Ledger lists Newark, which will have nearly 1000 additional kids in each grade fail and Paterson, which will have 250 extra kids in each grade fail. Also, Piscataway, which typically boasts a 90% passing rate, will see its number drop to about 79% and Chatham, where all kids usually pass, will see passing rates in the mid-80’s.

It all seems pretty arbitrary, but what else is new? Conspiracy theorists argue that the engine driving this public denigration of government education is a covert plan to bolster charter schools and vouchers. Other like-minded paranoids sense a scheme by Corzine to send multiple local districts into academic descent and thereby justify county-wide districts. What did Woody Allen say? “Paranoia is knowing all the facts.”

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Inertia in Gloucester County

For an example of the resistance to consolidating school districts, look at the case of Gloucester County Vo-Tech and Gloucester County Special Services District. According to Today’s Sunbeam, a Salem County publication, Bob Bumpus, the Executive County Superintendent of Schools in Salem, is promoting a plan to have one superintendent oversee both districts and is encountering lots of foot-dragging.

The argument for this specific consolidation is that while both districts currently pay for their own superintendent,

According to Bumpus, combining the position of superintendent would save almost $191,000 - nearly $215,000 if the special services district moves its main office to the Vo-tech campus in Mannington.

But there lots of “concern voiced” by the Business Administrators of each district and local board members, who suggested that using one superintendent for both schools was way too risky and perhaps they ought to start by, say, sharing janitorial services or by buying supplies together.

If a no-brainer consolidation like this can’t get any traction, how we will manage to meaningfully merge the myriad tiny districts that are the antithesis of efficiency? Is New Jersey constitutionally and culturally incapable of making the leap required to provide equitable and economical education to all our kids?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Legislative Cockiness

The political rhetoric is raging as the State Legislature approved more bills reining in the autonomy of local school districts. Interestingly enough, we’ve seen no return salvos from the other side (i.e., the NJ School Boards Association and the NJEA). In the last couple of days two bills have passed through the Senate that curtails local control and nary a whisper from the stalwarts of the status quo.

First, the Senate Education Committee approved Bill S2161, which legislates how many days a school district can use a substitute teacher to cover a class. The Senate also approved A-2975, which limits superintendent severance packages and various retirement perks.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Who could quibble with such commonsensical mandates? On the other hand, these are matters that have traditionally been left to local districts and the clear implication from the State is that local school boards are too dumb to manage these issues on their own. More interesting is the inflated language that has been produced by our senators and assembly members.

For instance, Senator Shirley Turner, Chair of the Education Committee and one of the sponsors of the bill regulating use of substitute teachers fumed,

When a school district ha a teacher shortage, it shouldn’t be masked by the overuse of substitute teachers. School district personnel have to get out from behind their desks and aggressively recruit the best teachers. It’s not good enough for school administrators to just sit in their offices while they wait around for prospective teachers to respond to want ads.

Turner seems to think that lazy district administrators loll around eating bonbons and wait for the phone to ring. Just a tad insulting. And regarding A-2975, the bill regulating superintendent buy-outs, sponsor Assemblyman Joseph Cryan emoted,

Some school superintendents have taken the mistaken view that money meant for the classroom would be better spent financing their personal diamond-encrusted, taxpayer-provided nest eggs. The residents of New Jersey are rightfully outraged at seeing their tax dollars used to provide departing superintendents with these offensive payouts.

The trend is clear. The State is on a trajectory to castrate local control, emitting more and more bills and regulations that cut off local mojo. And maybe in the end that’s better for the kids. (Who knows? We’ve never tried it.) But at the very least we ought to wonder how our enervated Department of Education will cope with this new scope of responsibility and whether or not the citizens of New Jersey, largely devoted to home rule, will support this tacit siege.

Doctors of Bologna

The AP reports today that the New Jersey Higher Education Commission ordered six additional educators to give up their claims to doctoral titles. The scrutiny was invited by the scandal involving the Freehold Superintendent, James Wasser, who reaped a raise and tuition reimbursement after he claimed Ph.D. status based on a bogus degree from a diploma mill called Breyer University.

The fake docs include two more administrators from Freehold, an instructor from the psychiatry at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Cherry Hill and an assistant professor at St. Peter's College.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Willingboro and Moorestown: Reaching Higher

Let’s take a closer look at what consolidation of school districts would mean for students and families. Here’s a couple of points to keep in mind:

1) Some members of the State Senate (Bob Smith, John Wisniewski, Robert Gordon, Ellen Karcher, Joseph Kyrillos, Joseph Malone, to name a few) have been pushing for county-wide districts – in other words, taking our 600 or so school districts and reducing them to 21 county districts. Corzine has, for now, instructed the new Executive County Superintendents to merge only those districts that don’t cover the full kindergarten through 12th grade spectrum. ( In other words, we’re going for the low-hanging fruit, which is a defensible first step.) A classic example is Pemberton (see this post), where the kids in the Borough school already attend the Township school, although technically they are in different districts.

2) The No Child Left Behind legislation (stay with me here) requires that if a Title I school (i.e., a school with a low socio-economic profile) has not made adequate yearly progress (yes, AYP) for two consecutive years, then the child attending that school must be offered the opportunity to transfer to another public school within that district.

Now let’s examine two high schools in the same county. A shot at the dartboard chose Burlington County and, to augment the theatrics, we’ll look at Moorestown High and Willingboro High. Stats are courtesy of the DOE.

First Moorestown High, which was just ranked 47th of all state high schools (300+) by New Jersey Monthly. This school houses 1,363 kids, of whom 95.3% are native English speakers. The school “mobility rate,” i.e., the number of kids who move in and during the year, is 3.3% and the average class size is 19.5 kids. There are 2.8 kids per computer (just to give us an idea of the resources). On the math HSPA, the state-wide test given to 11th graders, 9.3% scored “Partially Proficient,” which is the euphemism for failing. So 90.7% of the students at Moorestown scored either Proficient or Advanced Proficient.

Now let’s ramble 9 miles down the road to Willingboro High, which should take us 14 minutes, according to Mapquest. Willingboro, which was ranked 247th of New Jersey’s high schools, has 1,122 kids, with a mobility rate of 34.4% (the state average, by the way, is 10.1%). The average class size is 15 and there are 3.8 kids per computer. Here’s the kicker: on the math HSPA 63.6% of the kids failed. Only 36.4% of the kids at Willingboro passed the HSPA.

According to No Child Left Behind, the kids at Willingboro High are eligible for school choice; actually, the school is labeled in the 5th year of SINI (School In Need of Improvement – who can make this stuff up?) so the kids have been eligible for 3 years. But they don’t have anywhere to go because there’s nowhere to move to within their district. While we can expend much ink griping about NCLB, it seems child-friendly and sensible to set it up so that kids can get out of a bad school and into a good one. But one of the artifacts of our municipal madness is that there’s nowhere to go because our little districts are so limited.

Here’s an idea: what if we allowed kids who attended a SINI to opt for another school within their county?

This would mean that the parents of the kids in Willingboro could choose to have them move to a high-performing school like Moorestown.

Here’s another statistic from the DOE charts. 88% of the kids at Willingboro are Black, 7% are Hispanic, 2% are Asian, and 3% are White. Moorestown is almost all White. Our current system of local governance has rendered a de facto segregation, which is replicated in many other counties in New Jersey.

Now, there are all sorts of obstacles to allowing kids in failing schools to move to a better school within their county. Shall we count them all? Transportation, varying tax levies per child, limited facilities, community resistance, potential panic, paranoia, and tomfoolery from NJEA and NJSBA. But what if we tried? How about a pilot program in one county?

Can we reach a little higher than the lowest hanging fruit?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Mandatory Volunteerism

We hear more and more about consolidation of school districts. Earlier in Governor Corzine’s term he spoke regularly about voluntary mergers of districts, but now the State Legislature is playing hardball. Forget voluntary. The passage of the legislation 18A last year created the sceptered post of Executive County Superintendent and, to the horror of proponents of home rule, this new throne has the power to order consolidation. Here’s the language from the bill itself, 18A:

No later than three years following the effective date of sections 42 to 58 of P.L.2007, c.63 (C.18A:7-11 et al.), (the Executive County Superintendent will) recommend to the commissioner a school district consolidation plan to eliminate all districts, other than county-based districts and other than preschool or kindergarten through grade 12 districts in the county, through the establishment or enlargement of regional school districts.

Easy, right? We’ve got scads of evidence that merging smaller school districts into larger regional school districts could save money. Back in 1995, Education Week estimated that New Jersey could save $123 million dollars by moving all our non kindergarten –12th grade districts into nearby districts. What’s that in 2008 dollars?

And here’s a study from 2001 by Syracuse University's Center for Policy Research , which confirms that "holding student performance constant, we find evidence that school district consolidation substantially lowers operating costs, particularly when small districts are combined."

Okay. It saves money, right? Uh, better talk to the NJSBA, NJASA, and the NJEA. Here in acronym-overload land, we’re just bursting with reasons why consolidation is a terrible idea. In a letter entitled “School District Size Matters,” Barry Galasso, the Executive Director of New Jersey Association of School Administrators, extols the superiority of small locally-governed school districts.

This body of research shows that when socio-economic factors are controlled, students who attend smaller schools are more likely to graduate and to participate in extracurricular activities. Smaller schools have lower incidents of crime and violence, and greater parental involvement…Certainly, a move to a countywide system would bring with it larger schools with larger student populations.

Consolidation and/or a move to a countywide system will not necessarily result in cost savings. Since cost savings cannot be guaranteed and a move to a countywide system will likely negatively impact student achievement, one must question the logic of moving to a countywide system for experimental purposes.

How about the New Jersey School Boards Association? (Let’s leave aside the fact that this group represents 4500 people who owe their offices to the fact that New Jersey accommodates 615 school districts.) Here's a press release:

Consolidation of school districts is no cure for high property taxes and, in fact, could increase costs, an official of the New Jersey School Boards Association today told a legislative panel examining property-tax reform.

“Unless it’s considered case by case, school consolidation could easily result in higher costs – and higher taxes,” said Eva M. Nagy, NJSBA vice president for legislation/resolutions. “Certainly, that is not what this committee wants.”

And the New Jersey Education Association?

NJEA believes that the decision to consolidate school districts must be voluntary and be made voluntary with community involvement. The affected school districts must be required to involve their employees in the reorganization process through mandatory consultation with the employees’ certified collective bargaining representative. All employee rights, including seniority and tenure, must be fully protected.

So, it either saves money or it doesn’t. It's either better for kids or it isn't. Right? Last time I looked, the NJEA’s platform did not include advocacy for lower school costs. What's with all the self-righteous harrumphing?

Time to put away our acronymous /acrimonious jeremiads and take a closer look.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Is There a State Irony Committee?

The Asbury Park Press reports on some bickering spawned by the public outcry over the Keansburg superintendent who ended up with a huge retirement package. At a State Senate Education Committee meeting this past Thursday, Ramsey Board of Education member Richard Snyder tangoed with Senator Shirley Turner, the Chair of the Committee. Snyder testified against new legislation that would reduce local control over superintendent contracts and argued that market forces should drive compensation packages:

"My very educated opinion, and I say this respectfully, sees the current legislative focus and the Department of Education's micromanaging as doing more harm than good," Snyder had said earlier. "There is so much indignation about the abuses of the very few. . . . We know that there are a few bad apples in every barrel."

"I am sorry," shot back Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, the chairwoman of the committee. "I have to . . . disagree with you. . . . We want greater accountability and transparency when they are writing these contracts enabling administrators to have these golden parachutes."

Ah, the buzz words of the day, “accountability and transparency.” The argument Senator Turner makes here is an inverted kind of populism: that the residents of New Jersey need the State bureaucracy to ensure that the very representatives of the people – local school board members -- behave ethically and responsibly. The motivation for this bizarre equation is that home rule, or in this case the delegation of local school systems to residents, is equivalent to the loss or misuse of local power.

Bob Ingle, Trenton Bureau Chief for Gannett New Jersey newspapers, is outraged by the inefficiencies of local governance. He notes in this blogpost,

Then Snyder fell back on the old tried and true, "It's for the children." He said, "This does more damage to our children and our taxpayers than the few who take unfair advantage." Give me a break. School boards are resisting the move to have oversight of the taxpayer financed perks and goodies the 615 local boards hand out. It's the public be damned. The committee senses the public sentiment better than Snyder and fellow travelers. It passed the bill unanimously.

So let’s get this straight: locally-elected board members thwart the public will and the State legislature has to step in to protect the great unwashed. There’s a wonderful irony here. We now have state senators promoting a vaguely tautological argument that the local control of schools, typically associated with direct representation, i.e., neighbors electing neighbors, leads to the kind of corruption and abuse we associate with higher levels of government. We need the State Senate, the opposite of local control, to protect the mechanics of local control.

You gotta love New Jersey.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Home Rule Exodus

The Star-Ledger reports today on the increasing pressure on New Jersey’s 566 municipalities to consolidate services such as animal control, health services, police departments, and trash collection. Recent history offers countless stories of failed attempts at shared services, but “Gov. Jon Corzine has upped the ante by threatening to cut state aid to small towns with heavy overhead if they don't merge services.”

Notes the Ledger,

Yet overcoming the tradition of home rule isn't easy. Mount Arlington got a grant to study police services, but when officials began to consider a plan to merge the police force with a neighboring one, residents balked and it failed to go through.

Hey, we get the hard-nosed, imperious edict thing – we really do. Happens all the time in New Jersey education as the State issues copious statutes on everything from doughnuts served at School Board meetings to superintendent contracts. The result? Angry school boards, transient superintendents (the average tenure now is just over two years), and balking residents.

If Corzine is ready to take on the variegated country quilt that comprises New Jersey – and there’s a bundle of excellent reasons to do so – then here’s a quaint suggestion: how about a little conversation? Wouldn’t it be more effective to attempt to engage this State in a little back-and-forth about the efficiencies and economies available through consolidation? Has anyone tried town hall meetings or web-based exchanges or cooperation with local municipalities in order to work up a some momentum of goodwill?

Moses spoke from the mountaintop. It worked for him. Unless Jon Corzine imagines himself a biblical prophet, however, he’d be better off engaging local communities in intelligent conversation rather than tossing out tablets from Mt. Trenton.

School Construction Chief Rumor

The Jersey blog PolitickerNJ is reporting that Scott Weiner, who "retired" last month from the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (that's the re-do of the infamous School Construction Corporation) was actually fired by Corzine:

while Weiner said that he was leaving because he thought it was time for the embattled school construction agency to hire a CEO who would commit to long term service, he was effectively fired. Gov. Jon Corzine, according to sources familiar with the events, asked Weiner to leave. The former Commissioner of Environemental Protection was allowed to issue a public statement giving the impression that his departure was on good terms.

Here's the NJ Left Behind post on that subject from last month.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Cognitive Dissonance

There’s lots of talk in local papers today about the swelling dropout rate in New Jersey’s public high schools. This topic of the day was prompted by Corzine’s announcement Tuesday of a year-long “New Jersey High School Graduation Campaign.” More than 80% of high school freshmen graduate on time, but in urban districts the numbers are much lower – for example, Newark has only a 63% graduation rate. According to the Asbury Park Press,

The New Jersey cities targeted have some schools with especially high dropout rates, according to state data. In the 2006-07 school year, for instance, the dropout rate at Camden High was about one in four. And at Renaissance Academy, an alternative school in Newark, it was one in three.

It’s a no-brainer to push more high-schoolers to graduate. But can you simultaneously accomplish that and make it harder to graduate from high school?

Because, counter-intuitive or not, that’s what we are doing. In another initiative courtesy of both Corzine and the DOE, officially called “NJ STEPS: Redesigning Education in New Jersey for the 21st Century,” we will be implementing an increasingly rigorous set of graduation requirements (here’s a table from the DOE that gives the details). In a nutshell, the High School Redesign Committee has proposed mandating a single set of required courses, including chemistry, algebra, geometry, and college-prep English, and implementing six new tests, or “competency assessments,” that all students would be required to pass in order to graduate.

Who could argue that our high schools should be both more rigorous and that fewer kids should drop out? Let’s unpack it a bit.

These new requirements will be invisible to our higher-performing districts. For example, in Montgomery Township in Somerset County students are already required to complete a total of 125 credits, although the current state requirement is less than 100 credits. Testing? No problem. The kids there ace the HSPA's and are among the state leaders on SAT’s. What’s another test?

In fact, the new state reforms – both the emphasis on graduation rate and the increased rigor – will cause nary a ripple in schools like Montgomery. It’s the schools at the other end of the spectrum that will drown. There’s a funny kind of conceit here amidst all the huffing and puffing of mandates coming down from Trenton: that somehow a state as differentiated as New Jersey can, by force of words and paperwork, be homogenized. If we set high standards, they will be met. If we urge lower dropout rates, the kids will graduate.

Speaking for the less buoyant schools, David Sciarra at the Education Law Center spouts,

Unfortunately, the recommendations outlined last April in the NJ Steps report and the Commissioner’s proposals to amend NJ’s high school graduation requirements and the state assessment system move us in the wrong direction. Instead of promoting innovative and challenging opportunities for our best students and gap-closing supports for our most needy ones, the Commissioner has recommended a one-size-fits-all program of more state standards and tests that does not address the realities and challenges facing our secondary schools. Despite references to "personalized learning environments" and "student learning plans," the core of the proposal, adopted from the American Diploma Project sponsored by Achieve, Inc, a national group of business and political leaders far removed from the realities of K-12 public schools, is a largely conventional plan to ramp up traditional academic course work in a "one-size-fits-all" framework that will be difficult to impose and costly to implement.

Reality check, anyone?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NJSBA Power Play

In yet another sign of New Jersey's struggle over home rule, the Asbury Park Press editorialized yesterday that, in wake of the diploma mill scandal in Freehold (James Wasser, the superintendent, received tuition reimbursement and a raise by buying a degree from a bogus school), the DOE should

develop a standard contract for school administrators — one that prevents school boards and superintendents from loading them up with outrageous perks and benefits and gives boards the tools they need to dismiss administrators who have acted unethically or brought discredit to their districts.

Local school boards have always independently negotiated contracts with superintendents. Some do better jobs than others; it goes with the territory when you cull your board members from a volunteer pool of do-gooders, no experience necessary.

Playing defense, the New Jersey School Boards Association hit back with an attempted end-run around another potential usurpation of power by proposing that it would issue a standardized contract. In an op-ed in the Trenton Times, Marie Bilik, Executive Director of NJSBA announced that, in light of public alarm,

The New Jersey School Boards Association …recommends that local school boards establish a process for checking the validity of degrees and that they designate a staff member to perform the function. In addition, NJSBA's new model superintendent contract will call for submis sion of all academic credentials to the school board -- whether the degree is required for state administrator's certification, or not.

In other words, Bilik said, we’ll take care of it. Leave the State out of it, please, and let the NJSBA provide standardized contracts. Bilik also formally endorsed S2127, a bill sponsored by Senate President Richard J. Codey, Sens. Shirley K. Turner, and Jennifer Beck. The legislation would require the obvious: that administrative degrees come from accredited institutions, that limits be placed on reimbursement, that employees commit to serving a certain number of years to receive reimbursement.

It’s a bit desperate. As the State takes more and more control away from local school districts, NJSBA is trying to wheedle away a tiny piece of the pie. Anything contrary to solid local control is anathema to the culture of home rule, so it’s a major concession to pass off contract language to anyone at all. How far is NJSBA willing to go to hold on to a bit of their dignity? This far: they’ll take on NJEA. Says Bilik,

Opposition has come from the state teachers union, however. It backs efforts to ensure the validity of academic degrees, but believes that S2127's provisions addressing tuition reimbursement go too far and infringe on the local collective bargaining process.

The New Jersey School Boards Association does not share the union's concern about S2127's impact on negotiations. The legislation reflects prevailing practice statewide, as well as the association's advice to local school boards. It would give boards of education the flexibility needed to negotiate even firmer controls over tuition reimbursement practices. At the same time, it would ensure the academic integrity of the degrees received by local school district employees.

Oh, snap! Take that, NJEA. We’ll have it both ways: admit that past practice – letting school boards manage complex contract negotiations -- is, well, not working very well, at least in Freehold. (Let’s let pass the fact that the other 500+ districts seem to do just fine. We seem to be in the business of letting bad cases make case law.) We’ll keep contract standardization away from the State and in the hands of the school board reps, yet position ourselves with the State, united against NJEA.

It's a nifty bit of political dodgeball from the normally staid school board association. We'll stay tuned for NJEA's response.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Zero-Sum Game

There’s daily chatter about the tussle in New Jersey between local school districts and the State Department of Education. Our beloved system of home rule has historically granted a fair amount of freedom to each school district to set curricula and infuse local values into the public school system. However, our newly dogmatic DOE is on a spree of standardizing everything from car leases to academic standards among our 615 school districts. The post below has some fun with the old children’s game, the hokey-pokey. But what we have here is a bit more serious, more like a zero-sum game. Take away power from the local district and give it to the State. Remove a mandate from the State and grant it back to a local district.

Is there any room for interdependence?

We’re not very good at that, not when hundreds of local officials want to be on the A Team, where NJEA has all the power players, and the DOE fumbles the easiest lobs.

Within the confines of our game cube it’s easy to forget that there’s another player out there – the Federal government, specifically the legislation No Child Left Behind. A couple of good pieces are out today discussing the impact NCLB is having on local districts. The New York Times reviews the mandate that all schools in the US will demonstrate 100% proficiency by the year 2014 (no hooting, please) and that this year the acceptable proficiency level jumped up an average of 11 points. The result? 1000 schools in New Jersey have now been blacklisted with the dreaded label, “School in Need of Improvement.”

According to the Times,

A state-by-state analysis by The New York Times found that in the 40 states reporting on their compliance so far this year, on average, 4 in 10 schools fell short of the law’s testing targets, up from about 3 in 10 last year. Few schools missed targets in states with easy exams, like Wisconsin and Mississippi, but states with tough tests had a harder time. In Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Mexico, which have stringent exams, 60 to 70 percent of schools missed testing goals. And in South Carolina, which has what may be the nation’s most rigorous tests, 83 percent of schools missed targets.

The Star-Ledger gets to the discrepancy
between affluent districts that score pretty well and take little State and Federal money, and more impoverished districts that post worrisome scores and take more from the pot. Chatham, for instance, gets only 1% of its money from the Feds, but worries about the implausible proficiency levels demanded by NCLB. An AP Government teacher, Jim Menguerian, comments,

As the federal government, they are always looking for one-size-fits-all solutions…but education just doesn't work that way.

On the other side of the coin, we have the example of Newark Public Schools, which gets a hefty 10% of its budget from the Federal government. According to the Ledger, in Newark

No Child Left Behind exerts a strong influence. But more than a third of the students still don't graduate. Superintendent Clifford Janey said it's time the federal government expand its role, not retreat from it. To me, education should be treated as a national security issue.

You Put Your Right Foot In, You Put Your Right Foot Out...

This is getting fun. Can you guess how NJ officials will react to the news that the former superintendent of Paterson violated state and local law by paying a friend $73,000 as a consultant’s fee?

Here’s our guess:

1) Legislators will froth at the mouth and emit lengthy legislation prohibiting superintendents from writing checks to their best buddies.
2) The DOE will stomp and scowl about irresponsible administrators and then disgorge a mountain of regulations for local school boards to rubber-stamp.
3) Local school boards will moan and groan about new mandates, and then hold a public meeting to vote on new statutes that they are required to approve.

Let’s all do the hokie-pokie!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Break out the Incense

Here’s a must-read piece in today’s Education Week on the current court battle about New Jersey’s school funding formula. Since 1981 when Abbott v Burke was first filed, we’ve struggled with how to equitably divvy up school funds. When local municipalities are responsible for most school costs through property taxes, poorer towns get short shrift. The Abbott decisions created a two-tier system: 31 districts were declared “Abbott districts” because high poverty rates rendered adequate funding impossible, and the justices ruled that the state would funnel enough money into those districts to raise them to the level of New Jersey’s wealthiest school districts.

Right now 20% of kids in New Jersey live in Abbott districts and those kids get more than 50% of the State’s pot.

The State DOE is arguing that the courts should set aside the Abbott decisions in favor of the “new funding formula” because more and more poor kids are living in non-Abbott districts. According to the EdWeek article,

“Under the old system, if you lived in one of [the Abbott] communities, whether you were rich or poor, you got those resources,” Commissioner of Education Lucille E. Davy said in an interview last week. “If you were poor and lived somewhere else, you didn’t. This tries to bring more-equitable resource distribution to all children regardless of where they live.”

It’s true that our demographics are changing. A report from Rutgers on strategic planning discusses our growing diversity:

New Jersey's demographic profile is one of the most diverse in the country. New Jersey Department of Labor population projections through 2005 indicate significant growth in minority representation, both in general and among the traditional college-age population. Overall, the state's white population is projected to grow by 1%, New Jersey's African-American population is projected to increase by 15%, and other minority populations (Asians and Pacific Islanders; and American Indians, Eskimos, and Aleuts) by 134%. By 2005, nonwhites are projected to constitute 23% of New Jersey's total population, and 27% of the 15-24 year olds.4 The Latino population is also expected to increase, as is New Jersey's immigrant population. It is anticipated that Rutgers' future student body will be increasingly diverse, reflective of the composition of the state as a whole.

There’s a mantra that’s chanted by many converts at local and state educational meetings: “The money should follow the child.” In other words, the allotment of state aid should not be dependent on location, but on the residence of the individual child. There are poor kids in Princeton and Moorestown, so goes the argument, and, one would suppose, rich kids in Newark and Camden. Let the State be responsible for creating a weighted formula that adjusts funding per child based on socio-economic strata, special needs, ESL, etc.

It makes sense (though David Sciarra, the lead attorney for the Abbott kids is violently opposed to the idea). If a child needs extra services in order to receive a “thorough and efficient” education, then affix the services to the child, regardless of their home address (ohmmmm). But here’s the catch: is there any evidence anywhere to support the theory that the NJ DOE is capable of administering such a complex system?

Families move all the time -- especially impoverished ones. Can you imagine the DOE accurately and promptly readjusting allocations so that the money really does "follow the child?" Right now districts are still waiting on the DOE for test scores from last Spring. Forgive my skepticism.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Whack-A-Mole the Jersey Way

The reputation of local school boards and administrators in New Jersey is dappled with some fresh mud today. For starters, the National School Boards Association rescinded an invitation to James Wasser, the superintendent of Freehold Regional Schools who purchased his graduate degree from a diploma mill. He had been scheduled to speak at its convention in San Diego, but the NSBA’s verdict is that Wasser “would hamper the credibility of the presenters involved.”

Wasser's stance has been adamantly unapologetic, but at last night’s Freehold school board meeting he issued a formal apology to the public. And the witless school board members who blithely approved Wasser’s raise and tuition reimbursement? While they slammed through a policy last night to limit payback to administrators who attend accredited institutions, a DOE spokewoman told the Asbury Park Press,

"(This policy) is absolutely not what the department of education wants to see," department spokeswoman Kathryn Forsyth said during a telephone interview Monday afternoon.

It’s a regular slugfest out there. The DOE, understaffed and overwhelmed, finds itself in the center of a maelstrom of dissatisfied taxpayers, jilted unions, cash-sucking Abbot districts, and flat test scores. Its response is an odd sort of diarrhea of documents, saddling local school boards and administrators with an expulsion of QSAC reports and various instruments of accountability. Local school boards, caught in the flood, race to keep up.

Or they screw up.

The North Jersey Record reported today that a Bergen County grand jury indicted a Saddle Brook school board member on charges that she stole $6,000 from the local PTA.

It’s been a great couple of weeks for anyone invested in exposing the weaknesses of home rule and local governance. School boards are incompetent and administrators are nefarious: it’s an awesome place for advocates of standardization. The Courier News editorialized today regarding the Wasser/Freehold incident,

School boards either didn't care or didn't check to see if the degrees came from properly accredited schools. The employees themselves obviously understood they were gaming the system, since they did nothing to earn the degrees. The arrangement was at best careless and at worst a sort of wink-wink understanding that no one would ask questions about those degrees.

It’s a brilliantly choreographed set piece for proponents of consolidation.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Update: Ray Pinney, who blogs at NJSBA, recounts some harsh exchanges at the September 22nd meeting of the Assembly Education Committee. During discussion of the bogus diploma debacle in Freehold (see post below), Assemblyman Joe Malone, a Republican from District 30, asked, according to Pinney’s notes,

“is there any culpability on the part of the board members?” and while he did state that the “vast majority of school board members do a good job” he followed that up with the comment that when this happens in a district he can only think that the board members are either “complicit in the activity or just stupid!” Now there’s a choice for us: are we stupid or frauds?


Friday, October 3, 2008

Target Practice

For a fine example of how New Jersey clobbers a flea with an uzi, take a look at this story in today’s Star-Ledger regarding the administrators in Freehold Regional School district who got raises based on bogus college degrees.

Here’s the course of events: first, three administrators from Freehold, including Superintendent H. James Wasser, sent in resumes, wrote two-page papers, and were awarded doctoral degrees from a diploma mill called Breyer University. Next they filed for the raises and tuition reimbursements called for in their contracts. These monies were duly awarded. When word leaked out about the fraudulent degrees, Wasser refused to apologize (he did give back the salary increase but is apparently holding onto the tuition costs) while affronted taxpayers and legislators demanded action. Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy was called on the carpet by the Chair of the State Senate’s Education Committee, Shirley Turner, who raged,

It is unfortunate and regretful that we have school administrators enriching themselves by securing phony doctoral degrees through means which render them guilty of nothing short of educational malpractice…It has to stop. And I am sure there is sufficient sentiment in the Legislature and in our communities that it will stop.”

And lickety-split, a new bill is before the State Senate that would, well, bar conniving administrators from collecting entitlements based on fraudulent graduate degrees.

Um, didn’t we skip a step? Specifically, where in this process are the members of the Freehold Board of Education, who are responsible for hiring Wasser in the first place, then approving the salary hike and tuition reimbursement? With all due respect, didn’t one board member out of nine bother to google Wasser’s resume? Didn’t one board member think it odd that a full-time administrator could earn a Ph.D. in less than a year?

The Freehold Board, for whatever reason, blew it bigtime. There will no doubt be some turnover in that board come Election Day in April, and remaining board members would be well-served by exercising appropriate due diligence. But for this we need a new piece of legislation that instructs school board members not to be stupid? Intoned Senate President Dick Codey,

This is a matter, if we allow it to go unchecked, will undermine the foundation of our educational system. At the very least, we have a very serious case of misrepresentation on our hands, and at the worst, you may be looking at fraud.

Let’s not get carried away here. Such slip-ups are part of the charm of home rule. We love our small learning communities that reflect each town’s individuality, but the payback is the risk of anointing inexperienced or unmotivated residents as school board members. Meanwhile, the bill will sail through the Senate and waft over to the DOE, where another carload of regulatory minutiae will be trundled out to 4500 school board members.

Can we try to quantify costs here? The taxpayers of Freehold Regional School District are probably out about $15,000, once you throw together all the cash paid out in tuition and raises. But what's the tab for the time, labor, and materials to wrangle this bill through the Legislature? Maybe we all could use some remedial math courses.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Corey Booker Takes on NJEA

The October issue of School Reform News has just reprinted an article originally printed in the Rocky Mountain News during the Democratic Convention in Denver. At a meeting in August officially titled the “Ed Challenge for Change,” our own Corey Booker, mayor of Newark, had some harsh words for NJEA and other teacher unions. In the article, Booker describes the battle against teacher unions as “a battle for the heart of the Democratic Party.”

“We have been wrong in education”, Booker said of his party and its alliances with teachers unions that put adults before children. “It’s time to get it right.”

According to this monthly published by The Heartland Institute, a rabidly anti-union, pro-school choice rag, Booker also described how he was taken into “a broom closet” by NJEA leaders who “threatened he would never get elected if he did not stop talking about expanding choice.” Among the other up-and-comers at the meeting was Michelle Rhee, Washington D.C.’s school chancellor, who is currently fighting the DC teacher union for the right to award merit pay to outstanding educators.

What a heartening contrast to the game of charades underway in Trenton, where Corzine and his hacks at the DOE seem rattled by even a shadow of resistance from the mighty NJEA. Booker blogs regularly and seems to make a point of highlighting the achievements and initiatives at the many charter schools that make up an increasingly large part of Newark’s troubled school system. His blog entry on the meeting in Denver references a new group, The Education Quality Project, whose signatories include not only Booker, but also Michael Bloomberg, Al Sharpton, Newt Gingrich, Henry Cisneros, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Al Sharpton, and, heaven help us, John McCain.

Here’s their Mission Statement:

The Education Equality Project is a non-partisan group of elected officials, civil rights leaders, and education reformers that has formed to help ensure that America finally brings equity to an educational system that, 54 years since Brown v. Board of Education, continues to fail its highest needs students. The project will take on conventional wisdom and the entrenched impediments to real reform, focusing on teacher quality and pay; accountability for results; and maximizing parents' options. It will also challenge politicians, public officials, educators, union leaders, and anybody else who stands in the way of necessary change. This means challenging laws and contracts that preserve a system that fails students. The one measure of every policy, regardless of the depths of its historic roots or the power of its adherents, must be whether it advances student learning.

Education reform makes for strange bedfellows.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Plop Plop Fizz Fizz

Question: How are local school boards reacting to the reams of regulations recently issued by the DOE?

: Pass the alka-seltzer.

The first part of these regulations, which comprise 85 crisp pages of arcana, attempts to implement the statutes handed down from the State Legislature last Spring. Local school boards are busy rubber stamping countless mandated policies, everything from barring glossy paper and retirement gifts for teachers to standardizing work titles and vehicle inventory control records.

At a school board meeting last week in the Mercer County district of East Windsor, board members and administrators went through the farce of approving items that they had been ordered to approve. The Times of Trenton reports that

members got upset with two new state-mandated policies that require them to set an estimated budget for all legal and professional services for the year, and a third that prohibits school districts from "expending public funds for honoring an employee or group of employees." The same policy provides strict regulations of expenses for meals and refreshments.

Board members queried the Superintendent of East Windsor Regional, Ronald Bolandi, on their options, with one member calling the mandates “stupid.” Bolandi agreed with that assessment, said he had complained to the county superintendent to no avail, and told the members if they voted “no” then the district would fail QSAC, the new state monitoring system. The board sucked it up and voted “yes,” requesting that the "yes" votes be amended to include the phrase “under protest.”

It’s not the idea of requiring estimated budgets that have boards in a tizzy; they do that anyway (uh, require estimated budgets; tizzies are a matter of local preference. Boards generally would like, however, to have the ability to purchase little plaques to recognize 40 years of a teacher’s service, though that’s another matter). The heart of this mini-revolt is that which is anathema to school board members, mayors, Council members, and other proponents of home rule: the chipping away of local school governance. If Lucille Davy at the DOE issues regulations that dictate every facet of administration, school boards are rendered gratuitous.

Conspiracy theories abound. Corzine is secretly determined to use his lackey, Lucille Davy, to legislate away local power so that the State is really running standardized school districts. The new post of "Executive County Superintendent," who has line-item veto over every school district budget in his respective county, approves all high-level administrative posts, and can order consolidation of individual districts, is really intended to replace our castrated superintendents and business administrators as the true power broker.

On the other hand, do we really need 615 school districts? Probably not. There may, however, be some middle ground between the inefficiencies and redundancies of home rule and the covert legislating away of all local control.