Can N.J. Get Real About Race To The Top?

Thomas Carroll, President of the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability, has a piece in the New York Post on why New York State will have a better shot at Race To The Top funds if they accept Mike Bloomberg’s seven recommendations to state legislators. These include ending the cap on charter schools and providing funding for charter facilities; repealing N.Y.’s firewall that bars linking student performance to teacher evaluations; offering more pay for hard-to-fill positions like science, math, and special education; ending the “first in, last out” rule that forces principals to lay off teachers based on seniority rather than merit; closing the lowest 10% of schools based on student performance; limiting payments to displaced teachers; and ratifying the Common Core Standards immediately.

If Bloomberg is right and this is the formula for receiving Race To The Top funds, how does N.J. stack up? Not so well. To have a fighting chance, Christie and the Legislature are going to have to act quickly. To wit: we have an even lower cap on charter schools than N.Y. (135 to N.Y.’s 200) and we offer no funding for facilities. N.J. doesn’t have a firewall separating student performance from teacher evaluations (anyone with more info, please chime in), but in most cases contractual bargaining agreements bar such links, and NJEA looks dimly on any such efforts. We do not offer more pay for harder-to-fill positions and seniority in hiring decisions rules supreme. Our fragmented school infrastructure makes a convenient argument against closing failing schools, but doesn’t do us any favors with RTTT criteria.

How can we improve our chances? The Legislature needs to start by amending the Charter School Program Act, first signed by Gov. Whitman in 1996, by eliminating the cap. What’s the difference? Thirteen years after the legislation we have a grand total of 68 charters -- we’re not even half-way to the cap. Throw in the facilities aid also – fair is fair. Christie needs to appoint, as he promised he would, a Commissioner of Education who is an avowed charter advocate willing to take on the NJEA leadership’s animosity towards school choice and merit pay. Such an appointment would show the Feds that the Christie administration is serious about education reform. Finally, take our embryonic Interdistrict Public School Choice Program and make it real. Let kids cross district lines to escape chronically failing schools so that they have a chance at a decent education. According to the School Funding Reform Act, the money follows the kid, so what’s the difference if a higher-achieving district has the space? In the short term it will leverage our chances for RTTT cash. In the long term we start improving our inequitable and segregated education system. It’s a win-win.

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