Friday, January 30, 2009

Rush Holt on N.J.'s "Skimming Problem"

The Federal stimulus package, approved by the House and headed for the Senate, allots billions of dollars towards schools, and New Jersey school board members and administrators are eager to hear more. Congressman Rush Holt initiated a conference call yesterday afternoon with interested officials; he probably got more than he bargained for. As he attempted to read through the list of proposed cash infusions, “larger than anything we’ve ever done,” an unexpectedly large audience peppered him with questions about the effect on individual districts and how the money would be distributed.

Here’s a link to New Jersey’s proposed appropriations.

Noteworthy was the general skepticism on the part of listeners regarding the State and the DOE’s ability to handle the distribution capably and fairly. Said Congressman Holt on the usual trajectory of money funneled through N.J. State agencies, “we are aware of the regular skimming problem.” Sigh. We applaud his candor.

Roxbury Settlement

If you want a sense of the zeitgeist in New Jersey regarding teacher salaries, there’s no better barometer than the public reaction to the recent contract settlement in Roxbury Township. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the school board had approved a four-year settlement in the Morris County township of 4.3%, 4.7%, 4.7%, and 4.7%. Currently there are 324 comments, mostly outraged, appended to the article as readers declaim their horror at what is viewed as irresponsible and exorbitant wage hikes. The story itself, from the normally staid A.P., begins,

Teachers in Roxbury Township are getting raises at a time when many private sector employees have had their salaries frozen.

An editorial today in the Star-Ledger notes that, while Roxbury teachers have a comparably low starting salary of about $40,000, the contract awards a 19.7% increase over four years, warns local school boards to “hold the line,” and places the blame squarely on the back of the NJEA:

You see, that's the New Jersey Education Association's game. The union scares the lower-paying districts into believing they won't attract good teachers unless they agree to oversize raises. Then, the NJEA moves on to the next lower-paying district with the same argument. It becomes a game of leap-frog as every district tries to be above average.

The relationship between unions and employees is typically strained – it’s the nature of the beast. The strain becomes a real muscle cramp in a time of economic downturn. But the failure of NJEA to even acknowledge that strange times call for unusual concessions has a measurable affect on public support.

Teachers work hard and deserve to be paid like professionals. $40,000 for a starting salary is low. But once you add on lifetime job security after three years of employment, summers off, and generous benefits, you get blowback. Continues the Ledger,

But the starting salary -- the smallest salary earned by the smallest number of teachers -- is a smoke screen used to make any contract more palatable. The median salary for Roxbury teachers in 2007-08 was $57,895. That number is more relevant. And by the end of the contact, it will be $69,305.

NJEA is stuck in a time warp when teachers had to fight for every dollar and were vastly undervalued. That’s no longer the case. In addition, local districts have frozen all non-payroll spending and are cutting to the bone. The union could go a long way toward regaining public support by, say, agreeing to a salary freeze for a year. If they don't take some action that brings teachers into line with the community, the public -- and local school boards -- will have no compunction about muscling them out of the fold.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Politics of High School Reform

There’s been much talk about reforming our high schools so that, according to the ubiquitous soundbite, our students are prepared for the 21st century in a global economy. Fine. So last Spring Corzine made some grand gestures towards reform, and in September DOE Commissioner Lucille Davy announced, with great drumrolls and pageantry, the results of the Secondary Redesign Committee, or “NJ Steps: Redesigning Education in New Jersey for the 21st Century.

Some districts were sanguine: they were either already offering all the courses to the vast majority of their students mandated under the new graduation requirements – lab biology and chemistry, algebra II, economics – or were planning to do so anyway. Other districts panicked because they didn’t have the resources for extra lab space or more science teachers, or they knew their kids wouldn’t pass the promised rigorous subject tests. For example, our vo-tech schools were furious. From the Star-Ledger:

"We are adamantly opposed," said Frank Garguilo, superintendent of Hudson County Schools of Technology and president of the statewide association. "The state thinks it can manage every single kid in every single detail when every kid is different in their abilities and how they learn."
Yesterday, the grand reformation and upgrade of our high schools met another test at the Statehouse as Davy and a panel of educators appeared before the Assembly Education Committee to defend the new requirements, specifically algebra II. This particular course has been the subject of much criticism: if we demand that kids pass algebra II to graduate, will that lead to higher drop-out rates? If we put all kids in the course, will that lead to a dumbing-down of the curriculum, thus cheating kids who would benefit from a more rigorous offering? And anyway, do all kids really need algebra II? Rutgers math professor Joseph Rosenstein of the New Jersey Math and Science Coalition yesterday, who, according to the Press of Atlantic City “supports requiring more practical applied math courses,” said flatly,

Most of our students don't need algebra II.

Rosenstein said if courses were tailored just to meet state requirements, students who should take a true algebra II course might not get the higher level of work they need.

Just what the DOE needs – a little more undermining, a little more loss in credibility. Now Davy is put in the unenviable position of defending the sweeping reforms grandly trotted out by the DOE. What’s at the heart of this? Ah – here it is. The Press of Atlantic City quotes Davy, who must have been feeling a bit defensive:

A lot of high schools provide more than this. This to me is an equity issue where these are the standards no matter where you are in high school.

Call it equity, call it politically-astute posturing as the State attempts to overturn the Abbott decisions on the (reasonable) premise that all our poor kids don’t live in cities, call it an underhanded ploy to leech power from local boards of education, call it a recognition that we won't get our HSPA scores up unless we raise the bar in math, call it a magnanimous gesture to standardize course offerings so that all children benefit from a rigorous curriculum. Call it all of the above.

It’s one thing to pass a bill through the legislature, put it on the books, and use it to declaim that all our kids get equal treatment. It’s another thing to make it happen. Can we take our crazy-quilt school system, with vo-tech schools teaching plumbing and car maintenance and wealthy schools teaching Calculus BC and poor schools teaching underprivileged children how to write a sentence, and standardize high school graduation requirements? Probably not. Are you feeling cynical or idealistic today? Choose your poison.

What's Another School District?

For a great example of the challenges inherent in consolidation of local school districts, look to Oradell’s campaign to withdraw from their partnership with River Edge that forms the River Dell Regional School District in Bergen County.

Right now, Oradell taxpayers cough up $5,700 more per child than taxpayers in River Edge, although technically tax levies are based on property values in each town, rather than per-pupil cost. But if Oradell gets the thumbs-up on secession, River Edge would drown in debt. According to NorthJersey,

The district would take on about $10 million in debt from the regional district and inherit a middle school that officials have estimated will need $24 million in future upgrades, according to legal briefs submitted in the case.

If you’re a gambler, put your money on a big fat “no” to the de-consolidation, since neither district is K-12 and Executive County Superintendents have been given their marching orders: offer up plans to the DOE to create K-12 regional districts by March 2010. Nonetheless, these funding disparities point to a basic roadblock in the DOE’s mandate: how will we square the multiple money issues in targeted towns, especially when the law gives any town the right to opt out?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Seven Percent Solution?

There's a rumor floating around that Corzine will cut State aid to schools by 7%.

Assembly Releases Bill Mandating Boilerplate Superintendent Contracts

PolitickerNJ is reporting that the Assembly Education Committee released a new bill, A-3185, that would require all school districts to use a boilerplate contract for superintendents. This new template would be created by the DOE and include parameters for salary, health insurance, pension, sick days and vacation.

The New Jersey Assembly Republicans issued a press release touting this initiative and quoting Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, Republican from Mercer and Monmouth:


Whether it’s accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sick days for a big pay-out, or using a phony degree to qualify for a raise, we’ve seen far too many examples in New Jersey where superintendents are more concerned with their wallets than serving taxpayers and their children, We must protect local property taxpayers from dishonest school officials who negotiate illegal or abusive terms into their contracts.

Thank goodness for our righteous public servants, protecting us from those money-hungry, unethical, scheming school board members who negotiate superintendent contracts. No question that the $740,000 payout garnered by former Keansburg superintendent Barbara Trzeszkowski displayed egregious negligence on the part of the pond scum responsible for that gold-plated parachute. So, who was responsible for those “illegal and abusive terms?” None other than the DOE, who has had control of Keansburg for years and, in fact, oversees the school board.

School Officials Can Breathe Again...

...because it's looking more and more unlikely that local districts will have to start up full day preschools for poor 3 and 4-year-olds this September. NorthJersey reports that

This week, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said unless federal funding for preschool finds its way to New Jersey, the governor's plans to enroll all low-income children in the state will be put on hold.

This is no surprise -- it's hard to imagine Davy and the DOE ordering districts to freeze all "unnecessary" spending, simultaneously dole out about $11,000 per child (the estimated cost of a full preschool program), plus expect districts to come up with the facilities for the thousands of eligible children. Yet it's more grist for the mill for poor rural families who argue that their kids are as poor as the kids in the Abbott districts, yet lose out on all sorts of services like full-day preschools.

Load 'Em On

The Star-Ledger reports that the Senate Education Committee approved a pilot program for six schools to begin a mandated basic finance course for high school seniors -- stuff like balancing a check book, applying for a mortgage, and managing credit card debt. The approval was in spite of objections from Democrat Jim Whelan, who had concerns about jamming all these new requirements into the school day, and the NJEA, who said that these sort of skills could be taught in existing courses.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Keansburg Newsflash

Newsday reports that the State Superior Court has refused to dismiss the State's challenge to the lavish severance package of former Keansburg Superintendent Barbara Trzeszkowski. Trzeszkowski had formally requested that the Court dismiss the suit.

Anne Milgram, Attorney General of New Jersey, has filed suit to recover $560,000 of Trzeszkowski's $740,000 payout from Keansburg, an Abbott district overseen by the DOE.

Bill Gates on Tenure

Bill Gates, in his 2009 Annual Letter from the Gates Foundation (here), is candid about some failures in his education initiatives, specifically in regard to smaller high schools which didn’t improve student achievement “in any significant way.” The reasonable assumption was that smaller was better, that smaller groups of students would lead to a higher degree of curricular differentiation and achievement. What got in the way? According to Nicholas Kristof’s summary of the letter in yesterday's New York Times,

Small schools succeeded when the principal was able to change teachers, curriculum and culture, but smaller size by itself proved disappointing. “In most cases,” he says, “we fell short.”

“Change teachers, curriculum, and culture”: that’s in a nutshell. We’re well on our way in New Jersey with changes in curriculum through the DOE’s High School Redesign project, though there have certainly are legitimate complaints about the “one size fits all” philosophy that informs this sort of rigid standardization. It’s the “change teachers and culture” piece that will stymie us. After all, tenure awards lifetime employment – an anachronistic perk – after three years of work. And, while excellent administrators set an appropriate tone and affect school culture, it’s the squadrons of teachers who own the “culture” of the school.

Gates continues,

It is amazing how big a difference a great teacher makes versus an ineffective one. Research shows that there is only half as much variation in student achievement between schools as there is among classrooms in the same school. If you want your child to get the best education possible, it is actually more important to get him assigned to a great teacher than to a great school.

Any astute parent knows this to be true. So, how do we foster an environment that attracts great teachers? We can start by moving away from an industrial model that treats our best educators like cogs in an assembly line, awarding innovation, hard work, and increased student achievement, recognizing our best professionals in substantive ways in line with any effective management model. The flip side of this is giving our newly modern management the tools to cull out ineffective teachers, even if they've been employed more than three years.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Monmouth and Ocean Potential Merger:

State Sen. Sean Kean and Assemblyman David Rible, both Republicans from Monmouth County, held a public forum this past Tuesday at Sea Girt Elementary School to discuss school consolidation in Monmouth and Ocean Counties. The Asbury Park Press reports that the 75 people there expressed concern that the threatened closing of non-operating districts and regionalization of small districts is "just political" and would not save any money. Meredith Wong, President of the Interlaken Board of Education, a non-op, said,

I find I'm getting angrier about the whole thing. Are these education experts that decided this or people that know a lot about what's going on in these little towns?

Take that, education experts.


Wildwood:

Last month the mayor of Wildwood, Ernie Troiano, sent a letter to the local Board of Education requesting that they come up with an exit strategy to close the tiny one-school district. (See this post.) Here's the unequivocal answer from the Wildwood Superintendent, Dennis J. Anderson:

Despite some of the rumors floating around, we have absolutely no plans to close the high school. Not now. Not next year. Never.

Pequannock's Micromanaging Board Members:

Local residents are attempting recalls of the President and Vice President of the Pequannock School Board because they blame the Board leadership for the sudden resignation of Superintendent Larrie Reynolds, who is heading off to greener pastures in Mt. Olive. NorthJersey reports,

John Buonomo, chairman of the Committee to Recall Alleva, one of two groups seeking the trustees' ouster, said nitpicking and micromanaging from the board made it hard for Reynolds to do his job.

It's a challenge for all Board members to parse that slippery dictum to "not manage the schools, but to see that they are managed well." One man's prudent oversight is another man's micromanagement. At any rate, angry townspeople already have 2,809 signatures on the recall petition, about half of what they need to get the question on April's ballot.

How to Avoid State-wide Panic over Threats to Home Rule:

Education Can Overcome Home Rule. Yup, that's header on a Central Jersey editorial explaining why residents are opposed to a merger of the Flemington and Raritan Valley police departments. (The first sentence is "Home rule rules in New Jersey.") Here's a sample:

In most New Jersey communities, any large consolidation ideas are going to require a prolonged educational process. Residents have to want them, and they're going to have to come to that belief themselves, not because their leaders of the moment say it's a good idea. It will require community input from the beginning, some exhaustive studies about how a merger would work, how it would affect departments and budgets. And it will need responsible local police officers and school employees to keep their own potential resistance in check, to allow the process to unfold rather than trying to intimidate people into stopping it.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Davy to the Rescue

While New Jersey’s economy sinks and public school districts struggle to put together budgets without any certainty about State aid numbers, Education Commissioner Lucille Davy has come to the rescue. Our very own Caped Crusader issued a letter last week addressed to all districts ordering a freeze on all “non-essential and discretionary” spending. Gotham is safe!

Well, maybe not. What exactly are districts going to freeze? The Bridgeton News quotes Millville Business Administrator Bryce Kell: "I don't think we're spending money on non-essential things, Of course, that's my opinion, and you could disagree."

NorthJersey
, on the same beat, quoted Maywood Schools Superintendent Robert Otnisky: "We see the letter and we said, 'OK, we are already doing it.” Woodland Park Superintendent Schott Rixford said that “the district has no discretionary money and can not spend what it does not have.” Clifton Superintendent Richard Tardalo reported that the district already froze discretionary spending in November, which it normally does every year.

So what could the Honorable Commissioner have in mind? In a telephone interview initiated by North Jersey, Davy explained how districts could cut costs: don’t buy new uniforms for the baseball team, put off purchases of new copiers, and use both sides of copier paper.

Hallelujah! We’re saved! Use both sides of copier paper!

You can’t make this stuff up.

In fact, about 85% of school costs are payroll and benefits. Add in transportation, energy, and facility maintenance and you’ve just about covered the whole ball of wax. There’s not much discretionary spending to start with. The only way to reduce school costs in any meaningful way is to get control of teacher contracts.

Now, we love teachers. They are the heart of learning. All the extra smart boards and state-of-the-art programming are worthless without the skill and talent of a creative, intuitive, educated teacher. But in this time of economic recalibration, it is hard to justify collective bargaining agreements that insure live-time employment after three years, 5% raises every year, and fully-loaded benefits packages without employee contributions. Word is trickling out of school districts that superintendents and administrators are starting to freeze their own salaries. Isn't it time to examine NJEA’s hold on school district spending?

For a reality check, we took a look at contract settlements, especially in light of NJSBA spokesman Mike Yaple’s recent comment to the Associated Press that “school boards have been getting more favorable deals over the last year.”

Choosing two counties at random – Burlington and Monmouth – we averaged settlements for 2005, 2006, and 2007 using data collected by NJSBA. (To be fair, we left out outliers like Riverside in Burlington where there was a one-year increase of 6.6%). In Burlington County, yearly increases averaged 5.05% in 2005 (3 districts), 5.13% in 2006 (10 districts), and 5.098% in 2007 (10 districts). In Monmouth County, yearly increases averaged 4.674% in 2005 (7 districts), 4.646% in 2006 (14 districts), and 4.573% in 2007 (8 districts).

Statisticians are welcome to chime in, but we’re not detecting any meaningful trends here.

Now, these numbers stop in 2007, and many of these contracts were negotiated several years ago since contract settlements are typically three years long. But whether you’re in golden Burlington, with an average yearly increase of 5.09% and 15.28% over three years, or pitiable Monmouth, with an average yearly increase of 4.63% and 13.89% over three years, it’s going to be a long slog to get much community sympathy for the travails of the teaching profession.

On the other hand, it's hard to get much community sympathy for school districts either. My Central Jersey had an editorial yesterday with vivid imagery to illustrate Davy's request to school boards and administrators to freeze unnecessary spending:

Of course, that's like asking any vampire to swear off blood; like the Count Orlok of "Nosferatu" fame, school officials are by nature loath to restrain their inbred thirst.
And for a more nuanced view, here's today's Star-Ledger editorial:

All of these cost-cutting moves are worthy of review. These are no ordinary times, and districts need to respond quickly to an economy that is forcing everyone to do more with less.

At the same time we have to wonder: What took so long?

Fair enough. But does anyone really believe that we're going to make meaningful changes in the costs of educating children in New Jersey by tweaking purchases like copier paper and baseball uniforms? Certainly, the power of the NJEA is not the root of the problem -- our 611 locally controlled school districts get that honor -- but if we don't at least acknowledge the issue of inflated salary increases then we're pretty poor students of our own school system.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Consolidation Cha-Cha

Now that Executive County Superintendents have been ordered by the DOE to issue reports by March 2010 for consolidation of school districts, there’s lots of chatter regarding these threats to home rule. Over the last few days, we’ve seen reports about potential mergers in Somerset Hills and Bedminster in Somerset County; Bradley Beach, Lake Como, Interlaken and Allenhurst in Monmouth County; and Seaside Heights, Seaside Park and Island Heights in Ocean County.

There's a stylized dance that all officials seem to adhere to: let's call it the consolidation cha-cha. First step: make nice and acknowledge that it’s not a terrible idea. For instance, the Asbury Park Press reports that Bradley Beach Superintendent Wayne Turner told the local Board of Education that “the district fits all three criteria set by the state for districts that probably face regionalization.”

Somerset Hills superintendent Peter Miller gushed to the Star-Ledger that “(o)ur two districts have had a really nice working relationship for decades... it (regionalization) is something that always gets talked about here."

Trudy Doyle, Somerset County's executive superintendent of schools, commiserated, “(e)veryone is beginning to really feel the fiscal squeeze right now. So districts and communities may say, 'You know what, this is really the time to look at this. We cannot maintain these programs all by ourselves.'"

And Toms River Regional Schools Superintendent Michael J. Ritacco conceded with a graceful swoop in another piece in the Asbury Park Press, "I think today because the economic conditions are so bad . . . there might be more of an inclination to Toms River to make some things work that may be able to save dollars across the board."

Next step: point out the long tiresome process involved in moving forward. Plans aren’t even due for a year and a half, feasibility studies must be ordered and paid for (at local taxpayers’ expense), and then the district residents put it all to a vote. For example, Superintendent Turner of Bradley Beach bemoaned the fact that “he didn't believe any real planning would begin until at least the spring" and noted that he "first will contract out feasibility studies of targeted districts.” Superintendent Miller of Somerset Hills “estimated the process of merging school districts would take two to three years.” And ECS Doyle of Somerset County, in a deft pas de deux, “acknowledged New Jersey's strong schools and long history of wanting local control.”

Last lunge in our cha-cha: admit that consolidation will result in at least one of the targeted towns paying higher property taxes, which would doom any vote since all it takes to axe the idea is a “nay” from one town. Turner of Bradley Beach: “One looming problem... there is not yet a plan to deal with proposals that are voted down by residents.” Mike Yaple, spokesman for NJSBA: "No town will vote for regionalization if their taxes are going to go up.” And Monmouth County ECS Carole K. Morris: "It does raise the question of whether or not, truly, districts would ever vote to move forward.”

So, where does that leave us on the dance floor? Back in the endless loop of conceding efficiencies inherent in regionalization, lamenting long circuitous procedures, and, for a final flourish, underlining the obvious flaw in the DOE’s plan: that one town or more in any consolidation plan will end up paying higher taxes and will inevitably veto the whole thing. Why hasNew Jersey and its 611 school districts approved only three regionalizations in the last 23 years? Duh.

But could we make this work? Possibly. First, the State must compensate any district that has to shoulder higher local property taxes through extra State aid. Yes, the State is broke, but if the efficiencies are truly there than we’ll all come out ahead. Let's say we have the opportunity to merge five small districts, and two of the three will pay slightly higher property taxes due to varying teacher contracts, debt service, and rateables. New Jersey can help out the losing districts by adding additional state aid, a win-win since at first the added efficiencies will make it all no worse than a wash. In a short time we'll get the financial benefit and, for another bonus, increase educational opportunities for kids in tiny districts and take a few baby steps towards desegregating the most segregated school system in the country.

Second, Corzine has to find his balls, along with the State Legislature, to change the State law that mandates that during a school consolidation the school district’s teachers contract with the highest salaries becomes the governing collective bargaining agreement. Mike Yaple of the NJSBA notes in the Star-Ledger piece that "any savings in administrator costs could quickly evaporate if you have scores of teachers reaping a more generous contract.”

So, let’s change the law. One of the most grievous inefficiencies in our state school system is that each of our 600+ school districts negotiates its own contract with its own branch of the NJEA. In other words, taxpayers foot the bill for doing something 600 times when, at the very least, we could do it 21 times. County-wide teacher contracts, anyone? The NJEA still maintains control, but we go at least a little way towards thinking of our schools just a little more globally.

We're stuck in the endless loop of a doleful dance, another circular motion that leaves us right back where we started. Isn't it time to change our tune?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Wasser Shenanigans

The Asbury Park Press reports that public enmity has not cooled towards Freehold Regional High School District’s Superintendent, James Wasser. Already vilified for three-card-monte-ing his way to a salary bonus by submitting paperwork alleging completion of a doctorate from a diploma mill, he’s now getting blasted for tooling out to California for a national conference and for using a district-owned SUV.

The April school board elections in Freehold should be, uh, interesting.

Bad Forecast for Schools

The Star-Ledger's Paul Mulshine, official curmudgeon and prognosticator, takes on Corzine’s reluctance to cap property taxes and predicts that school districts will see big State aid reductions with local taxpayers picking up the balance:

I'll grant the governor is a better numbers man than I am. But I can't see how he can balance next year's budget without cutting billions in aid to school boards and municipalities.

And I also can't see how he can prevent those towns and school boards from making up for that lost aid by raising property taxes.

And the seer on universal preschool in New Jersey:

Our Mr. Universe ended his speech this week with a call for universal preschool, a measure that could only be funded with yet another big hike in taxes for New Jersey homeowners. So don't expect property-tax relief any time soon. Our Mr. Universe only flexes his muscles when he's trying to impress the public employee unions.

Sometimes curmudgeons are right.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Somerset Hills/Bedminster Merger?

In a lukewarm try at consolidation, Somerset Hills (2,100 kids K-12) and Bedminster (600 kids, K-8) are looking once again at regionalization. The two Somerset County districts have done feasibility studies before, most recently in 2003, and there were no obvious economies of scale. But, given the mandates from the DOE, they are giving it another go.

What are the odds? In the last 23 years, reports the Star-Ledger, there have been three consolidations among New Jersey school districts, mainly because one town ends up having higher taxes than pre-consolidation. And if either town votes the proposal down, then it’s over. We won’t hold our breath, but they get props for trying.

Home Depot Time

With a toss of a wrench into New Jersey’s school district budgets, Commissioner Lucille Davy sent a letter to all superintendents on Friday recommending that everyone start cutting. According to today's Press of Atlantic City, Davy wrote,

Given the uncertainty of the magnitude and impact of a prolonged national recession on our state's fiscal situation, I am recommending that you take the same steps that we have taken in the department.

She goes on to specify in the letter that those “same steps” include an immediate freeze on all “nonessential spending” and a review of “all expenditures.” She also broadly hinted that the new preschool initiative, which would oblige all districts to provide full-day programming for needy 3 and 4-year-olds, would be delayed.

What does this mean for local districts? Big cuts. Since all districts are contractually obligated to follow bargaining agreements from local unions, which typically call for big hikes in salaries and benefits, we’ll see cuts in programming, increased class size, and lay-offs of non-tenured personnel. But they’re working in the dark, since the state aid numbers, usually about $8.2 billion, won’t be announced til March, considerably later than previous years.

Despite heroic efforts at frugality on the part of school boards, residents can still vote down school budgets in April, since the legislation eliminating public votes on budgets that fall below the 4% cap is stalled in the State Legislature. If budgets fail to pass, then they go to municipal governments, who, given the current national mood, may actually demand cuts though historically they’ve barely tinkered along the edges. So your local boards will mutter the mantra "don't try this at home" and make cuts themselves, attempting to save schools from the perilous situation of non-educators playing with power tools.

Update: Here's Davy's letter.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Dancing Lemons

School Watch, the policy arm of the Excellent Education for Everyone think tank, has issued a fulminating report on the dismal state of the Newark Public Schools called "Money for Nothing: We Owe Our Children Better." Here’s your grains of salt: E3 is pro-charter schools and anti-teacher union, and the report itself edges occasionally into overwrought territory. Nonetheless, it spotlights some worthwhile information. Here’s a couple of facts:

Newark Public Schools is the biggest district, and the biggest Abbott district, in the state: 40,000 kids.
The NPS annual budget (not including construction): $1 billion
Annual cost per pupil: $23,141 (17% more than the average Abbott district in N.J.)
Annual cost per pupil in the 12 charter schools in Newark: $9,989
Average teacher salary in N.J.: $55,000
Average teacher salary in Newark: $77,827
Percentage of N.P.S. that make A.Y.P.: 40%
Percentage of Newark charter schools that make A.Y.P.: 75%
Percentage of N.P.S. students who pass the H.S.P.A.: 40.3%
Percentage of N.P.S. students who graduate: 73.6%

There’s lots more to chew on, including tidbits like “the N.P.S.’s is operated as an overhead-heavy, adult-centered bureaucracy,” “Newark’s High School Achievement: Fraud and Failure,” high schools referred to as “drop-out factories,” the “dance of the lemons” (the annual to-and-froing when teachers are released from schools for poor performance and bump a less-senior teacher at another school), and the overuse of the Student Review Assessment (S.R.A.), which grants diplomas to students who can’t pass the H.S.P.A. (an 8th-grade level test, according to Commissioner Lucille Davy).

Who takes the blame, according to E3? First, the State Supreme Court for setting up the Abbott system where money is seen as the solution to educational underachievement. Second, the NJEA, for slowing the growth of charter schools, E3’s panacea.

Well, they’re right: the hub of the problem with Newark’s public schools is the legacy of the Abbott decisions and the union’s powerful obstinacy. It’s not that simple, and in some ways it’s exactly that simple. Newark Mayor Cory Booker knows it too -- he's a cofounder of E3 -- and it’s been widely reported that Corzine’s wooing him for Lieutenant Governor. What would be the impact of an reform-minded L.G. on a educational system mired in past political-correctness and outdated industrial labor models? Maybe nothing, but it’s fun to dream.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Unscrupulous Superintendents

What’s with New Jersey? Are felonious educational administrators a regular feature of newspapers in every state?

The Star Ledger reports today that Raymond Hyman, superintendent in Essex Fells, has been arraigned on charges that he stole $22,000 in tuition-reimbursement funds. Unlike the scandal in Freehold, where James Wasser and associates scammed the Board into paying for bonuses based on advanced degrees from a diploma-mill, Hyman was apparently pursuing a legitimate Ph.D. from Columbia University. However, after he stopped attending in 2005 he continued to forge and submit bogus vouchers for tuition reimbursement.

In a related story, the Asbury Park Press reports that a member of the Freehold Regional High School Board of Education quit, citing a weak board unable to manage a power-hungry administration, headed by none other than our old friend James Wasser.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Trendspotting Merit Pay and Charter Schools

Today’s Wall St Journal features a letter from Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Al Sharpton, erstwhile flamethrower, reminding President-Elect Obama that “the fierce urgency of now cannot be allowed to dissipate into the sleepy status quo of tomorrow.” Catchy. What does it mean?

Mainly three things: first, we should stay with NCLB and its commitment to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students by expanding parental choice through charter schools. Second, we need national school standards for all states so that there’s no gaming the system by dumbing down standards, as is currently the practice under NAEP. Third and most important, we have to reform the way we pay teachers by paying more for inner-city educators and harder-to-fill positions:

High-poverty urban schools have many teachers who make heroic efforts to educate their students. But there is no reward for excellence in inner-city schools when an outstanding science teacher earns the same salary as a mediocre phys-ed instructor.

Klein and Sharpton are signatories of an organization called the Education Equality Project; its members are a politically diverse lot, from Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush to Arne Duncan, spanking-new Education Secretary, and Cory Booker, our very own mayor of Newark. Here’s E.E.P.’s Mission Statement, which cuts to the chase: push charter schools and push back against teacher unions.

We’re sensing a trend. Just yesterday Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote an op-ed with a similar message, and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the founders of the KIPP charter schools, offered in-the-same-vein proposals in the Wall Street Journal. (See our post here.) While Friedman focuses on stimulus package options and the KIPP reps detail why charter schools help minority kids more than public non-charters, both stick to the two talking points in the Klein/Sharpton letter.

So, are our educational ills in New Jersey remedied by supporting the charter school movement and by strong-arming the NJEA to accept differentiated pay scales? Actually, these proposals are two sides of the same coin because the thesis presented by E.E.P., Friedman, Feinberg, Levin, et.al. is a two-pronged attack on teacher unions. Charter schools are, in the vast majority of cases, non-unionized and free of the encumbrances inherent in traditional labor contracts (180-day school year, tenure, strict salary guides that link pay to seniority, etc.). NJEA’s position on charter schools? You get one guess (courtesy of New Jersey Monthly):

“They tried to destroy us; they tried to derail us,” says Bonilla-Santiago, referring to the NJEA, which fought to unionize [charter school] LEAP’s teachers. What was at stake, she says, was one of the school’s guiding principles: that teachers should be paid for performance and fired if they do not meet expectations. The NJEA and teacher-organizers saw it differently. This was, they claimed, a fight for economic parity.

High-powered educators and politicians are getting behind charter schools and pay-for-performance. We live in hope that NJEA will look to the fierce urgency of now instead of the kids-last lassitude of yesterday.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

The U.S. Department of Education has sent a letter out to every state in the union, detailing where each one is on Elementary and Secondary Education Act compliance. Here's New Jersey's letter and the details of our progress.

Charter Schools:

Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the founders of the KIPP charter schools, have a piece in the Wall Street Journal offering five handy hints to President-Elect Obama on ways to improve student achievement and school accountability. Suggestions include doubling federal financing for charter schools and giving schools the authority to "assess teachers on their demonstrated impact on student learning, not whether they hold a traditional teacher certifications."

The New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association
issued a press release touting the superior achievement of children in charter schools in meeting NCLB AYP goals, as opposed to the lower scores in district schools. Specifically,

In Newark and Camden, where 44% of all New Jersey charter school students reside, the contrast in scores is even starker. In Newark, where 13 charter schools now operate educating 10% of its public school market, 82% of the charters made AYP as compared to 33% of the district schools. In Camden, where 13% of all public school students attend seven existing charter schools, the largest market share in the state, 67% of the charters made AYP as compared to 28% of the district schools.

Here's the link to the NJ DOE data.

And, here, the Star-Ledger argues back that, at least in Newark, comparing charter schools to non-charter public schools is unfair because the non-charters have many more special ed kids and also don't have to deal with teacher unions.

Department of Corruption:

Robert P. Walsh, former Business Administrator and Superintendent of Delaware Valley Regional High School, admits stealing $90,000 from the school cafeteria.

An audit for Paterson Public Schools (under State control since 1991, by the way) uncovered a number of problems, including an unauthorized $4,800,000 paid in overtime for security guards, a deficit of $92,000 for food services, and records of former employees who continue to receive health benefits.

Big Picture:

In today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman considers how to get the most leverage out of stimulus packages and concludes that the most beneficial plan should go beyond Roosevelt-esque bridges and highways and, instead, target education:

One of the smartest stimulus moves we could make would be to eliminate federal income taxes on all public schoolteachers so more talented people would choose these careers. I’d also double the salaries of all highly qualified math and science teachers, staple green cards to the diplomas of foreign students who graduate from any U.S. university in math or science — instead of subsidizing their educations and then sending them home — and offer full scholarships to needy students who want to go to a public university or community college for the next four years.

Maybe We Should Try the Macarena

North Jersey’s editorial, “Is Merging School Districts A Good Idea?” follows what seems to be a kabuki dance of talking points:

1) It’s probably cheaper, with some exceptions, and will lower property taxes for most homeowners.

2) New Jersey’s many aficionados of local governance cringe at the thought of State control of education:
Any consolidation plans would have to be approved by voters, possibly a tough sell in a state that values "home rule" — the local desire for control over decisions that affect a municipality and its schools.

3) It won’t be cheaper for all, since we’re talking about merging towns with different employee pay scales and different debt loads :

Supporters of consolidation argue that something has to change in a state with 566 towns and 616 school districts. Opponents, however, argue that bigger isn't always better, and some towns could see their property taxes go up.
And,
"You could see a lot of teachers ramping up to bigger salaries, and that would gobble up any savings,'' (NJSBA Spokesman Mike) Yaple said.

But the current system is broken. Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, D-Camden:

"The status quo in New Jersey isn't working best for the students because we can do a better job, and it sure as hell isn't working best for the taxpayers.''

We know, we know. Where’s the face paint?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Puncture the Preschool Balloon

The Asbury Park Press editorializes today that the State should reverse its mandate for public preschools for poor children (who don’t live in Abbott districts, where they already have free preschool). The Berkeley School District is planning on meeting with Education Commissioner Lucille Davy on Monday to push their case that such a mandate is unaffordable, especially in light of recent cuts in State aid, and that the DOE and Corzine should back off. The Press goes further, arguing that the whole concept should be trashed:

The idea of putting 3- and 4-year-olds on school buses in the morning then sending them into an educational setting for seven hours requires far more extensive debate than it received before being railroaded through by the Corzine administration last year. Many parents who now choose to send their children to private preschools opt for two- to three-hour classes and for only two or three days per week. That's plenty of time to learn letters, numbers and colors to prepare for kindergarten.

Berkeley officials should take some deep breaths. The odds of Corzine holding fast to this mandate are low: the State originally promised each district $11,000 per preschooler, and that money's long gone. All that's left is for the DOE to admit the obvious.

November Elections

The Express-Times has a piece on Senate Bill S-1861, which would move school board elections to November and eliminate public voting on budgets that come in below the 4% cap. The bill has passed the Assembly, the Senate Education Committee (though by a hair: 5-4), and is due to come before the full Senate this Spring.

Fear-mongers rattle the empty threat that a change to November elections would “politicize” the process by injecting “partisan politics” into the event. For instance, Kevin Brennan, Executive County Superintendent for Warren County, says, "I just think it adds a factor to a process that isn't a factor right now."

We beg to differ. As any school board member knows, elections are a competitive, stomach-churning business. We may not call it Democratic or Republican, but that’s just semantics. Moving school board elections to November saves money, promotes public participation, and removes the canard that a lack of party affiliation somehow makes it less of a bloodsport.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wouldn't a Prius Be Greener?

Here's an editorial today from the Star-Ledger trumpeting the benefits of regionalization. On the inefficiencies endemic to locally-controlled school districts:

Regionalization is a good recipe for some school districts, too. But there again it faces hurdles.

They're wringing their hands in Sea Isle City about the possible cost-cutting closure of a one-story school, which serves 78 students. When the chalk dust clears, here's all you need to know: The annual cost per student is $36,000.

Never mind busing them to another school -- you could buy each kid a hybrid SUV and probably still save money. Closure is a no-brainer.

In nearby Wildwood, Mayor Ernest Troiano Jr. has proposed closing the town's high school of 280 students, the smallest high school in the state.

With sensible planning, those schools and others that make no economic sense should be closed, the students folded into larger districts. Little red schoolhouses carry big green pricetags. Some will cry for them, but know this: The cash will dry up long before the tears.


Here's NJLB's post on Wildwood.

Tie-Dyed Trenton


The Trenton Times has published an op-ed
by the Vice President of the Trenton School Board, Alexander Brown. It’s both a primer on the history of the Abbott decisions and a condemnation of Corzine’s new School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which removes the “Abbott” label from State finances on the (true) grounds that many of our poorest kids reside outside of those 31 Abbotts. Tooting a dusty horn, Brown says,

The urban school districts are fortunate to have the state Supreme Court as an ally in the struggle -- the only branch of government capable of rendering a fair assessment of the funding needs of the Abbott public schools to ensure that urban children receive the quality education they deserve.
(A side note: Brown has no problem with the segregation of low-income, minority students: “a segregated school system need not be inequitable or ineffective as long as there is a commitment to provide sufficient funds.”)


There’s plenty to dislike about the new SFRA, which is presaged on the assumption that the State DOE is capable of figuring out where exactly the poor kids are at any given moment, regardless of where they live in New Jersey. On the other hand, Corzine is right about the diaspora of poor children from urban inner cities to, well, just about everywhere else across the State. Brown’s anachronistic insistence that the State privilege urban children is as timely and forward-looking as love beads and leisure suits.

But you’ve got to love New Jersey’s commitment to poor children getting the same education as rich children. We stand by our culture of each little town having its own identity, its own rights, its own governance. Simultaneously, with a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance, we maintain our idealistic stance that all children in our State “deserve,” to use Mr. Brown’s words, the same educational advantages. There’s something quintessentially American about this atonal confluence of individuality and equity.

For a completely different perspective, see Joseph Berger’s article in Friday’s New York Times, "Making Sense of School Consolidation.” Berger profiles three small school districts on the East End of Long Island that have been targeted for consolidation by a state commission headed by Thomas R. Suozzi, the Nassau County executive. It won’t go through, for all the reasons that it won’t go through in New Jersey either, at least in its current form: one town’s taxes will go up and the residents can vote it down, smallness creates its own efficiencies, and New Yorkers like their home rule too:

And there are intangibles that might be lost by consolidation. Residents of small districts take pride in their intimate, homey atmosphere, where the superintendent knows every pupil by name and thirsty students can go to a refrigerated glass case in the superintendent’s office and pull out a container of milk.

But here’s the chief difference: there’s no Abbott decisions in New York. So, for example, Amagansett district (one of those profiled in the Berger article) spends $40,900 for each of their 115 pupils, about $10,000 more per kid than the most prestigious private schools in Manhattan. In other words, Amagansett residents can create within their own borders a rigorous, exclusive, academic academy and no one’s shouting “It’s not fair! My kid doesn’t get that in Trenton!”

Monday, January 5, 2009

Slouching Towards Cape May?

The Philadephia Daily News has a piece today describing a consolidation threat in the Cape May County school district of Wildwood City. Apparently the mayor of Wildwood, Ernest Troiano Jr., has written a letter to the local school board “suggesting” that the district close Wildwood High to lower taxes. He has, of course, no authority over the district and says himself that he doesn’t know if the closure would be cheaper than tuition payments to another district. No matter:
"Everyone is bitching about taxes," Troiano told the Daily News
The town’s reaction? Not sanguine. Said City Commissioner Gary De Marzon,
He might as well [have] asked for, and sent a letter demanding a lasting peace in the Gaza Strip or the revolution to end in Sierra Leone.
Let’s take a closer look at Wildwood High. (All data from DOE: see here.) For starters, it’s the smallest high school in the state and trending downward: 276 kids in the 2006-2007 school year, compared to 302 kids in 2003-2004. A surprisingly large number of children, 24.4%, have IEP’s, which deem them eligible for special education services. The mobility rate is 21%, compared with the State average of 10%.

Wildwood is tagged with the lowest possible District Factor Group (DFG), an "A," which is the lowest socio-economic level possible on the State scale of A through J. In 2006-2007 36.5% of kids failed the Language Arts HSPA and 54% failed the Math portion, typical for their DFG. Only 75% of their kids graduate, compared to the State average of 92.3%. And for all this ignominy they spend $19,449 per pupil, about $6,000 more per kid than the State average.

No, they’re not an Abbott district, though arguably they should be. If they were, the State would pick up the bulk of the cost and Mayor Troiano would be spared the bitching of taxpayers, poor dear.

For comparison’s sake, let’s look at a district we profiled on Saturday. (See below.) Princeton Township Regional School District, DFG I, is scrabbling madly to avoid the State’s push for standardization and consolidation, which they deem a “forced march to mediocrity.” Translation? We don’t want to be like Wildwood. And who can blame them? Princeton offers 28 AP courses to their privileged population. Wildwood High offers 4, a startling dichotomy in spite of the much higher number of kids in Princeton High. A minuscule 4.6% of kids in Princeton failed the Language Arts HSPA and 9.5% failed the Math portion. 99.4% of their kids graduate, compared to 75% in Wildwood.

Astonishingly, these two cohorts of teenagers attend school in the same State.

Should Wildwood High close? Would those 276 kids benefit by going to, say, Ocean City High School with a DFG of DE, 18 AP courses, and above-average test scores? Or even Lower Cape May County High School, which only has a DFG of B but offers 8 AP courses, has a graduation rate of 84.4%, and lists LA and Math HSPA failure rates of, respectively, 14% and 30.5%?

It’s not all about numbers. But it is about kids (and we challenge anyone to find a reference to the welfare of children in the Philly Daily News article). Forget about Wildwood’s thoughtless government officials. Wildwood High School should close. Heck, send them to Princeton.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Princeton v. State Smack-Down

We don’t want Princeton to be just adequate — we don’t want to revert to a mean that incorporates everyone in the state. We want to have local control.
Alan Hegedus
President, Board of Education, Princeton Regional School District

The Princeton Board of Education meeting last month, as recounted in a weekly Mercer County paper, is a harbinger of the inevitable revolt of wealthy districts against the DOE’s recent initiatives to standardize the curriculum and finances of New Jersey’s school system. Princeton’s Superintendent, Judy Wilson, and the Board’s President, Alan Hegedus, have requested a meeting with state senators to protest new legislation which, they claim, will send high-performing districts on a “forced march to mediocrity” driven by a “vise out of Trenton.”

Well, yeah. Princeton’s spokespeople have reason to interpret the recent slew of legislation as an assault on their rigorous curriculum, high cost per pupil, and countless extras. Let’s look at what they’re fighting for: ethnic homogeneity (91% of their kids are white or Asian), small class size (11.4 kids a class in Princeton High School), high test scores (100% of their non-special ed kids pass the HSPA, SAT’s are well above average), challenging curricula (for example, they offer 28 AP courses), low drop-out rate (0.6%), and, finally, tax levies that allow them to spend $16,809 per pupil (the State average is $13,701). (For DOE data, see here and here.)

No wonder they’re angry.

And they’re not alone. While the low-performing, poor, ethnically diverse districts in New Jersey see a shot at more opportunity for their kids through consolidation and standardization, wealthy districts like Princeton see ill-conceived, politically-correct government interference. This “forced march to mediocrity” is code for “mixing our kids in with neighboring Trenton” and the “vise out of Trenton” is the DOE regulations that mandate efficiency and accountability, including a desired cost per pupil which, to no one’s surprise, is considerably less than Princeton spends.

Who’s right? Doesn’t a community like Princeton, largely inhabited by upper-class families with high academic aspirations for their kids, have the freedom to create a school district that reflects those values, regardless of the cost? On the other hand, don’t parents in Trenton or even other (middle class) Mercer County districts like Ewing or East Windsor have the right to demand equitable opportunities and extras for their children?

There's a sense in which the threat to prelapsarian Princeton, whether real or imagined, harkens toward a form of class warfare, pitting our rich communities against our poor communities. The resentment clearly articulated at the Princeton School Board meeting, doesn't bode well for New Jersey's sloppy march to provide decent education for kids, even if they live in Trenton.