Friday, October 30, 2009

Davy Takes the Stage

It was standing room only yesterday at NJSBA's "Conversation with the Commissioner" – over 300 board members and administrators eager to hear from Lucille Davy, who took the mike dressed in Philly's red. Here's a few highlights:

On N.J.'s Race To The Top application: "We expect to apply in the next few months" and "throw our hat in the ring." She's hopeful for cash because "we're doing lots of cutting-edge reform." Davy thinks that RTTT criteria may be build into the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, now known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Investing In Innovation (I3) cash: "We're going for it," particularly for money for data systems.

Common Core Standards: We're proudly one of the 48 states that have signed on, but "Governor Corzine and I agree that we will not remain part of this effort if it means we will be taking any steps backwards...We will look and see -- we'll study the standards. We won't adopt those unless it means something that is better for N.J.'s students."

Preschool: "We have evidence in N.J. that early childhood education closes the gap. Corzine's budget this year only funded preschool programs "already in existence, but those first dollars [once N.J. is flush again] will go into preschool expansion." It's the "game-changer."

Question from NJSBA Rep Michael Resnick on repeat of stimulus money: "Is there a contingency plan on how you'll allocate money if the economic climate doesn't change?" Davy: N.J. is in great shape compared to other states. Michigan, for example, just reduced cost per pupil by $127. "I think there will be conversation at the Federal level" about another stimulus package for education. (Some disagreement here. Davy implies that the Feds will cough up more stimulus money, while the consensus at yesterday’s Legislative Session was that the odds were low for a repeat. Charlie Rose, Arne Duncan's General Counsel, was unequivocal.)

Charter Schools: Commissioner Davy is apparently a convert: "I'm a big supporter of charter schools," adding "the Feds are very supportive of charter schools." Pushback from Resnick: School board members are concerned that parents who move their kids to charters are highly-motivated parents whose kids perform better on standardized tests. That hurts assessment results for traditional public schools. Davy: "We can't look at charter schools as the enemy. They are part of the public school system...They are partners." Grumpy school board members gasp in relief when she suggests that local districts can place charter schools within their own districts and then include the higher-performing-kids-with-supportive-parents in the local district's assessment results. (We're not sure how that works.)

Resnick: School Board member resent charter schools because they’re not held to the same accountability standards. Davy: We’re working on setting up an accountability system for charter schools similar to the one used for traditional schools, the Quality Single Accountability Continuum.

On NCLB’s list of Schools In Need of Improvement, which sanctions schools that miss only one of 41 subgroups: “It’s very very, very unfair.”

Consolidation: The most efficient and educationally sound model is a district that spans preschool through 12th grade. But “we’re not going to force anyone to consolidate. We’ll be able to make the case that educationally and fiscally it makes more sense.”

Davy’s favorite word: “candidly.”

Thursday, October 29, 2009

WSJ: Order Lots of Coffee for Election Night in N.J.

From today's Wall Street Journal Editorial Page

The only thing clear from all the surveys is that Mr. Daggett isn't going to be governor. That puts pressure on his voters not to play spoiler and shift their allegiance to another candidate. Quinnipiac finds that 38% of Mr. Daggett's voters say they're prepared to change their minds. Given the profile of the average Daggett voter, Mr. Christie can probably count on taking three-fifths of those who abandon the independent.

That makes the race highly volatile. Mr. Christie, who started with a strong lead, has been dragged down by Mr. Corzine's relentless negative advertising -- almost all of it financed from his personal fortune. But Mr. Christie has also been hurt by his failure to come up with clear plans for dealing with the state's No. 1 issue: sky-high property taxes. Only 12% of voters, including a quarter of Republicans, believe he will be able to cut those taxes if elected governor.

Live From A.C., con't.

Further note from the Legislative Update yesterday afternoon at the NJSBA convention. (See below if you're just jumping in.) Michael Vrancik, Director of the Governmental Relations Dept. of NJSBA was moderating the panel and brought up that-which-shall-not-be-named to diehard public school traditionalists: charter schools. (Add your Halloween sound effects here. More dignified school board members made do with grimaces and a couple of low-register boos.) Said Vrancik to Charlie Rose, Arne Duncan's Chief Counsel, Race To The Top guidelines put great emphasis on the expansion of charter schools. "But students [when they transfer from traditional public schools to charters] in New Jersey take 90% of the funding stream with them! Is that really the intent of Race To The Top?"

Replied Rose with equanimity,"Our focus on charter schools is pretty fundamental." The US DOE is looking at charters as an "overall educational plan for the community," and local districts should treat charters as partners.

National School Board Association's Michael Resnick jumped in: The DOE's approach to the expansion of charter schools is "overzealous." His view seems to be that charters are treated by the US DOE as, well, a teacher's pet, given unfair advantages in flexibility and accountability.

Rose: "What NCLB did well was focus on the achievement gap. What it didn't do well was set a clear standard for this country. We have 50 different goalposts and a one-size-fits-all accountability system." NCLB (or ESEA) was "loose on goals, tight on means. We need to flip that and lay a foundation for common standards that are college and career-ready and internationally benchmarked."

Senator Whelan: N.J. is in the top 5 for achievement (presumably referring to recent NAEP results). "But if you go to the international scene, that will place us in the middle of the pack."

Morning Nosh

  1. Is it just us, or does Chris Daggett's name seem to be evaporating from news stories regarding the gubernatorial race?
  2. An exception: the Star-Ledger reports that Daggett is getting calls from high-placed officials in the GOP asking him to drop out.
  3. Corzine is attacking Christie over his lack of support for free public preschool, and vowed to fund another 71,000 slots. Okay. At $11,000 a tot (it's actually closer to $12K for start-ups), that's a mere $781,000,000. Yet we're cutting school aid. You do the math.
  4. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows Corzine up 5 points.
  5. In the Lobby notes that New Jersey is home to 7 of the 10 highest-taxed counties in the country: Westchester County, NY ($8,404); Hunterdon County, NJ ($8,347); Nassau County, NY ($8,306); Bergen County, NJ ($7,997); Rockland County, NY ($7,798); Essex County, NJ ($7,676); Somerset County, NJ ($7,676); Morris County, NY ($7,310); Passaic County, NJ ($7,095); and Union County, NJ ($7,058).
  6. From Politickernj:

    The outcome of the 2009 campaign for Governor of New Jersey is not historically significant to Barack Obama's presidency. It is almost twice as likely that New Jerseyans elect a governor who is not a member of the president's party. Indeed, the party of the incumbent president is 15-26 in New Jersey gubernatorial races since a Democrat won in Abraham Lincoln's mid-term election.

  7. The Star-Ledger on how the next N.J. governor has the opportunity to remake the court: It’s not the hottest issue on the campaign trail, but how the candidates for governor stand on the appointment of state Supreme Court justices could have an impact on New Jersey for years to come.That’s because the next governor could remake the seven-member court by appointing as many as four justices — and loading a majority of the bench to suit his political philosophy as New Jersey struggles with complicated issues such as taxes, gay marriage and school funding.
  8. The New York Times cautions that when Arne Duncan closed failing schools in Chicago, there was little meaningful academic achievement for students.

Quote of the Day

The Star-Ledger reports that Paterson's Eastside High will now have two principals:
After daily fights, drug dealing in school bathrooms and generally rowdy environment during dismal, district officials started enforcing a zero-tolerance policy to fights, and 10 video cameras have been installed.
Lack of a copy editor? Freudian slip? Either way, a grimly felicitous typo.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Live From the New Jersey School Boards Convention

There's fewer vendors in the Exhibitor's Lounge and more spaces in the parking lot. There's grumblings about from Race To The Top priorities, reduced state aid, and threatened consolidations. There's also creative curricular innovations in local districts and renewed interest in solar energy. There's an open bar at Caesar's Palace and a dance party at Harrah's. Yes, it's NJSBA time, with school board members, administrators, and functionaries racing around the Atlantic City Conference Center, which seems slightly more cavernous this year.

One particularly interesting session: the annual State Legislative Update, which this afternoon featured a panel comprising Senator Jim Whalen, Assemblyman David Wolfe, Michael Resnick from National School Boards Association, and honored guest Charles Rose, Arne Duncan's General Counsel. (Sheila Oliver of Essex County was waylaid by a conference call with Governor Corzine.)

Highlights from the session included
  • Charlie Rose's reiteration of President Obama's educational goal: by 2020, 60% of adults will be college graduates. Right now we're at 40%. Interesting reality check from the political pipe dream NCLB, which trumpeted that by 2014 all our children would be "college ready."
  • A discussion of the shift of the federal government's role in education from a "compliance mentality" to a "partnership mentality."
  • NJSBA Resnick's joust that the Feds new focus on performance and outcome is just "a little bit too much direction" and a suggestion that RTTT is "moving too fast."
  • Whalen and Wolfe's reminder that the Federal financial contribution to N.J.'s schools is a paltry 4%, and the stimulus cash won't provide "long-term permanent financing."
  • Confirmation from Rose that we won't see this kind of financial boost again.
  • Concern about the "cliff effect," i.e., districts will ratchet up spending and then have no way to sustain the augmented services.
  • Wolfe: "The money is not coming to the State of New Jersey. It's coming to certain parts of the State of New Jersey." (Translation: it's going to those poor urban districts.)
Party on.

Can We Stop Equating More Cash With More Achievement?

“Despite the worst fiscal situation since the Great Depression, Gov. Corzine and the Democratic Legislature made education a top priority in the state budget and invested more money into our classrooms,” said Greenwald (D-Camden). “The education investments we’re making enhance our quality of life, build stronger communities and provide for continuing economic growth, and these latest numbers clearly show a positive trend for all our children.”
Assembly Budget Chairman Louis D. Greenwald and Assemblywoman Pamela R. Lampitt's press release praising the progress made by Jon Corzine and the Legislature in closing the achievement gap.

Monday, October 26, 2009

N.J.'s Share of Charter Schools: 1.3%

Del Stover at American School Board Journal takes a measured look at “the evolution of school choice” across the U.S., specifically how some states that have historically opposed charter schools are adjusting to the Obama Administration’s pro-charter agenda. He raises concerns about charter schools “creaming” off the top-performing kids, about whether school choice is “sound educational policy,” about whether there’s too much “public money in private hands.”

Stover concludes that the charter school movement, which now serves 1.5 million students in 40 states with 4,900 charter schools, is likely to perpetuate a system of have and have-nots because kids with “engaged parents and affluent backgrounds” will desert the traditional public system and less privileged kids will be trapped in ever more lower performing schools.

Here in Jersey our poor kids are already trapped in the most segregated public school system in the nation with dramatic swings in academic rigor and opportunity between our have and have-nots districts. Charter school detractors use Stover’s arguments; N.J. charter school proponents point out that marketplace competition is healthy all around, that it’s time to concede defeat for some of our chronically failing districts, and that a kid in a public school in Camden deserves at least a piece of what is afforded to a kid in a public school in Short Hills.

Corzine’s DOE is putting its money on reforms like High School Redesign and curricular standardization. On paper, if you replicate curricula and requirements across the state then student achievement gets replicated too. We already know this doesn’t work. (Just ask a kid in Camden and a kid in Short Hills.) There’s lip service paid to charter school expansion (newly-proposed DOE regs shorten the approval time period from 18 months to 11 months; one wag twits that the DOE now gets to reject proposals 7 months sooner), but we still don’t fund charters at the same level as traditional public schools or offer aid for facilities. In the meantime we’ve got a whopping 68 charters in this densely populated state with 11,000 kids on waiting lists.

Look at it this way: if we go by Stover’s national statistics, N.J. contains 1.3% of the charter schools in the country and 1.4% of the charter school students. Do those numbers seem scant to anyone else?

Joel Klein on Why We Should Differentiate Teacher Pay

JOEL KLEIN: The most important thing is to bring to K-12 education college graduates who excel in math and science. Those countries that are doing best are recruiting their K-12 teachers from the top third of their college graduates. America is recruiting our teachers generally from the bottom third, and when you go into our high-needs communities, we're clearly underserving them.

MR. MURRAY: How do you explain that? It doesn't seem to be a function of money. We spend more than any of these other countries.

MR. KLEIN: We spend it irrationally. My favorite example is, I pay teachers, basically, based on length of service and a few courses that they take. And I can't by contract pay math and science teachers more than I would pay other teachers in the system, even though at different price points I could attract very different people. We've got to use the money we have much more wisely, attract talent, reward excellence.

From today's Wall Street Journal interview with NYC Chancellor Klein, UPenn President Amy Gutmann, and Christopher Edley, Dean of Berkeley Law School.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

A former West-Windsor/Plainsboro teacher makes the case for merit pay.

The Herald News
gives a big-picture view of the economics of education in N.J.:
Education accounts for the biggest slice of the state budget — $11 billion this year — and the biggest portion of property-tax bills in New Jersey, which are at an all-time high of $7,045, on average.

The state ranks second for per-pupil spending in the most recent comparison, $15,691 in 2006-07.

The state ranks first for preschool spending per student, $10,989 in 2008.
North Jersey editorializes that teachers should pay part of their health benefits: "Instead of municipal taxes going toward better services and roads, and school taxes going back into the classroom, most of taxpayers' money now goes to making sure these employees have premium health care without having to contribute and can retire at 75 percent of their salaries."

The Commissioner’s Annual Report on Violence, Vandalism, and Substance Abuse shows a 5% drop in violence, an 11% drop in vandalism, and a 14% drop in weapons violations, reports the Press of Atlantic City. But drug abuse increased 4%.

Arne Duncan says
most college education programs are “mediocre.”

Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger ruminates on why voters shouldn’t dismiss Chris Daggett, in spite of the fact that his policies would lead to cuts in services:
Really, this is exactly the conversation New Jersey needs. Because if we want to lower property taxes, we need to give up services. Daggett is the only one facing that fact.

He says schools have to press teachers for concessions on health care and on salary, just as private businesses have done. He’s ready to change the negotiating rules to give school boards more power in these talks.

“Maybe it’s time to stand up to the influence of unions,” he says.

That’s what makes it so hard to dismiss Daggett, and what makes him so different from a fringe candidate like Nader: He keeps saying such sensible things
Bob Ingle of Politics Patrol reports that, in addition to the $87K that Corzine gave to Rev. Jackson in spite of vast differences in educational agendas, Corzine has also given almost $1 million to a non-profit controlled by Rev. Bishop David G. Evans who serves on the Turnpike Authority.

Dysfunctional School Board of the Week Award goes to Englewood School Board, who voted to appoint a permanent superintendent this week in spite of the fact that the action item was nowhere to be found on the agenda and Board President Henry Pruitt III said afterwards that he thought the meeting was to decide if the board would get any more public input before picking a candidate.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cliff Notes Version of Gov-Hopefuls' Education Views

Diane D’Amico over at The Press of Atlantic City has a handy cheat sheet on Corzine’s, Christie’s, and Daggett’s education platforms. Definitely worth a complete read, but here’s the skinny:

Corzine: more of the same.
Christie: paddling in a detail-free zone
Daggett: smart and impolitic

For example, Corzine applauds his own School Funding Reform Act, which is financially unsustainable under our current cash crunch. He's big on consolidation, as long as that’s limited to eliminating the 26 districts without actual schools. Says he supports the expansion of charter schools, although no one believes him.

Christie says “preschool is vital to children's development, but opposes Corzine's plan to expand preschool to reach all low-income students. Has not offered an alternative.” On school consolidation: “no policy presented.”

Daggett: You’ve heard it: supports 5-year renewable tenure, elimination of the Special Review Assessment (hey – why didn’t Rev. Jackson back him?), admits that cuts in school aid are inevitable. On expansion of preschool: great idea, we can’t afford it. Here’s D’Amico’s summary of his view on school consolidation:
A waste of time. He said the "poison pill" requiring voters in each district to approve plans almost guarantees any proposal will fail, and the money saved is too small to justify the time and money it will cost to develop the plans.
Sadly, Daggett is correct. The current process for consolidating districts negates the possibility of doing so. Without the State offering financial incentives and stream-lining the process, consolidation is a pipe dream for those who observe the financial burden engendered by our municipal madness and yearn for thorazine.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What's Up With Rev. Jackson's Endorsement of Corzine?

We SO don’t want it to be about the $87K. But how to square the chasm between their education agendas?


Governor Corzine:
"I will not support private school vouchers! Vouchers take resources away from the very schools that need them most. In fact, vouchers will break the bank by paying twice for the public’s charge to educate our kids."

Reverend Jackson:
"We need more school choice. We need to break the monopoly of the public school system. We need to build on this success by at least experimenting with vouchers in the K-12 system."

Teacher Tenure:

Gov. Corzine:
"I believe in teacher quality. We need stronger teacher quality assessment and an ability to make sure we have quality teachers in the classroom. ... That doesn’t mean tenure is bad. ... It’s not about tenure, it’s about the performance of the teacher in the classroom."

Rev. Jackson:
"The head of New Jersey's Black Ministers Council said public school reform begins with revising 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."

On student achievement in N.J.:

Gov. Corzine:
"Our overall performance is outstanding. In almost every category, we’re in the top five. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in 2007, New Jersey fourth-graders ranked higher than those in 46 other states and jurisdictions, and eighth-graders outperformed those in 35 states. "We’re closing the achievement gap for our urban children by double digits in the last five years. It has a lot to do with early childhood education."

Rev. Jackson:

"The state's public education system covers up failure, deprives students of a quality education and fosters a false sense of high achievement, the head of New Jersey's Black Ministers Council said yesterday.
"New Jersey spends more on education than any other state in the nation and we are getting so little in return for the money we are spending. We've come today to pull the covers off this coverup."

On the Special Review Assessment:

Gov. Corzine:
"While some people take issue with the state’s high school graduation rate, which includes students who graduated via the "alternative" SRA graduation test, New Jersey is a leader on national assessments."

Rev. Jackson:

"The SRA provides New Jersey with a means of masquerading the fact that many of its students have not mastered what is supposed to be learned," he said. "It is a coverup. It is a dummied-down route to graduation. If kids have not learned, we ought not give them a diploma."

It's enough to make a cynic out of the most ardent idealist...

NJSBA on Health Commission's Pro-NJEA Bias

New Jersey School Boards Association has released a memo describing a pro-NJEA bias on the School Employees Health Benefits Commission, which regulates the most widely-used health insurance plan for N.J.’s public school districts: Governor Corzine has declined to appoint a Chairman, so the majority of members are NJEA members. Therefore, a pattern has emerged with a series of votes that favor NJEA over the advice of Aon Corporation, the program’s risk-management consulting firm. From the memo:
The chairmanship became vacant when Jane Oates left to work for the Obama administration in April. In addition, the commission’s public representative, an executive with a utility firm, has missed several key votes. Because of the vacancy and the absences, important decisions have been made with only three “non-union” members present: NJSBA’s [Cynthia J.] Jahn, and the representatives of the Departments of Treasury and Banking & Insurance. Consequently, key votes have come down on the unions’ side by 4-3 or 3-4 margins.
Here’s an example: on September 23d the SEHBC voted 4-3 to eliminate the possibility of the program to increase co-payments for retiree prescription plan, instead of the previous practice of linking co-pays to prescription drug prices. The State Division of Pensions and Benefits has estimated that this new formula will, according to NJSBA, “increase the program’s costs by $1.5 million in the first year, with that amount doubling each year thereafter. In year four, the provision would cost the plan an additional $13 million dollars.”

The memo details a series of pending votes that will raise costs for school districts and taxpayers without adequate non-union representation. Sounds like the fix is in.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Preschool Panacea?

NJEA issued a press release yesterday linking an improvement in 8th grade math scores to access to preschool. The scores for 4th and 8th graders on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) are “reason to cheer,” enthuses NJEA President Barbara Keshishian.
I am especially encouraged by the success of our older students, which comes as the first wave of students who had broad access to high quality preschool reach eighth grade. Test scores don’t tell the whole story of the good things happening in our schools, but these results show that our approach is working.
The equation of increased achievement to preschool is problematic on two levels. It’s true that 8th grade math scores were up in N.J. (as they were across the country); in 2007 40% of our 8th graders reached proficiency in math, in 2009 44% did. That’s a nice 4-point gain. But in 2007 52% of our 4th graders reached proficiency in math, and in 2009 49% did, a not-so-nice 3-point drop. If our 8th grade scores are a result of “broad access to high quality preschool,” what happened in 4th grade where, presumably, even more kids had access to high quality preschool?

So there’s a little inconsistency there. The second problem is more troubling: we can’t afford to expand preschool. In fact, it’s not at all clear that we can continue to fund the preschools that we have. In the Lobby reports today that N.J.’s budget is down $190 million in the first quarter, with September collections off by 5.1%. If we don’t do better, by the end of the year our state revenues will be off by almost $1 billion. Our Governor (whomever that might be) will be making cuts and Corzine has already said that if has that honor he will cut education aid, just like last year he cut funding for preschool expansion. So would Christie or Daggett.

It’s heartening to see increased math achievement among our 8th graders, but it’s a bit disingenuous to tie it to preschool. Is the national increase in 8th grade scores and national decrease in 4th grade scores, then, a result of improved access to free preschool across the country? Probably not. Is this press release a thinly-cloaked campaign ad for Jon Corzine, who has made preschool expansion a centerpiece of his education platform? Probably. Fine. All’s fair in war and all that. But we can’t afford to sustain the preschools that we have, let alone expand them (per the School Funding Reform Act) to all poor kids in N.J. The sooner our governor cops to that, the sooner we can look squarely at our educational funding and performance.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Camden Riddle

How dysfunctional is the Camden Board of Education? So dysfunctional that Board President Sara Davis tried to award an insurance contract to a firm that bid $100,000 over another so that she could garner the votes to maintain her presidency.

According to the Courier-Post, Davis pressured the Board and the Camden Business Administrator to award the contract to M&C Insurance Agency and McCollum Insurance Abstract and Title Agency because, per an internal memo from the B.A., “M&C is a [Democratic] machine company and she is not a machine person but she needs the machine votes to be elected board president.”

At least Davis is consistent. She has already been censured by the State for serving on the district’s negotiating committee and negotiating a lower perscription co-pay for herself (she’s a former Camden teacher).

It would be bad enough if Camden was serving its students. Of course, it’s not. Camden High School is in its 6th (soon to be 7th) year as a School In Need Of Improvement (SINI); in fact, 27 of Camden’s 31 schools bear the label. Over half the kids can’t pass the high school assessment, a middle school level test. And it’s not for lack of resources: taxpayers sent Camden $281.6 million in state aid this year. As unlikely a cadre composed of Education Commissioner Lucille Davy, Education Law Center Director David Sciarra, and E3’s Derrell Bradford have decried the district’s lack of leadership.

Example: East Camden Middle School, which serves 452 kids in grades 6-8. It’s in its 8th year as a SINI. In 2007-2008, 80.6% of 6th graders failed the NJ ASK assessment in math and 87.5% failed the NJ ASK assessment in language arts. Last year 57% of the children there were suspended (the state average is 5%). It’s not for lack of supervision: there is one administrator for every 150 kids. (The state average is one administrator for every 262 kids.)

Where do we go from here? The district’s already under state supervision. How about turning Camden Public Schools over to a successful charter organization, which is one of the options for restructuring under NCLB guidelines? It couldn’t be worse for the kids. It might even be better.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

The Record looks at Corzine’s, Christie’s, and Daggett’s views on publicly-funded preschools, school choice, and teacher tenure.

Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) has launched a radio campaign promoting “The Cartel,” Bob Bowdon’s documentary film on U.S. education, with special attention paid to the dismal state of New Jersey’s poor urban districts.

Speaking of failing urban districts, Candidate Chris Christie says that Camden’s school system is “obscene” and the fault is the NJEA’s aversion to change and the lack of charter schools and vouchers. Corzine, he charges, is “in the sway of the teachers’ union.”

The Daily Journal suggests
that a salve for N.J.’s woes might be financial incentives to encourage consolidations of municipalities and school districts:
At its extreme, this could include cutting off state aid to municipalities and schools that don't meet cost-efficiency benchmarks but are still reluctant to consolidate or merge.
The Asbury Park Press reports that Eatontown Mayor Gerald J. Tarantolo, Chair of the League of Municipalities Property Tax Reform Steering Committee, wants to eliminate school funding from property taxes and come up with the cash through “other state revenue sources, such as income tax, sales tax, and lottery proceeds.”

Though William Dressel, Executive Director of the N.J. League of Municipalities is less hopeful, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that
real solutions on property taxes would require bipartisan support for politically risky ideas and taking on labor unions.

If the answers were easy, he said, "well, they would have been done 35 years ago."
Tim Evans, Research Director of New Jersey Future, a non-profit focused on smart growth, editorializes in The Daily Record that relying on property taxes to pay for school costs “presents local decision-makers with a warped incentive structure,” swaying them towards encouraging commercial and industrial developments that are children-free so towns are not stuck paying for public education.

And this week’s winner of the Dysfunctional School Board contest goes to Long Hill Township, where a resident asked for the school budget and the district denied his request.

Friday, October 16, 2009

85% or 49% Proficiency? Depends Upon Whom You Ask

This today from the Core Knowledge Blog in reference the discrepancy between New York State testing in math, which showed that 80% of 8th graders reached proficiency, and NAEP results that showed that 34% of 8th graders reached proficiency. Much rending of garments, shouts of “foul” from defenders and detractors of Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Joel Klein.
In New York, 80 percent of 8th graders met the state’s standards in math this year, up from 59 percent two years ago. But the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results released yesterday paint a different picture. Only 34 percent of the state’s 8th graders are considered proficient, a modest increase from 2007 levels. NAEP scores for the Empire State’s 4th graders actually declined, while the percent passing the state’s own test went up. This renewed charges that New York is making itself look good by lowering standards. Diane Ravitch puts it plainly: ”The fabulous ‘gains’ reported last spring, we now know, were based on dumbed-down tests and dubious scoring of the tests in Albany,” she writes in today’s New York Post.
We’re in a similar pickle in N.J., with gaping disparities between our state tests for 4th and 8th graders, NJASK4 and NJASK8, and the national test, NAEP. For example, our state tests say that 85% of our 4th graders are proficient in math. The NAEP says that 49% of our 4th graders are proficient in math.

Here’s the ethnic breakdown:

In 4th grade, according to the NJASK4, 92% of our white students are proficient in math, 68% of our black students are proficient in math, and 76% of our Hispanic students are proficient in math. But according to NAEP data, 63% of our white students are proficient in math, 19% of our black students are proficient in math, and 25% of our Hispanic students are proficient in math.

For 8th graders, (based on 2007 data because the State correctly raised the cut score for proficiency in 2008, skewing the numbers), NJASK8 results show that 81% of our white students are proficient in math, 38% of our black students are proficient in math, and 51% of our Hispanic students are proficient in math. According to NAEP data, however, 54% of white students are proficient in math, 17% of black students are proficient in math, and 22% of Hispanic students are proficient in math.

We’ll leave it to you statistics wonks out there to figure out standards of deviation, but the discrepancies are striking, certainly on a par with those in N.Y. Yet, in the midst of a gubernatorial race which seems to spare no rods, the response has been muted, almost blasé. Governor Corzine and the DOE did put out a press release extolling N.J.’s fabulous gains – “[The state test scores] are a clear sign,” said Commissioner Davy, that our approach to improving teaching and learning is working and that the investment in our schools is paying off” – but if there’s been any gnashing of teeth ala Diane Ravitch in the Post, then we haven’t seen it.

To the DOE’s credit, they are raising cut scores this year for 3d, 4th, and 5th graders. But discrepancies of this magnitude are not mitigated by tweaking definitions of proficiency. It’s a sound case for national standards and national testing. The NAEP is viewed as a low-stakes sideshow. Maybe it should be the main event.

Correction: A sharp-eyed reader notes that the DOE raised cut scores this year on the NJASK 3 and NJASK 4. The 5th grade cut-off for proficiency was raised last year.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Quote of the Day

Policy wonks always favor the idea of merging municipalities and school districts. As property taxes soar, more and more voters agree. The devil, of course, is in the details. Let's see how many New Jersey politicians are willing to vote themselves or their friends out of a job.
Maurice Carroll, Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. PolitickerNJ reports on the new Quinnipiac poll, which shows that 2/3 of New Jersey voters favor merging school districts to reduce property taxes, are split 44%-46% on whether teacher unions play a positive or negative role, overwhelmingly support merit pay for teachers and making it easier to fire bad teachers, and are opposed to school vouchers and charter schools.

Makes sense (at least to us policy wonks out here). The opposition to charter schools is a bit disconcerting. Did the responders provided with definitions of charters? Do people lump public charter schools and school vouchers together? Sounds like education reformers in N.J. need to do a little more educating.

Must-Read Kristof Column

from today's New York Times:
The Democratic Party has battled for universal health care this year, and over the decades it has admirably led the fight against poverty — except in the one way that would have the greatest impact.

Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. Yet, cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools…

This is the central front in the war on poverty, the civil rights issue of our time. Half a century after Brown v. Board of Education, isn’t it time to end our “separate but equal” school systems?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Union Musings From Both Sides of the Aisle

Star-Ledger columnist Tom Moran considers the impact of Corzine’s “overwhelming support from labor unions.” On NJEA:
The New Jersey Education Association, for example, has sent mailings to its 200,000 members that are crowded with falsehoods. One claims that Christie would end collective bargaining, eliminate pensions, and cut school spending — none of which is true.

"Our members are very excited about this election," says Barbara Keshishian, the NJEA president.
In the same vein, Fred Siegel & Dan DiSalvo in The Weekly Standard (of all places) deconstruct the growth of public sector unions in America, which they call “political powerhouses” that threaten the financial lot of unorganized tax payers. Their example:
(Carla) Katz not only represents thousands of state employees, she is also the richly rewarded former girlfriend of New Jersey governor Jon Corzine. Katz's influence on Corzine became clear in 2006 when the impassioned governor spoke to a Trenton rally of roughly 10,000 public workers and shouted out: "We will fight for a fair contract." Corzine was of course management in that situation, not labor. But with the power of the public sector unions to drive election outcomes, they now sit on both sides of the bargaining table.

NAEP Test Scores Are Out Today, Highlighting N.J.'s Achievement Gap

The Nation’s Report Card from the National Center for Educational Statistics came out today for 4th and 8th grade math. Nationally there’s some good news: 8th graders performed better in 2009 than in 2007. On the other hand, there’s not any meaningful statistical change for 4th graders. The only states who can boast 4th grade gains are Colorado, District of Columbia (snaps to Michelle Rhee!) Kentucky, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

How’d we do in New Jersey? Let’s look at the good news first.
  • In 2007, 40% of 8th graders scored proficient or above in math. In 2009, 44% scored proficient or above.
If we break it down ethnically, we see the achievement gap for 2009 scores:
  • 54% of White students scored proficient or above.
  • 17% of Black students scored proficient of above.
  • 22% of Hispanic students scored proficient or above.
NAEP uses eligibility for free or reduced lunch as a way to evaluate students’ economic backgrounds.
  • 20% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch scored proficient or above.
  • 53% of students not eligible for free or reduced lunch scored proficient or above.

Now let’s look at math scores for 4th graders in N.J.
  • In 2007 52% of 4th graders scored proficient or above in math. In 2009 49% scored proficient or above.
Broken down by ethnicity NAEP data shows that in 2009:
  • 63% of White 4th graders scored proficient or above.
  • 19% of Black 4th graders scored proficient or above.
  • 25% of Hispanic 4th graders scored proficient or above.

Using the rubric of eligibility for free or reduced lunch:
  • 22% of 4th graders eligible scored proficient or above.
  • 62% of 4th graders not eligible scored proficient or above.

How does one square this sobering data with the recent reports based on state tests that N.J. is narrowing the achievement gap for minority and low-income students? It all comes down to the test. According to a recent Star-Ledger column,
Some of New Jersey's strongest gains were found in fourth-grade math tests, Jennings said. There, proficiency for African-American students grew from 39 percent to 68 percent between 2002 and 2008, according to the report. For Latino students, proficiency scores rose from 53 percent to 76 percent. Some 92 percent of white students scored proficient on the math test in 2008, an increase of 12 percentage points during that time
And indeed that's true for our state assessments. Using the NJ ASK4 in math, 68% of our African-American 4th graders are proficient in math. But according to the national NAEP assessments, 19% of our African-American 4th graders are proficient in math. Now there’s an achievement gap, at least between designers of assessments.

It's not simply a matter of whether our New Jersey assessments are too easy. (Obviously, they are, although the DOE is slowly raising the definition of proficiency. Until this year, a 4th grader was deemed proficient in math by answering 37% of questions correctly. Starting this year it's about 50%). Our low-income and minority 4th graders are supposedly the beneficiaries of full-day preschools, supplementary programs, and all sorts of expensive bells and whistles intended to boost achievement. According to New Jersey state tests, it's working. According to NAEP, it's not working, at least in mathematics. Where do we go from here?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

NJEA Launches Anti-Christie Website

With pictures of Jon Corzine looking authoritative and benevolent, and pictures of Chris Christie looking large and bewildered, NJEA has launched a new website called NJ Kids and Families. The site also features “fact sheets” on preschool education, family leave, access to healthcare, and public school funding. There are two handy petitions to sign, one “urging Chris Christie to change his position on important issues facing families and children” and another “urging Jon Corzine to continue his support for families and children.”

In response, reports PolitickerNJ, Christie accused the NJEA of distorting his platform. Senator Joe Kyrillos, Christie’s campaign manager, described NJEA’s tactics as “real bare knuckles distorted political advertising -- the kind that I have not seen, even in this state, from a group like this.”

Here’s an example of one of the fact sheets: public school funding. Jon Corzine’s side of the sheet is emblazoned with four quotes from various papers, all touting the fact that he has “increased school funding” and doesn’t believe in vouchers. Christie’s side of the sheet is one terse quote in which he says he supports vouchers.

The website already needs an update. Just this past Friday the Star-Ledger reported that Corzine had “revealed for the first time” his proposals to cover N.J’s. $8 million deficit, in part by “not fully funding state aid to school districts.”

Not so much a revelation as a replay. Corzine cut school aid to districts this past year by reneging on state aid payments and dumping a pension payment due from the State onto individual school districts. He also cut payments for mandated preschools (or babysitting services, whatever your wont). Most school districts are bracing themselves for further cuts.

Fact is that neither Corzine, Christie, nor Daggett can balance a budget with school costs of more than $15K per kid per year, much of it payroll. Everyone knows this, except maybe the web designers at NJEA.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Quote of the Day

It is just another sign that teachers unions can no longer count on Democrats for unquestioned support. Advancing high-quality alternatives to woeful traditional public schools has become as important to the big-city mayors and civil rights groups as it is to fundamentalist Christian families and single urban mothers. And though many Republicans and conservative elements of the school reform movement may decry the tactics as either federal overreach gone amuck or support for a concept inferior to vouchers, Obama and Duncan may actually achieve the school choice they have unsuccessfully sought for so long.
Rishawn Biddle in The American Spectator on the Obama Administration's push for charter schools and the changing dynamics among state legislatures, teachers’ unions, and the Feds.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Wasser Recap and Update:
James Wasser, Superintendent of Freehold Regional School District, buys a bogus doctoral degree from a diploma mill that he submits for a pay increases. This and other snarky activity enrage the Board and local residents so Wasser resigns and accepts a “separation” agreement from the Board, which includes full-pay ($200K+ per year) and benefits for the next two years without any meaningful responsibilities. However, it does allow Freehold to hire an untainted superintendent. Executive County Superintendent Carole Knopp Morris nixes the deal because the Board snuck it by without a public hearing. So Wasser rescinds his resignation which, it turns out is meaningless because he has tenure in Freehold as an assistant superintendent and,, because of tenure and seniority, would just bump out another administrator. Wasser will finish out his two years as Superintendent of Freehold Regional School District.

The Cartel, reports the Courier Post, is winning “acclamation at local film festivals and is getting a chance to be seen by the public.” The Bob Bowdon documentary slams N.J.’s public school system as corrupt, wasteful, criminally deficient, and economically unsustainable. Show times here.

Diane D’amico of the Press of Atlantic City has a education blog. On the recent report from the Center on Education Policy, much touted as showing a minor closing of the achievement gap between white and Hispanic students, D’amico writes,
Some of the New Jersey results are pretty dramatic - fourth grade math in particular. But there's still a long way to go to close the gap. The ongoing question is whether the results have been worth the investment and how much more the state should, or can afford to invest.
"Good news from Trenton,"

was Glen Rock Superintendent Dr. David Verducci’s reaction to the news that the DOE has denied an application for a new charter, Bergen Regional Charter School. See here.

This is how Gannett New Jersey would overcome local resistance to school consolidation after Executive County Superintendents submit them and (probably) residents from at least one town reject them:
The consolidation studies should provide more definitive answers. If they demonstrate there are financial and academic benefits from consolidation of given school districts, and voters reject consolidation, the state should give the districts a reasonable period in which to meet cost-efficiency goals. If they can't achieve them, consolidation should be mandatory.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Star-Ledger Endorses Daggett

Chris Christie, writes the Star-Ledger Editorial Board, is a no-go due to "his sketchy budget plans and his relative lack of familiarity with the details of state government." Jon Corzine is well-admired, but too beholden to special interests, including unions:
[he is] an eminently decent and likable man, and not without achievement. We especially salute his unflagging commitment to state education and his success in changing the Abbott school aid formula to ensure that money intended to help poor children follows them whether or not they live in specific districts.

But his shortcomings as a leader are serious. They’ve become all too apparent in his dealings with public employee unions, an often unruly Legislature and a Democratic Party that is, at best, an ethically compromised ship and, at worst, harbors a corrupt crew…

Corzine is the chaplain on a pirate ship, not really its captain.
Chris Daggett, the Star-Ledger concludes, represents N.J.'s best hope to change "the corrosive culture of Trenton."

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Is a Jersey City Public Education Priceless?

Here’s the most in-depth discussion of educational issues among our gubernatorial candidates. The Star-Ledger’s Editorial Board covers the usual contentious topics – school funding, universal preschool, charter schools and vouchers, teacher tenure – with Corzine and Christie mostly hedging their bets (Corzine: “ [School] Choice is fine if you define that as our young people having the opportunity to go out of their schools in their district, or in our specialized districts, or if you’re talking about charter schools,” Christie on teacher tenure: I’m open to a whole number of suggestions, but I’d like those to come from experts: teachers, parents and school administrators and get input from all of them) and Daggett laying it on the line ("Give teachers who are found wanting a road map to improve. If not, then get rid of them.”).

Interestingly, both Corzine and Christie choose to linger far more on input than output. They talk about the school funding, about tenure, about school construction: all input. The one question about school performance – output – gets booted, seemingly out of an attempt to not antagonize teachers.

Here’s Corzine on the superiority of his School Funding Reform Act: “We’ve taken into account the ability of a community to pay, and also take into account what is necessary to have adequate funding for the individual child." When the economy improves and the state has additional resources, "we will have additional dollars going to schools on a need basis, not on a political basis."

Christie argues back,
I don’t think that it’s good enough. I didn’t like it when it passed. We have to do a much better job in dealing with the inequities with the funding formula. You look at the affect the school funding formula is having on suburban districts and charter schools. The Learning (Community) Charter School in Jersey City is receiving a funding cut from $10,500 to $8,900," while per per-pupil spending for Jersey City public schools this year is $17,500. "I think we have to go back and start over.
(Note: NJ DOE data for the 2007-2008 school year says that cost per pupil in Jersey City Public Schools was $16,124 and at Learning Community Charter Schools was $11,836. Christie’s using numbers for 2008-2009.)

But there’s little discussion of academic performance. So let’s look. At Learning Community Charter School, 8.3 % of the third grade class failed the ASK3 in Language Arts and 2.8% failed the ASK3 in Math. At an arbitrarily-selected Jersey City elementary school, Alexander D. Sullivan 30, 37.2% of 3d graders failed the ASK3 in Language Arts and 31.7% failed the ASK3 Math. 29.7% of Learning Community Charter School’s 7th graders failed the ASK7 Language Arts assessment and 24.4% failed the ASK7 Math. 6.5% of LCCS’s eighth graders failed both the ASK8 in Language Arts and Math. At another arbitrarily-selected Jersey City Middle School, Number 4 Middle School, 45.1% of 7th graders failed the ASK7 Math Language Arts and49.6% failed the ASK7 Math. 65.7% of 8th graders at Number 4 failed the ASK8 Language Arts test and 82.4% failed the ASK8 Math.

No doubt there’s extenuating circumstances to explain the output in Jersey City traditional public schools – more special ed kids, more ELL’s, whatever. But aren’t the glaring disparities in output worth a mention from either of our two main-party candidates? A good public school education may be priceless, but it's still worth a cost analysis.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

School Choice in Edison

Students who attend Edison High School should consider themselves lucky, even though their school is in its second year of a School In Need of Improvement (SINI) and subject to federal sanctions, along with 29% of high schools in N.J. Edison Public School District is big enough – 14,000 kids – to support two separate high schools, so kids at Edison High have the option of transferring to the other high school, J.P. Stevens, which is located in the more affluent side of town.. It’s how NCLB is supposed to work but rarely does in Jersey: provide choice for kids stuck in failing schools. In most cases it’s meaningless here because we have almost exclusively small districts with one high school (or we have urban cities where all the schools are SINI’s). But in Edison it works.

Now, one could argue that Edison High School is unfairly maligned. It missed only 1 of 41 indicators – special ed students scored inadequately on language arts assessments – and anyone in the world of special education knows that it’s ludicrous to expect children with developmental disabilities to test at the level of non-disabled peers. Regardless, more and more children are transferring over to Stevens since school district officials informed parents of that option. Two dozen applied the first week, reports the Star Ledger, and now the number is up to 50 students.

It’s unclear whether racial and class divisions are a dynamic in this march over to whiter, richer J.P. Stevens. Both schools perform pretty well though, curiously, Edison High, has 13.3% of kids eligible for special education services, and at J.P. Stevens, the percentage is only 7.4%. Something in the water on the north side of town? (Actually, 7.4% of kids with I.E.P.’s is extremely low for N.J., where the state average of children classified as eligible for special education services is 18%. But that’s another story. See this piece by Jay P. Greene for the other story.)

Maybe Edison School District is locating self-contained special ed classes on the south side of town. More likely it’s the perennial problem of overclassifying poor and and minority kids. Anyway, none of the prospective transfers are kids with disabilities.

Meanwhile, Edison’s Superintendent is asking Congressman Frank Pallone to push Congress to eliminate the transfer option imbedded in No Child Left Behind and instead let Edison High do what other sanctioned high schools do in Jersey when there’s nowhere else to go: get extra money to provide tutoring and let it be. It’s not so much a problem in Edison where test scores are largely commendable and students can move to a slightly higher-performing high school (though J.P. Stevens is struggling to arrange schedules and find space). But it points to the lack of choice and mobility in most of New Jersey.

Suspended Super Demands Principal Post

Here’s a good one. Antonio Lewis is a former Superintendent of Asbury Park School District whose compensation package included a salary of $188K. Before he was appointed Superintendent in 1999, he was a tenured middle school principal in this Abbott district. The School Board suspended him after a chaotic and dysfunctional term but under the terms of the suspension paid him his full salary for 3 years. Now, reports the Asbury Park Press, Lewis has petitioned Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy to return to Asbury Park District as a principal because, even though superintendents in N.J. don't have tenure, principals do and he claims his former service there grants him tenure and seniority rights. You know what? He’ll probably win his petition and bump a principal out of Asbury Park. Competent or not, there’s no messing with tenure.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Christie Writes a Letter to NJEA Members

Read it here; his education platform is prefaced by this explanation (emphases are his own):
Right now, the Trenton-based leaders of the teachers' union are literally spending millions of dollars of your union dues to falsely attack me on television and through slick mailers. This is nothing but an attempt to poison me in your eyes so that you will vote for four more years of Jon Corzine and his failed policies. Just so I am clear, what they are saying about my intentions to hurt pensions or lay off teachers is absolutely, 100% untrue.

Hey, Mr. Christie: Here's Some Free Advice

Christie’s campaign advisors have apparently decided that the “silence is golden” rule doesn’t apply to candidates undergoing horsewhipping for taking the taciturn approach to economic policy. So yesterday Christie unveiled to the Star Ledger Editorial Board a peek at his approach to digging New Jersey out of its hole. If you look hard you can make out a few wispy details, including a faint sketch of school funding strategy:
Christie said his administration would help charter schools to compete with "failing" urban schools, forcing public schools to improve. He would authorize vouchers for children in "failing" districts, including the 31 former Abbott districts. He said he would continue to fund preschool there but would not extend it to other districts.
Hmm. The “help” to charter schools is old news: he'd expedite the process – which would require the cooperation of the Legislature -- and appoint a reform-minded Education Commissioner. The other two elements are a little more fuzzy.

If Governor-hopeful Christie limits preschool funding to our 31 Abbott districts (which technically don’t exist any more), he’d be violating the School Funding Reform Act, which is supposed to fund free public full-day preschool to all impoverished children, regardless of where they live. If he disregards SFRA, he’ll set in motion inevitable legal challenges from Abbott advocates like the Education Law Center, which is itching for just that kind of violation so that the State Supreme Court will follow through on its promise to overturn SFRA if it’s not fully funded. So we end up back with a system that is corrupt, wasteful, and shows no meaningful educational benefit to the children ghettoized in cities like Trenton, Camden, and Newark.

However, he can have it both ways if he adjusts his vision of vouchers just a bit.

Our Governor-hopeful wants to authorize vouchers for those kids in Abbott districts. This raises a whole host of issues. For instance, how much is a voucher worth? Not enough to pay for tuition for private schools in New Jersey, certainly, which often run close to $30K per year. (Factoid: Arizona has an active voucher program, and 76% of the money handed out goes to children already in private school.) There'd be enough cash for parochial schools, probably, but then we get into that messy Church-State conundrum. And what about the poor rural kids who don’t live in Abbott districts but are just as educationally disadvantaged? Do they have to move to Passaic to get any relief?

Here’s a better idea, Mr. Christie. Expand your definition of“failing school district” beyond the Abbott designation. Use NCLB data, for example, and affix the tag to all schools in their 5th or 6th year as “A School In Need of Improvement,” maybe with an exception for schools that failed solely based on the scores of kids with disabilities. Give each of those kids a “voucher” equivalent to the cost of their school’s cost per pupil and let them transfer to another public school district, maybe within the same county if we want to retain our delightful Jersey provincialism. That get-out-of-jail-free card would be honored by our growing number of charter schools also. Not enough space? Build it and they will come. There’s $3.9 Billion in the Schools Development Authority. Use it to expand successful school systems so that our disenfranchised kids get to share in the educational wealth. So they don't go to school in their specific municipality. Can't we live with that?

In this way, a prospective governor could argue that he is fulfilling the mandate of the School Funding Reform Act by providing equitable services to all children, regardless of their place of residence. We escape from the Abbott fiasco while continuing to provide supplemental services to needy students like full day preschool, maybe in our spacious and underused county special services buildings. We create some healthy marketplace competition. And we take a tiny step towards undermining the district boundaries that make Jersey the most segregated school system in the nation.

The Amazing Wasser: Now You See Him, Now You Don't

After the Freehold Regional High School District accepted James Wasser’s resignation in the wake of embarrassing revelations that he purchased his doctorate from a diploma mill, Lucille Davy has declared the retirement deal “null and void.” Apparently the local School Board violated a state mandate by not holding a public hearing on the resignation deal. Maybe they were the ones trying to hide their red faces: the golden parachute offered in the buy-out included full pay of $210,000 per year for the remaining two years of his contract, plus another $200K in accrued sick leave and vacation days, in spite of the fact that the State recently capped sick leave pay-outs at $15K. He was going to have to give back his SUV, though. That's a blow.

Dueling Quotes of the Day

If he’s re-elected, Jon Corzine will be more indebted to the public and private sector unions than ever before. Remember, this is the man who infamously waded into a state worker rally and vowed, “I stand with you. I’ll fight with you.”

Does any one seriously think he’ll push for pension reforms? Will he push for all public employees to contribute toward their health insurance premiums? It’s doubtful – he negotiated for the unions to pay just 1.5% of their salaries toward their premiums – and, in a move that still outrages us, he gave back an agreed upon concession when he unilaterally decided retirees shouldn’t have to pay anything.

Will he seek to limit salary hikes? Will he push for legislative reforms that call for statewide contract negotiations for teacher raises, considering that the state (i.e. we the taxpayer) pays for their pensions

Of course not. He hasn’t in the past four years, despite multibillion deficits that could have benefited from such reforms. So what would make us think he’ll change in the next four, when he owes the unions even more?
From In The Lobby
With just few short weeks left in the race, Christie's hyperbolic criticisms of the state of the state budget coupled with his refusal to offer an economic plan is kind of like bemoaning the fact that he doesn't fit into his old jeans while eating a Double-Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a side of supersized fries. Sticking to a budget diet plan, without reaching for the Ho Ho's may be hard for all of the candidates. But, a winner with no plan at all would mean that the people of New Jersey end up as the "biggest losers."
Carla Katz (yes, that Carla Katz) on PolitickerNJ

Monday, October 5, 2009

Charter School Math

Let’s look at a real example of charter schools in an poor urban area with rotten schools, say, Camden. Here’s the sorry stats for Camden High School: 23.8% of high schoolers pass the High School Proficiency Assessment (which Education Commissioner Lucille Davy has labeled an 8th grade level test); average SAT scores are 344 for Math and 346 for Verbal; no Advanced Placement courses are offered; 49.9% of kids graduate; fewer than 20% go on to 2 or 4-year colleges.

There are two charter schools in Camden that accept high school kids: LEAP Academy University Charter School and Camden Academy Charter School. (836 kids are on waiting lists for the two schools, by the way.) At LEAP, 57.4% pass the HSPA; average SAT scores are (not much better) 383 for Math and 375 for Verbal; 4 A.P. classes are offered; 100% of kids graduate; 96% go on to 2 or 4-year colleges. At Camden Academy 68.7% pass the HSPA; average SAT scores are 383 for Math and 375 for Verbal; 6 A.P. courses are offered; 100% of kids graduate; 90.7% go on to 2 or 4-year colleges. (DOE data here.)

Here’s the kicker (which should have come up at the debate and didn’t): total cost per pupil at Camden’s traditional public high schools is $15,407. Total cost per pupil at LEAP is $11,029 and at Camden Academy it’s $12,501.

You can play with the numbers any way you want. Four years at Camden High costs taxpayers $62.6K per kid. Four years at LEAP is $44.1K and four years at Camden Academy is $50K. Total enrollment of all high school students in Camden, whether public or charter school students, is 3451 children. At $12,501 per year per student (we’ll take the more expensive charter for convenience) the tab is $43,140,951. Put all those kids in the traditional public schools and the bill is $53,169,557. In other words, if all the high schoolers in Camden went to charter school, we’d save $10 million dollars per year.

One could argue that it's not all about money. One could argue that charter schools "cream off" the more easily managed students (though Professor Carolyn Hoxby's recent study dispells that notion). Still, 10 million dollars is 10 million dollars.

Is Corzine Really a Charter School Fan?

Jon Corzine’s deathbed conversion to unfettered charter school expansion during Thursday night’s gubernatorial debate is a little confusing if you've been following the rhetoric. Just three weeks (see here), Corzine surrogate/running mate Loretta Weinberg defined charter schools this way:
Part of our public school system, and part of what both the Governor Corzine and I believe in, and that is the expansion of charter schools in New Jersey. They are the laboratory for new innovative educational techniques.
Weinberg’s terminology echoes NJEA’s code for charter schools: short-term educational experiments that, if successful, get incorporated into traditional public schools. For example, a charter school might be founded to apply an innovative math curriculum to investigate whether it should be implemented across the state. After a time, give the innovation a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Mission accomplished. The charter school has served its purpose and is dissolved.

Yet Thursday evening Corzine seemed to reject NJEA’s circumscribed mission of charter schools and sign on to a more reformist agenda, touting the increase in enrollment in charter schools from 14,000 kids to 22,000 and this summer’s approval by the DOE of 8 new charter schools.

Has Corzine morphed into Newark’s Cory Booker/N.Y.C.’s Mike Bloomberg/Boston’s Thomas Menino, a believer that traditional public schools in poor urban areas are less effective than charter schools? Is NJEA going to rescind its endorsement?

Not likely. A July 2009 study by the Hall Institute of Public Policy itemizes the reasons why N.J.’s charter school growth is so sluggish:

1) Charter schools in Jersey are granted terms of only 4 years (right in sync with NJEA’s short-term experimental labs of innovation), and then they must reapply.
2) New Jersey is the only state in America to invest in one person, our Commissioner of Education, the sole authority to approve charters. Other states use multiple boards to grant authorization which lends transparency and speed to the process.
3) Unlike other states, N.J. public school districts affected by the charter can appeal the authorization of the charter to the DOE:
By 2005, New Jersey had authorized 91 charter school applications and had received 237 in total. Despite the availability of appeal, the number of charters in New Jersey has never grown over 67, the number reached in 2005. No great augmentation of the charter school count has occurred since the beginning of charter schools in New Jersey.
In other words, it’s immaterial whether Corzine or Christie or Daggett get up on a podium and say that they think charter schools are their best pals. Until the State Legislature sloughs off the NJEA-driven constraints to charter school expansion embedded in the process for approval and authorization, charter school expansion is just a talking point for a talking head.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Is our arbitration process for public employee union contracts driving up the cost of teacher salaries? William G. Dressel Jr., Executive Director of the N.J. League of Municipalities says in the Star-Ledger,
Arbitration awards routinely exceed the rate of inflation. The effects of these awards then ripple though local budgets, as public safety employees in neighboring jurisdictions, and other employees of the same municipality, push for greater wage increases. The ripples then gain in strength as pension liabilities expand. As public employee wage and benefit packages go up, they are inevitably accompanied by rising property-tax rates.
NJSBA agrees. In the Daily Journal, Frank Belluscio, Communications Director of NJSBA, says that “school boards need more power at the bargaining table to get a better grip on rising costs." But NJEA begs to differ: says Steve Wollner of NJEA, "I don't think the answer is to go back to the bad old days ... where we had endless strife at the bargaining table, strikes, contract impasses, which only upset people. Nobody benefits from that."

Where do our gubernatorial candidates stand on this? Jon Corzine seems to be targeting the police and fire workers unions (who come in at about 4% per year in annual increases) and Chris Christie says leave them alone but go after teachers (about 4.5% per year) and other governmental workers. (No connection to their respective constituencies, of course.) Chris Daggett would go after all public employees, tying property tax reductions to maintaining municipal costs at the Consumer Price Index.

Constitutional Convention, anyone?

Check out Gannett's week-long series on why our property taxes are so high, mellifluously entitled "Tax Crush." Here’s an interesting tidbit: "New Jersey's crazy quilt of towns was created piecemeal over centuries, often inspired by efforts to exclude liquor, African-Americans and the poor."

We’ve gotten over the aversion to liquor; the other two targets of prejudice may still be apt.

More on Municipal Madness:
The Courier Post cites Senator Steve Sweeney, who says that the “root of the problem is bloated, inefficient government."
With 566 municipalities, most boasting their own police force, local court and town hall, and 605 school districts, the rising cost of running local government is a key reason New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation.
Newark and Camden Children's Zone?:
New Jersey is making a bid to replicate Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, a model that offers educational and social services to poor urban communities. The Star-Ledger reports that there’s a $24K state initiative to train two non-profit groups in Newark and Camden.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Quote of the Day

[NJEA] has successfully resisted proposals for regional negotiation of public-school salaries that would help local school districts resist the whipsaw effect of high settlements in neighboring districts. It has succeeded in keeping tenure laws on the books that discourage school boards from trying to dismiss incompetent teachers and administrators. It has helped forestall the creation of school vouchers that would help parents in failing school systems pay for private-school tuition. It has lobbied to keep school-board elections and school budget referendums on the spring calendar, when small turnouts at the polls enable public-education interest groups to enjoy a disproportionate influence. It has blocked any serious consideration of merit pay for teachers, an idea it finds distasteful.

In short, the NJEA has done a union's job, which is to look out for the welfare of its dues-paying members. Its candidate-endorsement strategy is part of its formula for success.
George Amick of the Trenton Times on NJEA's pro-incumbent bias.

Here's A Dumb Idea:

Let’s increase electrical work costs in public schools. Yet that’s the bill just passed by the N.J. Legislature and now sitting on the desk of Governor Corzine. Bill A-3317, reports New Jersey School Boards Association, “would not allow schools to contract for electrical work except with a licensed journeyman who is a member of the electrical contractor’s union.” Corzine gets 45 days to think about it; if he takes no action, then the bill becomes law.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Questions We'd Like To Hear At Tonight's Debate

1) Jon Corzine counts his School Funding Reform Act as a major accomplishment for his Administration. It channels money on a per pupil basis to poor students for extra services that have historically been limited to 31 Abbott districts. However, the economic downturn has forced him to only partially fund mandates like full day preschools in non-Abbott districts. Unless SFRA is fully funded, the State Courts may overturn it and go back to Abbott funding, long known for corruption and waste. How will you solve this problem?

2) Annual teacher salary increases in N.J. continue to trend at about 4% - 4.5%, even though the cap for school budgets is 4%. Thus, school districts must cut non-personnel items every year just to stay within cap. Since payroll counts for over 80% of a district’s expenditures, there’s not much left to cut. Shared services, much touted as a revenue-saving device, only go so far. What are your plans to rein in teacher salary increases?

3) School district consolidation is a valuable way to increase school efficiency. State regulations give new powers to our Executive County Superintendents, including a mandate to offer consolidation proposals this Spring. However, there’s little support for these proposals because any consolidation will raise someone’s taxes and the legislation is set up so that one town has veto power. Also, the individual towns must pay for feasibility studies. Is this an exercise in futility? Is there a better use of the time of ECS’s? Or should the legislation be toughened up?

P.S. Non-operating districts, i.e., school districts without actual schools, don't count. And even some of those are suing for reinstatement.

4) The plight of poor New Jersey schoolchildren is that they are often trapped in failing school systems. Local governance keeps them from crossing municipal borders to more successful districts. What are your thoughts on turning over perpetually failing districts – Trenton, Camden, Willingboro – to a successful charter operation?

5) The Obama Administration’s Race To The Top program awards money to states that foster charter school growth and tie student performance to teachers’ compensation. We have 11,000 children on waiting lists for charter schools and NJEA is rigidly opposed to merit pay. What do you think of our prospects for RTTT money?