Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Quotes of the Day

Not a good news day for the teaching profession:

The whole society is based on merit. Why is public education the only place where we don't give a damn if you're any good?

Theodore Hershberg, a University of Pennsylvania professor and executive director of Operation Public Education, expounding on merit pay for teachers in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

"Fairness" in this case is a technical term under established labor law, and the teachers union may well win another round in the legal arena. In the court of public opinion, however, teachers are forfeiting any claim to responsibility and rationality. If they can't recognize the fairness of getting a raise when many of the people who support them are heading for the breadlines, they don't deserve anything.

The Express-Times
on Pennsylvania's Saucon Valley Education Association, which has sued the local school board for negotiating in bad faith by moving back on a contract offer from 4.7% increase to 3.25%.


NorthJersey, in "Fixing Abbott," applauds Governor Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act and Judge Doyne’s ruling last week that allows the State to fund poor kids based on place of residence, regardless of whether they live in an Abbott district. The editorial opines,
We may never know exactly how much of those billions of dollars reached the classrooms of Paterson, Passaic, Garfield and the other Abbott districts and how much of that money did not. Suffice it to say that many children in New Jersey are still denied their constitutional right to a good education — and not all of them are in the Abbott districts.
The piece also notes that “the spending disparities no longer exist in the Abbott districts: They spend an average of $17,151 per student, while the wealthiest districts spend an average of $14,117.” What exactly is the correlation between funding per student and academic success? The SFRA adheres to the truism that poor kids require more money to achieve academically, and it seems logical. How much? What’s the formula? Privileged information, we suppose, since the D.O.E. was saved from having the Education Law Center’s eagle eyes poring over the data supporting the S.F.R.A. What’s the D.O.E. afraid of?

The Trenton Times
deems the Supreme Court’s ruling, which keeps the D.O.E. data secret, “a very narrow interpretation of the sunshine law,” and recommends “more light.” A little more light from the D.O.E. would be both refreshing and helpful in resuscitating their credibility.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Quote of the Day

My point is that if we've done everything we can to improve teacher pay and teacher performance and training and development, some people just aren't meant to be teachers, just like some people aren't meant to be carpenters, some people aren't meant to be nurses. At some point, they've got to find a new career.

President Obama at a White House news conference, in response to a question from a Philadelphia schoolteacher about what makes an "effective teacher." (Courtesy of The Washington Post, which adds parenthetically, "he [President Obama] could not get the teacher to answer when he asked whether in her 15 years on the job she has encountered colleagues who she would not want to teach her own children.")

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Education Law Center Gets Another Loss in Their Column:

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled 5-0 on Thursday that the D.O.E. does not have to release the data it used to arrive at the School Funding Reform Act. The Education Law Center, which just lost a ruling that would have preserved Abbott districts, had requested the data, but the Courts overturned two previous decisions to rule that the material falls under the "deliberative process" exemption of the state's Open Public Meetings Act, according to the Star-Ledger.

How Would School District Consolidation Work Anyway?

The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on efforts to merge school districts in Pennsylvania, where Governor Ed Rendell is pushing a plan to consolidate 501 districts into about 100. The same resistance from home rule advocates in N.J. dominates much of the discussions across the river. The Inquirer took a gander at how Pennsylvania education costs would change if they established county-wide districts, as Maryland does:

The analysis found that property owners in 51 of the 64 districts in the four suburban counties would see tax decreases; 13 of the wealthier districts would get increases. In an all-Montgomery County district, for example, Cheltenham would see a 47 percent decrease; Upper Merion, a 48 percent increase.
Elimination Of Abbott Districts Isn't Fair:

The Daily Journal argues
that Judge Doyne’s decision regarding Abbott vs. School Funding Reform Act may be “constitutional” but it isn’t “fair”:
We urge the state Supreme Court to rule in favor of the Abbott school districts. If not, the judges should at least grant the supplemental aid to the neediest districts so they have time to adjust their budgets to the ugly and unfair new funding formula.

Jackson Says Toss Life-long Tenure and the SRA:

Reverend Reginald Jackson, the head of the New Jersey Black Ministers Council, called for New Jersey to reform its failing school system by eliminating the current lifetime form of teacher tenure and getting rid of the Special Review Assessment, which allows kids who fail the 11th grade HSPA to graduate anyway. The NJEA responded through a spokesman, Steven Baker:

"Tenure is not a job for life," he said. "Tenure is a fair job dismissal process that requires just cause. It can't be an arbitrary firing or a personality conflict between a teacher and an administrator."

Not a "job for life?" Really? Would NJEA care to offer up stats on the number of tenured teachers in New Jersey who have been dismissed due to performance over, say, the last twenty years?

Bad Prospects For School Budgets:

The Courier-Post predicts that many school budgets will fail when voters go to the polls on April 21st and points out that, under the new School Funding Reform Act, even if budgets don’t pass muster with the voters there will be no changes made anyway if the district is under the D.O.E.’s “adequacy formula.”

Mulshine the Proofreader:

Paul Mulshine of the Star-Ledger makes the salient point that the oft-quoted line from the State Constitution – that every child is entitled to a “thorough and efficient education” – is actually false. The Constitution says, in fact, that

The Legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools for the instruction of all the children in the State between the ages of five and eighteen years.
Mulshine explains why the faulty formulation, actually quoted by Judge Peter Doyne in his decision last week, would never have been written by the framers of the Constitution:
For good reason: It is nonsensical. A child could theoretically have a right to a thorough education. But a right to an efficient education? Such a right would be abridged not if the state spent too little on education, but if it spent too much. And that of course is exactly what the state has been doing ever since the court first got involved in school funding back in 1973.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Abbott Obsolescence

The Star-Ledger Editorial Page is applauding Judge Peter E. Doyne’s decision that the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision Abbott vs. Burke II is obsolete. Here’s the Ledger precis:

‡¤Total state aid to the 31 Abbott districts for 2008-2009 is $4.65 billion -- 55 percent of all state aid to schools.

‡¤Twenty-three percent of students are in Abbott districts; 77 percent in non-Abbotts. And 49 percent of students considered to be disadvantaged are in non-Abbott districts.

‡¤Districts in the lowest socio-economic categories that are not considered sufficiently "urban" to qualify under Abbott are deprived of the benefits.

‡¤On average, the Abbott districts are actually capable of raising more local tax money per pupil than some wealthier districts.

Judge Doyne exercised a bit caution by installing a safety net beneath the 31 poor urban districts designated as Abbott, ordering a 3-year period during which funding would continue, probably to ensure that the State D.O.E. can really pull its new funding formula off. But this was a clear win for Corzine, the Assembly, and the D.O.E. Corzine, no doubt basking in the glow, has already vowed to fight the 3-year transition. The primary advocates for the Abbott districts, the Education Law Center, are apparently sleeping it off since no one can reach them for comment.

Here’s the most interesting part of the decision: Abbott vs. Burke not only mandated that the State provide funding for the 31 urban districts to provide “a thorough and efficient education”, but mandated that the funding be at the level of our richest districts. Judge Doyne, however, overturns that definition of equity:

The State's obligation to attain that minimum is absolute -- any district that fails must be compelled to comply. If, however, that level is reached, the constitutional mandate is fully satisfied regardless of the fact that some districts may exceed it. In other words, the Constitution does not mandate equal expenditures per pupil.

Ironically, “equal expenditures per pupil,” regardless of town of residence, is the engine that drives the State Funding Reform Act, which will replace the Abbott rulings as a formula to divvy up State education aid unless the Supreme Court overturns Judge Doyne’s ruling. The D.O.E. has established “adequacy formulas” which dictate how much each district, regardless of wealth, should spend on everything from transportation to custodians to curricula. (No, it doesn’t establish adequacy for staff salaries, which account for about 80% of a district’s budget.) While the Judge has just ruled that it’s okay for one district to spend more than another as long as poor kids are taken care of thoroughly and efficiently, he’s also undermined the S.F.R.A, which uses obsolete Abbott logic: per-pupil costs should be the same throughout New Jersey.

Local districts have been apoplectic about the adequacy formulas (called QSAC, or Quality Single Accountability Continuum -- catchy, huh?) and the D.O.E. has been relentless about enforcement. Will Judge Doyne's ruling insert a valium into this dynamic? Will rich districts continue to bite their nails to the quick worrying about losing their bells and whistles? Will the Education Law Center regain consciousness and fight to regain lost ground? Will the D.O.E. surprise everyone by capably managing a funding formula that requires accuracy and timing?

Tell us what you think!

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of Alfred Doblin, Record Editorial Columnist:

JON CORZINE finally caught a break. A Superior Court judge ruled Wednesday that the governor's new school aid formula is constitutional. While that decision will bounce back up to the state Supreme Court, with his approval rating dropping like a fly ball and the state's middle class squeezed like a Valencia orange, this is a huge victory for the governor up for reelection.

Trenton Playing Fast and Loose with I.E.P.'s?

The Trenton Times reports on protests from both parents and the Trenton Education Association regarding a reduction of 400 employees through both attrition and lay-offs, in spite of recommendations that more staff to teach electives.

One interesting development:

Leaders of the TEA and the paraprofessionals' union said they believed the child study teams that evaluate the needs of special education students had been improperly instructed to change students' Individualized Education Plans to reduce the number of teachers required.

Really? If true, the district would be seriously out of compliance with I.D.E.A. since changes in I.E.P.’s can only be made by the individual Child Study Teams which include parents of the child with disabilities.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Corzine Gets Greedy

The Governor's Office just issued a press release saluting the Court's decision on Abbott v. SFRA (see post below) and squabbling with Judge Doyne's ruling that there be a three-year transitional period to ensure enough funding for the Districts-Formerly-Known-As-Abbotts. Says Corzine,

While Judge Doyne makes clear his view of the formula conforms to New Jersey's constitution, I don't agree that the record supported the Judge's recommendation that the Abbott districts be allowed to apply for supplemental funding, at least for the first three years of the implementation of the new formula, and we will seek to convince the Supreme Court otherwise.

SFRA v. Abbott Highlights

The full text of the Court's decision is here for you stalwarts, but here's a Cliff Notes version:

Judge Peter Doyne, quoting from Abbott II, explains what he means by "a thorough and efficient education." Key point: it doesn't mean funding our poorest kids at the rate of our richest kids, which is at the heart of the Abbott v. Burke epic:
a thorough and efficient education requires a certain level of educational opportunity, a minimum level, that will equip the student to become “a citizen and . . . a competitor in the labor market.” Robinson I, supra, 62 N.J. at 515, 303 A.2d 273. The State's obligation to attain that minimum is absolute -- any district that fails must be compelled to comply. If, however, that level is reached, the constitutional mandate is fully satisfied regardless of the fact that some districts may exceed it. In other words, the Constitution does not mandate equal expenditures per pupil. We implied that the level can -- and should -- be defined in terms of substantive educational content. But while disparity was explicitly permitted, there was a caveat -- the excess spending could not somehow be allowed to mask a failure to achieve thoroughness and efficiency in other districts.

Judge Doyne Evaluates the Plaintiff's argument that the D.O.E.'s method for assessing necessary education costs -- Professional Judgement Panel, or PJP -- is flawed and inaccurate. Key witness for the Plaintiffs was Dr. Margaret E. Goertz. From Doyne's opinion:

Goertz has been involved with the Abbott litigation for in excess of twenty years. Goertz testified in the remand hearing conducted before then A.L.J. Steven L. Lefelt in 1987, and thereafter testified before the Honorable Kenneth S. Levy, J.S.C. and the Honorable Michael Patrick King, P.J.A.D. in conjunction with subsequent remand hearings. One is compelled to wonder whether she has developed a vested interest in the issues presented thereby precluding a dispassionate review.


Recognizing there is no study on any correlation between funding and educational outcome, Goertz was not prepared to opine what amount of funding was necessary to ensure a thorough and efficient education while she was compelled to acknowledge New Jersey is one of the highest spending states in the country on educating its youth

Judge Doyne's discussion of the SFRA's calculations for special education costs:

In determining costs under the census-based method, the State used actual expenditures for special education (as compared to the PJP model), in part, because a study found New Jersey had significantly above-average expenditures in this area. D-1 34; see also D-78 at AB00729; see also Davy, 1 T 89:23-91:25. In fact, this State has a higher special education classification rate than any other state in the country -- 12.54%; the national classification average is 8.96%. Gantwerk, 28 T 20:17-21:16; D-159. By way of comparison, the census-based model under SFRA uses a classification rate of 14.69%. N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-51(e).

Generally speaking:

While exceedingly complex, the SFRA formula represents a well considered, even expansive, formula to allow a thorough and efficient education for all children in the State. The same, by definition, would include the children in the Abbott districts.

And more specifically:

In the first year of SFRA funding, the Abbott districts received an average per pupil revenue of $17,325; the average per pupil revenue for the I & J districts was $14,046. D-62. That is, the average per pupil revenue provided to the Abbott districts under SFRA is 23.3 percent higher than the revenues provided in the I & J districts. The same must also be understood in light of the national average per pupil spending in 2005-2006, the last year statistical evidence was available, was $9,154. D-136.

Regarding Abbott District advocates who argued that the SFRA will mean cuts in necessary services:

Many district educators opined it would not be possible to provide a thorough and efficient education with any reduction in their present funding; some testifying every dollar spent currently is necessary to provide a thorough and efficient education. With all due respect to the district representatives commendable efforts on behalf of their students, this assumption is simply rejected. To argue there are no inefficiencies within a district and that every dollar spent currently is necessary to provide a thorough and efficient education is simply unreasonable. Furthermore, some of the “necessities” discussed during the hearings seem overly aspirational – a digital camera for preschool classrooms, three field trips per year as compared to two field trips per year, etc.
Judge Doyne: "The time for reform is now."

in 2009 twenty-three percent of the students are educated in Abbott districts; seventy-seven percent in non-Abbott districts. D-114. Despite the same, Abbott districts receive the majority of state aid for education. If the Abbott districts do not increase tax levies beyond compliance with the required minimum tax levy, Abbott districts will have available an average of $17,151 in revenues per pupil for the 2008-2009 school year. Assuming the I and J districts raise their tax levies for the 2008-2009 year by four percent (consistent with the local levy growth limitation of N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-38), they will spend an average of $14,117 per pupil. D-20 24.
The time for reform is now.

On the need for a three-year transition period from one formula to another:

While recognizing the defendants’ arguments concerning supplemental funding are not without appeal, this court is satisfied, given the burden imposed, it cannot find SFRA constitutional as applied if supplemental funding is not recognized, if only for the first three year review period. The potential harm to the students in the Abbott districts outweighs the defendants’ assertion there shall be no need for supplemental funding, at least until the realities of implementation are known.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

SFRA Knocks Out Abbott

Here, hot off the press, is Superior Court Judge Peter E. Doyne's ruling on the State D.O.E.'s attempt to overturn the Abbott decisions in favor of the School Funding Reform Act. Judge Doyne ruled that S.F.R.A. is indeed constitutional, contrary to the arguments posed by the Education Law Center, primary advocates for the Abbott districts.

We'll have more tomorrow.

Kansas and Oz

It’s an old saw that there are two different Jerseys: the inner cities of Paterson and Newark and Camden, and the upscale small towns of Short Hills and Mahwah and Bedminster. Today two newspaper articles depict the stark split.

First, the Trenton Times investigates a massive lay-off in the Trenton public schools, where more than 400 employees are getting pink-slipped despite the fact that some consultants just recommended that more teachers should be hired to teach electives in applied engineering, home economics, and computer applications. Why? Simple: not enough money from the State or, rather, the same amount of state aid as last year, which means that the budget needs to be slashed to accommodate contracted increases in salaries and benefits. Said Board President L. Diane Campbell,

They're[the D.O.E.] saying we have too many teachers and too many students in classes and we have to right-size in order to keep the money going forward.

According to the DOE School Report Card, Trenton does have too many kids per classroom: 24.3 kids per class in Trenton Central High versus the state average of 18.9. (This despite a per pupil total cost of $16,120, the typical price per kid in Abbott districts.) On the other hand, the DOE also counts the number of kids per teacher across the district, and here there are no crowds: while the state average is 11.1 kids per teacher (this includes support staff, nurses, social workers, guidance counselors), in Trenton it’s 10.1.

What are the teachers doing during the day when they’re not staffing classrooms? No doubt all sorts of legitimate activities, but the last thing this district needs is another hit. Is there a case to be made here for turning the whole place over to KIPP?

On the other side of the rainbow, look at Fred Snowflack’s piece in the Daily Record, which recounts how the Board of Education in ritzy Mountain Lakes just awarded Superintendent John Kazmark a 13% raise by 2012 to bring his annual salary to about $248,000. Says Snowflack,

One can defend his contract as rewarding excellence, but to the layperson, paying a man almost a quarter of a million dollars a year to run a relatively small K-12 district is astonishing. It is such practices that over time mushroom into anger -- anger that prompts well-meaning people to clap when they hear "getting rid of the public school system."

According to Board members, the increase – which one resident pointed out would bring his salary to $170 per child – was prompted by Kazmark’s hints at looming retirement. In other words, they bribed him to stay. Then again, he probably didn’t sweat it too much in the land of Mountain Lakes with an average of 16.9 kids a classroom.

Rev. Jackson Goes to Trenton

Reverend Reginald Jackson, head of New Jersey’s Black Ministers Council, will be at the Statehouse today advocating for school reform. Expect some fireworks; the Associated Press quotes him today deriding teacher tenure:

The Rev. Reginald Jackson said no other profession gives lifetime job security after three years. He said tenured teachers have no incentive to do their best.

We're sensing a growing New Jersey trend of disapproval towards the lickety-split lifetime job security handed out to teachers like candy corn on Halloween. Hey, NJEA: how about 7 year renewable contracts? Or how about 6 years before tenure? Nah, we're dreaming...

Then again, Michelle Rhee, Time Magazine covergirl and symbol of radical education reform (also Chancellor of D.C. Schools), has somehow managed to keep intact her plan that offers teachers the option of tenure plus capped pay or non-tenure plus big bonuses based on performance. Is teaching a risk-averse assembly-line occupation or a profession that rewards expertise and results? The jury's still out.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Filling in Bubbles

Ed D. Hirsch, Jr opines in the New York Times today teaching to the test is just fine, as long as the tests are aligned with explicit grade-by-grade content standards as opposed to the typically random questions:

We do not need to abandon either the principle of accountability or the fill-in-the-bubble format. Rather we need to move from teaching to the test to tests that are worth teaching to.

It's an interesting premise: it's become de rigeur for educators to complain that their time is spent drilling kids on pointless exercises in preparation for the endless stream of state assessments. What if the assessments were a teaching heuristic instead of a punitive measure of a school's efficacy?

Dunkin' Munchins

The Asbury Park Press reports on the battle between home rule traditionalists and those who are press for the merging of "doughnut-hole towns" in order to lower costs:

But in a state with a small-town history going back to Colonial days, and home rule embedded in the laws and tradition, plenty of critics say the decision to consolidate should be left up to the towns themselves, not the state.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Asbury-Park Press Votes "No" on Preschools:

Corzine's determination to go ahead with a preschool expansion is "unconscionable in this economic climate" and Davy's excitement is derided as "positively giddy." Here's the full editorial, which gets the illogic right but misses the real agenda of the preschool initiative, which is undermine the necessity of the Abbott districts.

Nicholas Kristof Gives Some Love to Michelle Rhee:

Yesterday's New York Times features a Kristof op-ed in which he quotes the D.C. education reformer:

“Public education is supposed to be the great equalizer in this country,” Ms. Rhee said, adding, “That’s not the reality we have in D.C.” Instead, she said, children who grow up in Georgetown and those who grow up in the poor, mostly black neighborhood of Anacostia “get two wildly different educational experiences. There’s a lot of data showing that we’re utterly failing our children in this district.”

Hmmm. Rhee could be talking about the educational opportunities offered to children who grow up in Short Hills Montgomery or Mountain Lakes compared to those who grow up in the poor, mostly black neighborhood of, say, Newark or Paterson or Trenton.

Federal Stimulus Education Dollars:

"Some Rich Districts Get Richer as Aid is Rushed to Schools," in today's New York Times, profiles two districts in Wyoming, where the one that already supplies laptops to all fourth-graders gets more cash per student than the one that struggles with basic supplies.

Ugly Accusations Fly at Hamilton Board Meeting:

In Mercer County's Hamilton school district, charges of nepotism disrupted a recent board meeting. See this Trenton Times piece.

The Cost of Home Rule, Police Department Division:

The New York Times' Peter Coyne reports
on the growing financial drag on local towns:

The union that represents about three-quarters of the state’s law enforcement officers disagrees. “Overall, I don’t see the mass number of awards or people getting these awards that shows it’s a problem,” said James Ryan, spokesman for the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association. “One of the things I worry about with these economic conditions is that, the way we’re set up in New Jersey, with so many small towns, the biggest expense in any municipal budget is typically going to be your police department, so it’s very easy to pick on."

New DOE Program Makes Teachers Out of Unemployed Math and Science Whizzes:

The Times of Trenton lauds the DOE's new Alternative Route Program, which allows non-teachers with expertise in math and science to fast-track themselves to public school teaching positions. Too bad it's a pilot program with only 25 slots, but it's a step in the right direction.

And Paul Mulshine Has a Field Day With the Costs of Public Education in NJ:

I think everyone in the audience [at a Republican meeting in Morristown] knew instinctively what I know from mathematical study: Public education is an economic failure and would go out of business if it were in the private sector.

Friday, March 20, 2009

New Spending Guide Released

Commissioner Lucille Davy today released the 2009 Comparative Spending Guide, the DOE's annual statistical report that details local school spending and ranks districts based on per pupil spending, administrative costs, transportation efficiency, extracurricular expenses, etc. Districts are divided by operating type and size (e.g., 1800-3500 kids, K-6). Here's the link.

Here are the highlights, from the DOE press release:

  • The state average total cost per pupil is $13,539 this year, up 5.9% from the actual average cost in the previous year. This is greater than the average increase in the previous two years – 5.0% for FY 2008 and 3.8% for FY 2007.

  • Total classroom instructional costs average $7,968 per pupil this year, for an increase of 6.1%. While the rate of increase was higher than in the previous year at only 4.7%, instructional expenditures remain about 59% of the total cost per pupil.

  • Support services, such as guidance and nursing services, are $2,091 per pupil this year on average, an increase of 6.5% since last year. This increase is consistent with the previous year. Support services currently comprise 15.4% of the total cost per pupil.

  • Administrative costs this year average $1,430 per pupil, a one-year increase of 3.3% (compared with the previous year’s increase of 3.1%). On average, administrative costs make up 10.6% of the total cost per pupil.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Abbott's Law

The Philadelphia Inquirer just reported that the NJ DOE has bowed to pressure and agreed to eliminate Algebra II from the list of new high school requirements proposed with great fanfare by the High School Reform Steering Committee. In addition, the DOE is backing off on some of the science requirements and the “personalized learning plans” that were supposed to be in place in all districts for all 6th-12th grade students.

We applaud the DOE’s openness to the concerns of parents, districts, and educators. There was already a lot of evidence that the High School Redesign Team had overreached, both educationally and politically. For example, the Education Law Center, which represents Abbott districts, charged that poor urban children were being “marginalized” by unreasonable expectations (see their paper "NJMissteps" here) and Dr. Joseph Rosenstein, Mathematics Professor at Rutgers and Director of the New Jersey Mathematics Coalition, argued persuasively last April in a Star-Ledger editorial that the NJ High School Redesign Committee was bamboozled by Achieve, Inc. , a national organization "whose perspective and conclusions the Redesign Committee accepts unquestioningly," and that what students need “is not more algebra, but better algebra – not Algebra II, but a thorough understanding of Algebra I – and a better grasp of the utility of mathematics.”

You can decide for yourself. But it’s almost besides the point. The DOE has spent the better part of the last two years frenetically issuing new mandates, regulations, curricula, adequacy formulas, high school graduation requirements that standardize our sprawling school system. Why? Because the State Court, in Abbott v. Burke, issued an equation – call it Abbott’s Law. Abbott’s Law states that regardless of poverty level, social issues, environment, or parental support, all is equalized with money. Ergo, once cash distribution is equalized, academic achievement is equalized. Cash = Academic Success.

Now the DOE is trapped within a flawed equation. So are taxpayers.

Here’s an unadorned fact for you: in Paterson, the average 9th grader reads at a 4th grade level. Could some of those kids, given supports and services, catch up and pass Algebra II? Sure. Could all of them? Doubtful. The DOE, in withdrawing the most ambitious parts of the High School Redesign, just acknowledged this fact and, in doing so, passed their own judgment on the Court’s innumerate equation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Quote of the Day

First, right now the teachers’ unions are in a purgatory of their own creation. They don’t want to use data to evaluate teachers and they don’t want to use managerial discretion. I guess that leaves the Magic 8-Ball?

Eduwonk on the inability of the teachers' unions to embrace meaningful education reform.

Englewood Heroics

All hail the Englewood School Board, which has courageously drawn a line in the sand between fiscal logic and inanity. North Jersey reports that negotiations between the Board and the Englewood Teachers Association have broken down because the teachers are demanding a 4.3% pay hike and no contributions to insurance plans, while the Board is holding firm on its offer of 2.7% and some sort of minimal health insurance contribution. The Board has also asked for “structuring pay on a merit system.”

It’s hard to get any traction with NJEA on a movement to halt sky-high percentage increases for teachers; each local district bargains with not much more than a slingshot, while local teacher associations have the the NJEA Goliath wielding heavy artillery. When negotiations hit a wall, State-appointed mediators and fact-finders rely on recent settlements to resolve disputes, so the final deal is inevitably self-perpetuating, even when economic conditions are in free-fall. The result is that when a local board like Englewood stands firm, it comes off as biblically virtuous and the local union comes off as intractably callous.

There’s a solution, though it’s not clear that NJEA even recognizes that it has a problem. Suggestion: take a page from Montgomery County, Maryland, and resurrect your image. That teachers union gets a plug from Thomas Friedman in the New York Times today:

I live in Montgomery Country, Md. The schoolteachers here, who make on average $67,000 a year, recently voted to voluntarily give up their 5 percent pay raise that was contractually agreed to for next year, saving our school system $89 million — so programs and teachers would not have to be terminated. If public schoolteachers can take one for schoolchildren and fellow teachers, A.I.G. brokers can take one for the country.

School districts in New Jersey are presenting their budgets to taxpayers right now, and each board recites the same tale of woe: in order to find the money for the typical 4% or 5% annual percentage increases, they’re cutting programs, necessary building maintenance, arts and music. How about a little shared sacrifice? How about a little recognition that the current increases are unsustainable?

Here's NJEA's chance to look heroic. In the end, it's a far better strategy than looking like an A.I.G. broker.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Ocean County Consolidation meets the DOE

Bruce Greenfield, Ocean County Executive Superintendent, seems way ahead of the curve on his marching orders to offer consolidation proposals to the DOE. According to the Asbury Park Press, he’s come up with a creative way to meet both the mandate for consolidation and the mandate for preschools: consolidate Seaside Park, Seaside Heights and Island Heights school districts into Toms River Regional, and then use the empty elementary schools for preschool and kindergarten kids.

Sounds like a winner, especially for Seaside Heights, which has been battling in court for years to win the right to withdraw from a neighboring district where they send their post-elementary school kids, Central Regional. But there’s a couple of roadblocks in the way. First, Central Regional has no interest in losing tuition income from Seaside Heights and any consolidation would have to be “tax-neutral,” i.e., not raise school taxes for Central Regional’s participating districts. More importantly, no one has any idea why the story is with preschool aid.

Back on January 16th, Commissioner Lucille Davy wrote a letter to all school superintendents and said, in part,

I can tell you that while the Governor remains firmly committed to the expansion of high quality preschool programs for children at risk because of poverty, we are awaiting decisions from the new administration and Congress regarding the federal economic stimulus package. Given the state’s fiscal crisis, it will be difficult to fund preschool expansion for September 2009 without federal funding. The preschool expansion plans that were submitted by districts throughout the state demonstrated your enthusiasm and readiness to provide these programs. I also understand that for planning purposes and in order to notify parents, you need a decision on this as soon as possible and we expect to have more definitive information by mid-to-late February. Under any circumstances, however we will not ask local taxpayers to fund these programs.

Help us out here. Are preschool programs for at-risk kids fully funded, as they are in Abbott districts? Are they half-way funded, as individual district aid numbers indicate? Are they funded only for a portion of the eligible kids, as other information suggests? It’s nice that Ms. Davy understands that districts need a decision “as soon as possible,” but it would be nicer if that understanding translated into information from the DOE.

The irony here is that the Corzine and the DOE have made it their raison d'etre to overcome New Jersey's extravagant culture of local school governance. However, it's the DOE's current lack of fiscal transparency that is getting in the way of a resourceful solution.

Quote of the Day

As a former school board member, I am saddened by the timidity of school boards. At this time, the David of school boards are mismatched against the Goliath of teacher unions. The enforcement of dress codes is a beginning for school boards to awaken from their leadership coma and demand a professional appearance through a dress code.

The Star-Ledger's Joseph Wardy on teacher dress codes. Sounds like an idea for a new reality show: "What Not to Wear in the Classroom?" "Make me a SuperTeacher?" "America's Next Top Education Fashionista?"

Byrne and Kean: Cut N.J. Education Costs

Governors Brendan Byrne and Tom Kean were interviewed by the Star-Ledger editorial board. Both concurred on the failure of the Abbott formula, which pours money into 31 poor urban districts, and on New Jersey's general profligacy with education tax dollars:

Q: One of the few areas relatively unscathed in the proposed budget cutting was education. Do we also need to look for cuts there, or is education too important a priority?

BYRNE: Education is a magic word, if not a holy word, so nobody takes a hard look at education dollars. I talked to someone who has intimate knowledge of the Newark education system, and he said it was practically impolitic to do that. We have to stop looking at anything as a sacred cow and start taking things apart and examining them.

KEAN: Over the years, we've probably wasted more money on education than any other item in the budget. Millions and millions have been put into schools whose test scores have gone down instead of up. Education has to be treated as everything else in budget. We have to make hard choices, and do better with less.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Now if School Districts Could Catch Up with Local Media...

Local papers continue to foment over the crippling costs of home rule. The Record looks at 8 Pascack Valley towns that have formed a consortium to jointly bid out road paving projects:

The Pascack Valley administrators found it is possible to reconcile home rule traditions and fiscal constraints. "You have to check this parochialism at the door and allow the creativity to come about. We're there to think outside the box," said Oradell's borough administrator, Wolfgang Albrecht. "The box for too long has been our town borders."

And the Courier-Post urges us to get over ourselves and regionalize:

While those enamored with home rule fight it, regional police departments (along with other regional services such as local courts and school districts) are the future in New Jersey. The economic climate and New Jersey's repressive tax structure demands the kind of regionalization that's the norm in other states. It's time South Jerseyans in small towns came to grips with the fact that taxes cannot be controlled without giving up some of the many expensive public entities our highest-in-the-nation property taxes pay for.

With One Hand Corzine Giveth...

Was the headline writer for the New York Times having some fun when he titled John Mooney’s piece on Sunday, “Dozens of Schools to Benefit from Funds in Corzine’s Budget?” Was he or she being obtuse? Pandering to Corzine? In need of remedial math courses? We’ll never know but, for the record, even if we generously interpret “dozens” as, say, 5 dozen, that’s still less than 10% of the 616 school districts in New Jersey who “benefit” from Corzine’s budget.

Read a little closer and Mooney inserts a few gentle tweaks. He quotes from Corzine's Budget Address:
In New Jersey, we recognize the importance of our children, they are our bright hope for the future. To that purpose, in this budget, we have increased, rather than cut, classroom funding for K-12 education.
But then notes,
Yet that still leaves about 400 districts that will see no increases at all, including those in Cape May and Sussex Counties and all but one district in Hunterdon.

There’s no question that most districts were relieved that Corzine’s budget was free of the rumored large cuts in state aid to schools. However, the figures released to individual districts on Wednesday left more questions than answers. For example, all districts rely on a line item called “Extraordinary Aid,” which helps allay costs for some special education students who require upwards of $40,000 per year in tuition payments. Yet a close look at the numbers reveal that for some districts that aid is absent this year. And the much-vaunted full-day preschool money? Everyone’s scratching their heads, because the math doesn’t work.

Mooney writes,

With New Jersey set to receive at least $1 billion in federal stimulus funds for education, Mr. Corzine was able to avert overall cuts in school aid, and he proposed spending $25 million of that money to start the state’s planned preschool expansion into more than 80 working- and middle-class districts, where 3- and 4-year-olds will be entitled to full-day programs.
Remember that Corzine’s intention was to provide free preschool for poor students who don’t live in Abbott districts (where young kids already get free preschool). Why is this politically so important? Because the DOE’s current court battle to overturn the Abbott decisions in favor of the School Finance Reform Act is predicated on the assumption that all poor kids, regardless of home district, will be afforded services like preschools. The DOE even pinned a number on it over the summer: $12,000 per child. But the aid will be far less -- $6,000 per kid instead of $12,000 – and will service fewer children.

It'll be a tough case to argue that the State can provide equity through SFRA if non-Abbott poor kids get only half their share.

What are districts supposed to do? Provide half-day preschool? Hold a lottery for spots? No one seems to know. So, while “dozens” of districts may be satisfied and relieved, the majority of districts are begging for direction from the DOE.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

Collectively, these [appointed Camden City School Board] members have missed 46 percent of their meetings or a rate 3 1/2 times higher than the district's high school students during the 2007 school year. As a board, the nine members have an absenteeism rate of 22 percent, a rate nearly double the city's high school students.

Courier-Post on the absentee rate of the Camden City School Board

Sunday Leftovers

Davy Up Close and Personal:

Today's Star-Ledger has a lukewarm profile of Education Commissioner Lucille Davy in which the m.o. seems to be to damn with faint praise. The piece quotes Ada Beth Cutler, dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Montclair State University, who weakly tosses this:
I admire and respect Lucille for her incredible dedication to the students and the public schools of New Jersey. She wants to find ways to ensure every child in the state succeeds. The jury is out on whether some of the policies she has initiated will achieve those goals, but she is very dogged and sincere about trying to effect change.

Irene Sterling of the Paterson Education Fund gives it a half-hearted whirl:

She is a nice, middle-class woman. She has been very persuasive with people who have like experience. She's not very persuasive when she steps outside her circle. She has a very narrow view of what is happening.

Dogged and sincere. Nice, middle-class woman. That's the best we can do, folks?

To be fair, the article also cites Newark Superintendent Clifford Janey and Davy's hometown friend complimenting her commitment and knowledge. And here's an interesting snippet:
Davy bristles at the notion she is naive, arguing she understands the needs in the poor districts and believes they are being met. She noted state aid per pupil in New Jersey is among the highest in the nation; no one spends more overall.
Spending the most in the nation is a good thing? If we've learned anything from history of the Abbott districts it is that increases in spending do not correlate with increases in achievement.

Asbury Park Press Takes Corzine Up on His Offer:

Let's jump from lukewarm to sizzling as the APP delivers a hard-hitting answer to Corzine's challenge for better ideas to solve our monetary mess. Among the education-related suggestions listed:

Take whatever steps are necessary — legislation, executive order or use of governor's emergency powers — to impose immediate wage freezes for all municipal, county and school employees. Freezing state workers' wages and imposing furloughs isn't enough — and it isn't fair that only state workers are being asked to make the sacrifice. Do it across the board.

Pass legislation requiring that all public employees pay at least 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance premiums.

Eliminate the expanded pre-K program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Even in good times, its value is debatable. Wait until the economy turns, then fully debate.

Cap at 10, or fewer, the number of holidays state, municipal, county and school employees may receive through collective bargaining. State and county workers now get at least 13 paid holidays — the most in the nation.

Passaic Teachers Rally To, Uh, Negotiate:

The Record reports that teachers in Passaic held a rally to protest their unresolved collective bargaining. Talks didn't begin until two months before the former contract expired in August 2007 because the School Board was bargaining with another unit. Come on, board members: surely you can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Budget Process Can Be a Political Football...

...at least in Hamilton, where Board candidates are bonding with current Board members to protest a budget process that seems to delegate a bit too much to the Administration. Board member Andrew Kaszimer explains to the Trenton Times:

Essentially, central office staff was deciding on the budget back in October but it was not until our January meeting that we met as a whole board to hear a budget. It was really already done.

Get That District a Sudafed:

The Press of Atlantic City reports
that Pinelands Regional School District suspended a kid for having a tablet of Alavert (a legal, over-the-counter antihistamine) in his backpack. You know, zero tolerance policy and all. The ACLU is now suing the district. Good use of taxpayer funds, guys.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Merit Pay Momentum

The Record comes out in favor of at least trying some form of merit pay in New Jersey:

The New Jersey School Boards Association knows of no merit pay system involving teachers in New Jersey. But we urge local school boards, teachers and parents to explore these ideas in depth. The new president is urging everyone involved in education to aim higher, to be creative and to consider every possible way to bring excellence to all of America's classrooms.

That's an exciting challenge — and one that is essential to our future.

And David Brooks of the New York Times writes today,

The reform vision Obama sketched out in his speech flows from that experience. The Obama approach would make it more likely that young Americans grow up in relationships with teaching adults. It would expand nurse visits to disorganized homes. It would improve early education. It would extend the school year. Most important, it would increase merit pay for good teachers (the ones who develop emotional bonds with students) and dismiss bad teachers (the ones who treat students like cattle to be processed).

Brooks notes that Obama has been "shamefully quiet" about Congressional Democrats who killed the D.C. voucher program, but holds out hope that the President's deeply-felt commitment to education reform will result in meaningful action.

Toothless in Ocean County

Here’s the problem with Corzine’s school consolidation initiative: it won’t work. Witness the forum held in Ocean County, where the Executive County Superintendent Bruce Greenfield pleaded with a packed house of residents to consider the economic benefits of shared services and cost efficiencies.

This particular county is ripe for consolidation. One proposal floating out there would combine three tiny school districts -- Island Heights (one school, 110 kids, $15,652 total cost per pupil), Seaside Heights (one school, 207 kids, $16,250 total cost per pupil), and Seaside Park (one school, 78 kids, $19,156 total cost per pupil) -- with Toms River, a large18-school district with a total cost per pupil of $10,496. But, as Greenfield pointed out in an article today in the Asbury Park Press, "Once it's voted down, as far as regionalization goes, that's it.”

That’s the problem: no teeth. Everyone acknowledges that there’s no way for consolidation to work without at least one district ending up with higher property taxes, and suggestions for incentives from the State to cover some of the cost seem to have gone nowhere fast. So, one district says “no,” and we can stick the fork in it. It’s done and can’t be brought back again for voter consideration.

Here’s a suggestion: how about a majority of districts getting the final say instead of one town having the power to scotch the whole deal? Yes, some town would have to pay more, but maybe instead of going through all the trouble and expense of dead-on-arrival consolidation proposals, we come up with a plan to partially compensate the losing minority with some cash to alleviate a bit of the tax pain?

The most concrete draw of consolidation is to lower property taxes. The more abstract results -- desegregating schools, moving beyond our home rule provincialism, cultural change -- probably won't gain traction from enough constituents to garner the necessary "yes" votes, especially when the bar is set so low. Can our governing bodies find a way to create momentum for a movement like this through meaningful incentive programs?

Anyone got some teeth?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

"To be honest with you, when you're a couple million dollars over cap, I need a preschool like I need a hole in the head."

Bloomfield Superintendent Frank Digesere on the prospects for his proposed preschool for 75 poor children, upon hearing that the district was getting far less aid than promised.

Corzine's Hat Trick

Given the complexity of this economic situation, any increase at all is a victory. We are very, very fortunate that the governor has made education a top priority, children a top priority.
Lucille Davy, Education Commissioner

For a district like ours, flat funding actually means a decrease, because there are other costs that continue to grow, from salaries and benefits, to gas and oil and maintenance. With our buildings being older, keeping them up to standards costs more.
Rodney Lofton, Trenton Public Schools Superintendent

Huh? Is it an increase or a decrease in school funding? Why is Davy sucking up to Corzine if school funding is going down? Why is Lofton whining if his funding is increasing despite a tanking economy?

Like everything else, the devil is in the details. (Here’s the details: the district-by-district state aid numbers from the DOE.) Thus, early yesterday afternoon, when 500 or so white-knuckled business administrators sat at their desks and downloaded their state aid figures, it was more a matter of whether you’re a glass-half-empty or glass-half-full type of guy. Yes, state aid is largely flat. But that means that most school districts must either cut staff or services to keep their own budgets flat or present taxpayers with increases because the vast majority of a district’s budget – usually about 80 to 85% -- is union-negotiated salaries and benefits, and salaries alone are up somewhere in the neighborhood of 5%.

The word from the DOE has been all along that districts should expect the same number of state aid dollars as last year, so most forward-thinking school districts went ahead and either planned on presenting tax increases to voters or cut staff, services, or supplies in order to come in flat.

A big chunk of the state aid went to poor-but-not-Abbott-districts, per the new School Fund Reform Act, currently being evaluated by the courts. Rodney Lofton, Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, an Abbott district, seems especially upset, grouching to the Trenton Times,
It will absolutely mean that we will lose teachers, administrators, secretaries and other employees in this process.
And a little chunk of the state aid went to previously-deprived rich districts, who griped that it wasn’t enough. For instance, the Trenton Times quoted the School Board Finance Chair of Robbinsville Public Schools in Mercer County, which got a 5% increase:

Matthew O'Grady, the chair of the district's facilities, finance and transportation committee, said the 5 percent bump in aid "doesn't even come close to what we need. Forget what we need, what we deserve. ... We're continually doing more with less."
Of course, some people are unhappy with any increase in school aid at all. The Star-Ledger editorial page harrumphed,

On the spending side, Corzine avoids cuts that would hurt "the most vulnerable among us," and we're glad he's not putting more of a squeeze on hospitals and health care. But when aid to public schools makes up more than a third of the state budget, should it really be going up instead of down? Surely the time has come to force greater efficiencies on the state's 616 school districts.

Neat hat trick for Corzine. Everyone’s unhappy: school districts that saw flat aid, school districts that saw aid decreases, school districts that saw aid increases, and anyone who sees that we spend way too much on education in the first place. Of course, there’s still the question of how the State Court will rule on whether the Abbott districts should get more money, which would through a wrench into a budget that has found something to offend everyone. Maybe it's a good budget after all.

Pre-April Chill

As if school boards didn’t have enough financial angst, NJSBA reported yesterday that out of five referendum questions on the ballot Tuesday, only one passed. While a small renovation project in Hopewell Township, Cumberland County got voter approval, everything else -- from solar panels to renovations to new buildings to artificial turf -- got a thumbs-down. Doesn’t bode well for April, when voters in every town go through the relatively meaningless exercise of voting on school budgets.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Big "Phew" from School Districts

School districts across New Jersey are doing some under-the-table high-fives as they cling to the life raft tossed to them yesterday by Governor Corzine in his Budget Address. While no one will know details til late today, it appears that the worst scenarios will stay on paper. Based on the text of the speech, districts will see a slight increase in state aid and maybe even some preschool money.

Marie Bilik, Executive Director of NJSBA told the Asbury Park Press,

An increase in state aid will help maintain education programs for school children. It can also buffer homeowners from sharp increases in school property taxes.

Richard Bozza, Director of the NJ Association of School Administrators told the Star-Ledger that "this is really good news for the state of education in New Jersey," and Lynn Strickland of the Garden State Coalition of Schools expressed “a general sigh of relief from districts that they are not getting cut.”

There will also be more money for existing preschools in Abbott districts and maybe some more for new programs, though details are unclear.

There’s something to be said for low expectations. With many districts bracing for anywhere from 2% to 10% cuts in state aid, even flat funding sounds pretty good. Of course, flat funding means making cuts in school budgets anyway. A district's mandatory spending -- staff salaries and benefits, transportation, energy -- account for upwards of 85% of expenditures. With average salaries up between 4% and 5%, just keeping a budget flat means either raising taxes or making cuts. But, hey, it could be worse. Let's have a high-five.

Home Rule's "Mea Culpa"

Blame it on the economy. Blame it on past practices. Blame it on budget-balancing gimmicks. Blame it on unfunded pension liabilities. Whoever and whatever you want to blame for New Jersey’s fiscal mess, you’ve got to at least put some of the blame on home rule. And whatever you think of Corzine’s budget, he gets that:

This substantial commitment recognizes the heavy burden property taxes place on New Jersey families. It also recognizes the power and traditions of home rule. Obviously, no governor can single-handedly fix New Jersey's local property tax problem. Our state's 566 towns and 616 school districts need to rationalize their cost structures and hold spending under the cap. They need to share and consolidate services. Until these actions broadly take hold, the underlying problem will remain.

Simply put, New Jersey has too many layers of government. To the credit of many, the process of restructuring is gaining momentum across the state, and we will continue to promote consolidation and shared services wherever and whenever they make sense. There are incentive dollars in this budget that do just that.

Corzine may be overly optimistic that "restructuring" is "gaining momentum," at least in regards to school districts. But there's no way we'll lower property taxes without also lowering the expensive redundencies spawned by our fixation on local governance.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Text of Corzine's Budget Address Re: Education

There are certain parts of our government's work that we must sustain. In New Jersey, we recognize the importance of our children, they are our bright hope for the future. To that purpose, in this budget, we have increased, rather than cut, classroom funding for K-12 education. And with the federal government's help, we're giving our children a jump-start on a lifetime of learning.

This budget funds Pre-K education for 50,000 kids - an important down payment on our commitment to universal early childhood education. Our increase in classroom funding allows the state to press ahead with a new formula for school aid that is rooted in educational needs and fairness -- not zip codes. Our formula recognizes that half of all "at-risk" children live outside of Abbott districts. The state's school aid allows communities, rich and poor, urban and suburban, to hire talented educators who fire up our children's minds and imaginations, because here in New Jersey we believe that every child has a right to be inspired and challenged every day in schools that are among the world's best. School aid is just one reflection of the value we have placed on learning.

(Full text here at PolitickerNJ)

Paterson Mayday

Dr. Jonathan Hodges has stepped down from the presidency of the Paterson School Board to draw attention to the last set of dismal test scores in this Abbott, State-controlled district. There's more to the story than that – The Record ran a story last week recounting Hodges’ disappointment that Lucille Davy replaced the former superintendent with a new administrator. (Paterson's run by the State, so the Board there is "advisory" in nature.) Nonetheless, in an editorial in the Herald News Hodges explains that "I fired myself” as way to get other Paterson professionals to take responsibility for a school system in utter shambles. He writes,

More importantly, I did so to underscore the overall performance of the district and the fact that the adults in the system are not taking responsibility for what is happening here. The adults include the administrators, the principals, the teachers and, yes, the parents.

The Paterson public school district has about 30,000 kids, 52 schools, and over 6,000 employees. The total cost per pupil is $17,501. Over 90% of the kids are Hispanic or African-American., and over 50% have a primary language other than English. The reading level of the average Paterson student entering high school is fourth grade, six months.

Negotiations with the Paterson Teachers Association have fallen apart. Their current four-year contract, which expires in June, had raises of 4.74%, 5%, 5%, and 5.25% per year; they are demanding 16% pay raises over the next three years. The district is asking for more teaching hours and a teacher contribution of 1.5% to health benefits. And the lack of education? Hodges says that the President of the union attributes poor test scores to worn-out facilities.

So what happens to those 30,000 kids? What is needed to make some progress? Not more money: Paterson is an Abbott district and gets plenty of cash. It’s not help from the State: the DOE took over Paterson in 1991, and 18 years is probably long enough to tell whether that'll work out. So what do we do with a district that exhibits chronic failure? Turn the whole place over to KIPP academy? Bus the kids somewhere else?

Sometimes radical failures need radical solutions, not a rearrangement of deck chairs. Hodges' move is bold, that's for sure. Can the DOE match him with some sort of game-changing plan that gives those kids a chance?

Obama to Propose Teacher Merit Pay

The Wall Street Journal reports today that President Obama will announce his support for merit pay for teachers:

The merit pay proposal would significantly expand a federal program that increases pay for high-performing teachers to an additional 150 school districts, officials said. "What he'll be calling for…is to reward good teachers that are improving student outcomes," said one official.

Look for major pushback from the teachers' unions, along with sighs of relief from reformers like Michelle Rhee.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Does Home Rule Drive Our Economy Ills?

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board weighs in on the impact of home rule on NJ's tanking economy:

State cuts must be made. To his credit, Corzine started down that path last year with a $600 million reduction in spending, and the financial crisis forced him to cut hundreds of millions more. But the real answer lies in drastically reducing the size of local government -- merging towns and school districts and slashing administrative expenses to bring down the huge costs that drive up both property taxes and state spending.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Corzine Chooses Flight Over Fight:

The Star-Ledger reports today that Corzine has rolled over during negotiations with NJEA over health care plans. Here's the lede:

To avoid a legal fight with New Jersey's largest teachers union, the Corzine administration has agreed to spend as much as $20 million to allow thousands of its members to keep seeing doctors enrolled in an expensive health plan the state abolished last year.
Fort Lee Installment:

Lots of ink spraying on Fort Lee public schools, where faculty and/or administrators have apparently been raising or deleting grades on high school seniors' transcripts for the last 6 years. 300+ angry residents are crowding into board meetings, High School Principal Jay Berman has been suspended, and the district will mail letters to colleges and universities alerting them to potential fraud. NorthJersey has a good summary.

And Peter Applebome of the New York Times says this is the district's raison d'etre.

Appellate Court okays School Uniforms

NJSBA Teases Out Public Sentiment on Teacher Salaries:

Ray Pinney,
blogger for NJSBA, wonders whether the public is getting fed up with the disconnect between the downward trend of the economy and the seemingly inalterable upward trend in teachers' salaries:

Maybe I am wrong about the public sentiment moving away from teachers and other public employees. But when our political leaders talk about shared sacrifices, those who feel they are sacrificing have little patience for anyone they believe is not sacrificing. I have been around long enough to know that many board members agree strongly with this sentiment and feel that one of the problems in education is the strength of the NJEA and a negotiation process that favors unions more than management. They may also start to feel emboldened to take a hard stand in negotiations, since they believe that for first time, legislators and the general public will not be supporting the teachers.

N.J. Has Two School Systems

says Derrell Bradford, deputy director of E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone) in Newark, a nonprofit group that advocates school choice. Here's his withering piece in the Trenton Times about the inequities inherent in NJ's public school system:

The governor, and those who serve him in the state Department of Education, maintain two education systems in this state. One you attend if you are white and live in the suburbs and another you attend if you are poor, minority and live in a city. You may succeed if you attend school in the former, but you will almost certainly fail if you attend school in the latter.

SFRA vs. Abbott Update:
John Mooney of the New Jersey section of the New York Times has an update today on the Abbott vs. School Funding Reform Act case before Judge Peter Doyne. Word is that a decision will be handed down on April 10th.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Paterson Board President Resigns

In an effort to draw attention to the dismal state of Paterson’s public schools, Board President Dr. Jonathan Hodges has resigned. The Herald News reports that he had grown increasingly frustrated by faltering academics, hamstringing of local board members by the State’s takeover, and Lucille Davy’s decision to replace the current superintendent, Michael Glascoe, who is unpopular with NJEA officials.

Indeed, the stark difference between how the Paterson school board viewed Glascoe and the way the teachers union and the state education commissioner saw him underscored a broad and enduring chasm. That chasm has been widened by the feeling shared by Hodges and others on the board that they have not had enough say in the search for Glascoe’s full-time replacement.

It will be hard to replace Hodges’ intelligence, idealism and commitment to public service in his role as president.

Asbury Park Press on Pay Freezes

The Asbury Park Press calls for all public employees, including teachers, to accept pay freezes and furloughs as part of a shared commitment to economic improvement:

During Tuesday's budget address, Corzine should use his bully pulpit to call for shared sacrifice on the part of all public employees, not just state workers, in this time of economic crisis. No one should be exempt — not municipal or county workers, police or jail guards, teachers or college professors, or people working for independent authorities. It should be done in the name of fiscal responsibility and simple fairness.

Oops, They Did It Again

The DOE, that is. In yet another example of overreaching and/or lack of due diligence, the new regulations issued as Fiscal Accountablility, Efficiency and Budgeting Procedures N.J.A.C. 6A:23A-1 create 21 new positions called Executive County Superintendents, one for each county and each appointed by the Governor. The ECS's (each apparently wearing a form-fitting suit under his or her work clothes branded with a bright red ECS insignia in case of educational apocalypse) have enormous authority: line-item veto of local budgets, consolidation of transportation, regionalization of districts, etc. One of the other powers they wield is the oversight of placements for kids with special needs. This has excited the ire of groups like ASAH, which represents private special ed schools and agencies in NJ.

Why? Because the process for deciding on the placement for a child classified as disabled is pretty much set in stone as part of the federal IDEA legislation. Here’s how it works: a Child Study Team, composed of the kid’s teachers, therapists, case manager, and parents compose an annual Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.) that sets out the year’s educational goals, services, adaptive technology, social needs. For example, an I.E.P. will list goals and timelines for reading, math, social studies, science, how many speech, physical, occupational therapy sessions are required per week, whether the child needs voice-recognition software or an FM hearing system or braille books, whether the child requires social skills training. Only after the I.E.P. is completed is placement discussed. The law specifies that the child needs to be in the “least restricted environment,” and the Child Study Team looks at options. The I.E.P., a legal contract, serves as the engine and rationale for placement.

But the DOE in all its wisdom, as part of A:6, has inserted the ECS into the works, giving our superhero the right to recommend other placements and requiring the Child Study Team to submit paperwork explaining their decision. Here’s one of ASAH’s objections:

In 2007, nearly 23,000 students with disabilities in New Jersey were placed in out-of-district programs. It will be impossible for the Executive County Superintendent to review this many requests. This has the potential to cause violations in time line requirements and defeats the purpose of the new office which is to help ensure efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

So now the DOE is backtracking again. After extensive lobbying efforts, the Assembly Education Committee agreed to hold an invitation-only “roundtable discussion” on February 26th to discuss concerns over the long arm of the ECS’s in regards to special education placement. While Commissioner Lucille Davy, according to an NJSBA press release, responded “that the superintendents only review such placements, and that local districts still make the determination to place a student out of district,” the Assembly Education Committee “may seek to introduce legislation which clarifies the role of the executive county superintendent.”

Yet another example of an error in judgment on the part of the DOE. Someone’s stockpiling kryptonite.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Headline of the Day

"Masturbating Teacher Gets His Comeuppance"

The Trentonian

Whose Achievement Gap?

A Star-Ledger editorial today pans the DOE’s new high school graduation requirements:

Education Commissioner Lucille Davy insists all children are born with the ability to learn and must be "continually challenged." It's an admirable notion. Unfortunately, not all children get the same start. That's why raising standards amid serial failure in the state's urban school districts is a bad plan. Neither education officials nor advocates for better schools have offered a better one, other than requests for more resources and more time.

The editorial also cites an Abbott district advocate, Stan Karp of the Education Law Center, who points out that in urban districts more than 70% of kids in poor urban districts already fail the middle school assessments. The Star-Ledger’s conclusion? More stringent graduation requirements will widen the achievement gap between suburban and urban districts.

They’re right. The logic in this editorial is that not all kids can pass a college-prep program under current instructional and cultural norms, which flies in the face of No Child Left Behind’s goal to have all children proficient in every subject by the time they graduate from high school. So, what do we do? It’s politically unpalatable to concede that not all children are capable of or inclined towards rigorous coursework. It’s also politically unpalatable to close the achievement gap – that holy grail – through dumbing down the curriculum.

There’s no way out of this collision of reality and dogma. Some kids will survive the new DOE academic boot camp. Some kids will flame out for reasons of economic deprivation, disability, crappy schools, lack of resources or parental support. The irony is that No Child Left Behind and NJ’s high school reform are intended to create equity for all kids, give them all a shot at high academic achievement. But, under current circumstances, the result may lead to higher drop-out rates and dimmer prospects for children.

The Star-Ledger doesn't get into a lot of detail about how to extricate ourselves from this doomed enterprise, merely mentioning that,

Education officials need to focus on improving instruction in those districts before trying to hold the students to higher standards.

The allusion to raising teaching standards as opposed to testing standards is provocative. In other words, it's not the kids, it's the teachers. Too simple to be true, but it does cause one to wonder if the DOE's dogma includes closing the achievement gap among our best teachers and our worst ones.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

NJ's Field of Dreams

A piece in the Gloucester County Times surveys three districts in regard to the newly rigorous high school requirements: Washington, which boasts a 97% graduation rate with 91.1% of kids planning to attend 2 or more years of college; Clayton, with a 86.5% graduation rate and 80.6% of kids planning to attend 2 or more years of college; and Paulson, with an 84.4 graduation rater and 79.1% of kids planning to attend 2 or more years of college.

[Nota bene: we’ve given the graduation rates based on kids who pass the HSPA; some kids graduate using the Alternative Assessment, which you can take after you fail the HSPA three times. Assemblyman Joseph Cryan has labeled NJ’s over-reliance on this “alternative” path to graduation as “criminal.”]

The reactions from the superintendents of these three Gloucester County districts are fairly predictable. Washington’s super is sanguine: his kids already do just fine, and there’s little he has to do to implement a new set of requirements of 3 years of lab science, higher-level math, economics. Most of kids already take these courses, and the new requirements will entail little change. However, the superintendents in Clayton and Paulson express a tad more worry, as a substantial cohort of their kids already struggle to graduate with less rigorous requirements.

Here’s what the article leaves out: the DFG’s, or District Factor Groups, which tell us the district’s socio-economic profile compared to other districts in the State. Washington has a DFG of GH on a scale from A (the poorest) to J (the richest). Clayton is a B, and Paulson is an A. Thus, these three cohorts of kids within one county have vastly different economic backgrounds, yet the DOE is determined that all NJ kids meet a college-prep curriculum.

Economics should not determine whether a kid should go to college or even graduate from high school. But there is a correlation here between community wealth and high school graduation rate. What will be the effect of the new graduation requirements? Will they encourage districts and the kids they serve to raise the bar? Or will they encourage kids to drop out if, for instance, they are stymied by algebra 2 or lab chemistry? Right now in New Jersey about 82% of our kids graduate from high school. Will the new requirements raise or lower this number?

Our guess is this: the number will go up in high-income districts (where the numbers are already very high) and drop in low-income districts.

We’d love to be proved wrong.

New Jersey’s standardization of high school graduation requirements is a microcosm of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The logic behind NCLB is that if you mandate it then it will happen. The same logic applies to the DOE’s attempt to streamline every kid in NJ into a college-prep program: if we build it, they will come. It made for a great movie, but it may not make for great education policy.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Teacher Quality vs. Class Size

Jay Matthews of the Washington Post argues that we need better teachers, not smaller class size:

For most schools, getting class-size averages to less than 20 students won't happen unless somebody strikes oil in the playground. Teaching 30 or more kids challenges even the best instructors, but people like Esquith and his disciples have made it work. They say they prefer a larger class to sending students off to the listless buck-passing that infects many urban classrooms. Smaller classes or better teachers? We want both, of course, but the best educators have convinced me we ought to vote for getting more people like them.

Does "J" stand for Janus?

The Abbott districts are not the only group fighting against the State’s School Funding Reform Act, which would replace special funding to 31 pre-designated poor urban districts with a different formula that injects cash on a per-pupil basis across the State. In a classic example of politics making strange bedfellows, a group called Dollar$ and Sense, which represents the richest districts in Bergen County, filed an Amicus Brief arguing that SFRA interferes with their right to provide a “thorough and efficient education” to I and J districts, the highest socio-economic District Factor Groups.

The brief, available here, argues that the State’s “adequacy budget” would force I and J districts to lower their spending by around $2,000 per pupil, which would cut out valuable programs that allow them to maintain their historically high achievement. Instead, they argue, the Court should maintain the Abbott formula and continue supplementing those 31 urban districts at the level of I’s and J’s.

Here's our quibble with this lovefest. While the State is required to fund kids in Abbott districts at the same level of our richest districts, our I's and J's, the other districts, in fact, the majority, end up with the short end of the stick. The Brief itself highlights the odd result of the Abbott district decisions: kids who live in Abbott districts and in rich districts get a lot more money for education than kids who live in districts with DFG’s of C through H.

So the State wants to equalize spending for everyone, since its agenda is to consolidate districts, bring down property taxes and deal with the inequities within our educational system. Maybe the adequacy budget is too low. But our richest districts love the Abbott formula because it lets them set the spending standard.

So we end up with a bizarre kind of class warfare, with the poorest in the State (at least the poorest who live in cities) allied with the wealthiest. And who's caught in the middle between the DOE's hail of mandates and this dualistic alliance? Why, of course, the districts in the middle, those neither rich nor urban, who must follow the regulations and provide services without a cash infusion from either the State, via Abbott, or taxpayers, via deep pockets.

Monday, March 2, 2009

A Modest Preschool Proposal

Yesterday’s New Jersey section of the New York Times features an article by John Mooney regarding public preschools, with his focus on the uncertainty surrounding the DOE’s mandate that districts provide free full-day preschool programs to low-income 3 and 4-year-olds. Says Mooney,

For 86 middle- and working-class districts — from Hackensack to Carteret to Cape May City — that will mean universal programs available for all their children. Four hundred other districts will have to provide at least some preschool, and will decide whether to extend beyond their low-income students.

At $11,000 per kid per year, it’s an expensive initiative, and ties directly into the State’s battle to overturn the Abbott funding decisions, which require these preschools in the 31 Abbott districts. The State’s logic is that children who require extra services because of economic disadvantage live in many other towns in NJ besides the 31 designated through Abbott. By mandating preschools across the state to low-income kids, the State strategically undermines that Abbott formula by providing new and improved make-it-fair funding. This bolsters the DOE’s fight to overturn the Abbott decisions in favor of the new School Funding Reform Act, now in court (see post below). Pretty neat.

Here’s what’s not so neat. Corzine and the DOE have worked diligently (if ineffectively thus far) to streamline public education in the Garden State by issuing new efficiency mandates and advocating consolidation of school districts into uniform K-12 systems with standardized curricula and assessment. At the same time, the preschool initiative is ridden with inefficiency and redundancy.

Think about it. Corzine announces his grand preschool initiative to great acclaim. Instantly, almost 500 school superintendents –- the 86 who will need to provide universal preschool and the 400 or so who will provide preschool to just their low-income 3 and 4 year olds – spring into action, appointing an administrator or two to produce plans and budgets for implementation. Four hundred or so Personnel Directors start looking at the pool of certified pre-school teachers. Business Administrators in the 486 districts start squeezing their budgets even though Corzine promised $12,000 per kid (we know how that goes). School board members who serve on Facilities Committees in several hundred districts meet to cogitate about finding space for preschool classrooms, which have specific requirements like tiny bathrooms and more square feet per kid. Some committees start looking at renting space outside of the school grounds because there’s no space, and some start talking to private preschools.

You get the idea.

But what happened to the State’s logic about consolidation and standardization, its drive for accountability and efficiency? It’s nowhere to be found in the preschool initiative. The foundation for the State’s drive for a new way of providing educational services has evaporated as district upon district performs the same operations that could have easily been delegated on a county-wide basis.

Each county has a Special Services district that typically provides space and curricula for special needs kids and vo-tech programs. Many of these facilities are underused as more district bring their special ed children back to district, and some even rent out their space. What better way to promote consolidation and efficiency than to have the individual counties provide preschool services? It's a lot easier to achieve equity -- one of the goals here -- when you have 21 counties providing services instead of 486 disparate local districts. Even home rule diehards would have to applaud. And injecting a little logic and consistency into our sprawling school system wouldn't hurt either.

It's not too late to backtrack. The money for preschool isn't coming this year. Come on, DOE -- how about a do-over?

Abbott v. SFRA

NorthJersey reports on the pending close of the School Funding Reform Act hearings in Superior Court. Underway for the last three weeks, Judge Peter Doyne is getting ready to rule on whether Corzine is correct in claiming that the SFRA fairly distributes funds to NJ’s poorest school districts and, thus, can replace the Abbott decisions as an equity mechanism.

The article quotes an advocate for maintaining the Abbott formula, which delivers lots of extra aid to 31 urban districts:

Education in communities like Paterson "costs more because kids come to school with less," said Irene Sterling, president of the Paterson Education Fund, a non-profit advocacy group. "They have fewer vocabulary words, fewer experiences. They grow up without books or computers in their home. The school has got to make all of that up."

That’s true. Education costs more when kids come to school with less. The problem is that the current aid formula, meant to give more to kids who come to school with less, is unaligned with the actual location of those kids. They no longer reside in those designated 31 districts, but all over New Jersey.

The more meaningful question is whether or not the State, in this case the DOE, can actually implement SFRA. Poor kids are more mobile, moving from district to district, even state to state. Household income is a moving target. Determining eligibility for extra funds and keeping up with district residence is not like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s more like shooting fish in whitewater. The DOE’s reputation for accuracy and punctuality is not unsullied, and we wonder whether Judge Doyle’s ruling will factor in the State’s ability to execute a new entitlement program.