Monday, November 30, 2009

Some Educational Suggestions for Mr. Christie

Today’s Trenton Times features an editorial by Dr. James Deneen, an ETS program director, and Dr. Carmen Cantanese, a former VP at Sarnoff, who highlight the failure of N.J.’s urban school districts (specifically Trenton) and their role in driving tax rates that, according to the Tax Foundation, “make New Jerseyans the most heavily taxed citizens in the nation.”

Here’s some stats from the piece that display the dismal state of Trenton Public Schools:60% of students drop out of Trenton Central High School between the ninth and 12th grades; 55% percent of the remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in reading; 78% of those remaining students test below the state standard for proficiency in mathematics; and only 36% of seniors pass the High School Proficiency Assessment for graduation.

The writers propose a solution: charter schools modeled on successful programs in poor urban districts like North Star Academy and Robert Treat Academy in Newark. Certainly, that’s part of the answer: Christie needs to quickly overturn a DOE and Legislative culture that views charters as a drain on traditional public schools instead of partners in rescuing the kids stuck in chronically failing schools like those in Trenton. Okay. We're dreaming. At the least, he needs to act with fortitude and commitment by shifting the sole authority to approve new charters from the Commissioner of Education so that applications don't just sit in her inbox. We need to expedite the process (Corzine’s new procedures don’t go far enough), provide full funding (right now charters receive anywhere from 70%-90% of the cost per pupil), eliminate the cap (though right now we're nowhere near it) and offer financial help with facilities.

But that’s only part of the solution to achieving a “thorough and efficient system of education” for all our kids. While critics of charters are quick to point to charters that fail after a few years, they’re loathe to aim their fingers at traditional public schools that have failed for decades. If we can’t stomach a few years of a charter’s failure (right now charters have to be renewed every 4 years), why do we stomach non-charter failure?

The only way out is to break down the district barriers that imprison kids in Trenton (and Camden and Jersey City and Willingboro) when successful school districts reside within a 10-minute bus ride. Traditional wisdom says that N.J. proclivity towards home rule prevents such an option. However, the recent Quinnipiac Poll shows that “New Jersey voters overwhelmingly support merging their school districts and local governments with neighboring ones.” (In 2006 the number in support of mergers was 61%. Now it’s 73%.) No doubt this support is at least in part driven by our economic morass, so Christie needs to act immediately to suppress the opposition of politicians – freeholders, council members, school board members, state officers – who are more invested in their own power than in the needs of schoolchildren and taxpayers. He’s got a very small window of opportunity in January to make some decisive moves. Use it or lose it.

(The current regulations on school district consolidation, supposedly the bailiwick of our Executive County Superintendents, are flaccid at best. In March ECS’s march forth with their proposals for merging districts, at which time every single one will be voted down – if it even gets to a vote – because one “nay” from one district shutters close the proposition. Waste of time, waste of money.)

This doesn’t mean that ritzy Princeton needs to take in all the kids in Trenton (a ten-minute bus ride away). But we can use our newly-revived Interdistrict Public School Choice program (assuming it gets through the Assembly and the Senate) to break down the ethnic and economic barriers that make N.J.’s school system the most segregated one in the nation. This tiny interdistrict program, serving only about 1000 kids, should be expanded so that more than one school per county can participate and incentives need to be offered to schools that receive students from out-of-district. District participation should be mandatory, based on space available. (Case in point: Trenton kids can’t use the program because district participation is voluntary and no district in Mercer County has raised its hand.) For further reading, here’s a comprehensive report from Rutgers. (And here's a contrarian view, also from today's Trenton Times.)

So, Mr. Christie, here’s a way to demonstrate your commitment to poor urban kids: stand up to local politicians and expand charter schools, mandate some level of district consolidation, and give our interdistrict programs some teeth. It’s not the whole answer by any stretch, but it’s a start.

Quote of the Day

Bob Ingle explains it all:
With 566 municipalities in New Jersey (California has only 480), 603 school districts (more than the states of Maryland, Delaware and Virginia combined), 187 fire districts, 486 local authorities, 92 special taxing districts, and 21 county governments, which tend to be units controlled by entrenched political bosses, there’s a lot of opportunity to cheat, steal and corrupt the system.

Is Christie’s Education Transition Team Loaded with “Education Establishment” Stakeholders?

That’s what Fred Snowflack surmises in yesterday's Daily Record. He points out that while Governor-Elect Christie has touted his bona fides for reform, he’s stacked his education subcommittee with 20 people “who include a cross section of the education establishment,” a conventional political move that hardly supports an agenda to “turn Trenton upside-down.”

Writes Snowflack,
Rather than selecting a team filled with many education establishment figures, how about a team of education establishment critics? These would be people who openly support, among other things, changing tenure laws, reforming collective bargaining and merging districts. Should not the idea of a transition be to formulate the policy of the new administration? And if you want to turn Trenton upside down, you need people from outside the system to do that, do you not?
True enough. Political expediencies may demand a public genuflection towards those who kick it old-school, but we're a long way from the bold promises of real reform if critics don't get a voice.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

The Star-Ledger reports on the dismissal of a 3-year-old class action suit, Crawford v. Davy, which would have distributed vouchers to students in 96 chronically-troubled schools.

Out-sourcing non-instructional school functions is starting to look more attractive to Jersey school districts that face inevitable state aid cuts. In Trenton, reports The Times of Trenton, the school district and the mechanics and laborers union have been unable to arrive at a settlement so the Board is thinking about taking bids from outside contractors. (This shouldn’t come as a surprise to the union president, Frank Deangelo, who is also a member of the State Assembly: last year Trenton laid off 177 cafeteria workers and hired an outside firm to manage food services.) The same scenario is unfolding in Alexandria School District.

Diane D’amico at The Press of Atlantic City gets chills from the latest eruption of the Senate Education Committee, which approved a bill [S 709]that would “require school districts to relocate all students if the temperature in their classroom falls below 63 degrees Fahrenheit, or above 89 degrees.” (The bill also appropriates $100,000 for, well, something: oversight, implementation, maybe new thermometers.)

In Maurice River Township, a technology teacher has come up with a way to replicate “smart boards.” The Board was planning on approving about $83K to buy 16 of them at $5,288 a pop. The tech teacher’s version will cost about $2K each.

The business administrator, the attorney, and a Board member at Hoboken Public School District are resigning; it's unclear whether the resignations are related to a financial audit that found “more than two dozen irregularities,” reports the Hoboken News.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Not the Best Advertisement for Viagra

NJEA is touting its potent “member to member” campaign for Corzine (see yesterday’s post here and NJEA’s powerpoint here), and we’ve been poking at the data in Ginger Gold Schnitzer’s titillating presentation. (Sorry. Just trying to get into the spirit of the powerpoint, which labels NJEA members’ unenthusiastic view of Corzine as “electile dysfunction.”) Anyway, in August NJEA officials discovered that there was only a 5 point gap between members who planned on voting for Corzine (40%) and those who intended on voting for Christie (35%). So they launched a comprehensive “communications campaign to inoculate the public” that included: 104,619 telephone calls, a full-time (8 am to 8 pm) campaign office, specially-designed software, polling, data analysis, direct mail, broadcast T.V. and cable advertising, and paid Facebook,, and youtube spots. The result of all this effort was that NJEA’s management moved Corzine’s favorables up 18% (from 39% to 57%) and his unfavorables down 19% (from 56% to 37%). And he lost the election.

NJEA members pay over a $100 million in dues each year. Do they get to vote on how it gets spent? Maybe someone should do a poll.

Christie Names Members of Education Transition Team

Governor-Elect Christie has named the 21 members of his Education Subcommittee, chaired by Dr. Susan Cole of Montclair University. The list includes Former Jersey Mayor Bret Schundler, Peter Denton of E3, principals from public and charter schools, an NJEA member, the founder of the Newark Charter School Fund, deans of education from N.J. teaching colleges. Here’s the complete list from the Star-Ledger.

Quote of the Day

Already the administration is being pressured to dilute [Race To The Top's] requirement that states adopt performance pay for teachers and to weaken its support for charter schools. If the president does not remain firm on standards, the whole endeavor will be just another example of great rhetoric and poor reform.

Competition among the states is also vital to reform. The administration is resisting the temptation to award funds to as many states as possible. And that's good. To be effective, Race to the Top funds cannot become a democratic handout. Competition brings out the best performance. That's true in athletics and in business, and it's true in education.

Harold Ford, Chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Louis Gerstner, former chairman of IBM and the Teaching Commission, and Eli Broad of the Broad Foundation in today's Wall Street Journal.

N.J.'s Score on Data Quality

The Data Quality Campaign has posted its Annual Progress Report on State Data Systems, which measures each state’s development of robust longitudinal data systems to accurately measure student progress. The Report calls national progress “remarkable;” more and more states are reaching the ten "elements" the Campaign deems necessary for valid and reliable decision-making in education. New Jersey is one of 31 states that have met at least 8 of 10 elements. (Eleven states have all 10.) We’re missing “Statewide Teacher Identifier with a Teacher-Student Match” and “Student-Level Course Completion Transcript Data.” Not too shabby, although the former is a Race To The Top criterion. Here's N.J.'s evaluation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A Win for School Choice

Here’s a lame duck bill that’s not so lame: yesterday the Assembly Education Committee approved S2982, a bill sponsored by Senator Shirley Turner that revives the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Act of 1999, a five-year pilot program that allowed children to cross district lines if a school was willing to take them. Its reincarnation is apparently due to Christie’s platform of school choice and Race To The Top’s emphasis on reform.

You can read annual reports of the School Choice Act from 2000-2004, after which the pilot program expired, although 850 kids still participate. Reviews have been mostly positive. Recommendations from the reviews of the pilot program mostly involve expanding the number of choice schools (the original legislation limited the number to one from each county and only 15 counties participated) and expanding the quota of kids allowed (up to 2% of each grade of the sending school’s population). Here’s an example of one of the recommendations:
Sending districts are not consistent when they calculate their enrollment restriction percentages pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:36B-8(b). In some sending districts, the grade levels are so small that any calculation does not yield a whole student. These districts do not want to allow any students to participate in the school choice program. In other sending districts, the calculation yields whole students and then percentages of a student, for example 4.2 students. In one sending district, the percentage calculation yielded 1.5 students and there were three students in the lottery with two of those students twins. The district made a determination that only one student was eligible and one of the twins won the lottery. Eventually the sending district allowed the other twin to go to the choice district. This provision needs to be clarified.
The new bill, by the way, raises the number of kids allowed to transfer to 10% of any grade or 15% of any district.

At any rate, it’s a good sign that we’re reviving this program, one of the very few ways public school kids in New Jersey have of exercising school choice and escaping the gallows of their zip code. (Are we hyperbolic? Newsflash: Camden just won the award of most dangerous city in the country.) Nonetheless, there are naysayers. From the Star-Ledger:
"The concern we have is ... if enough kids were to move out of a district in one grade or school ... it could lead to a cut in services or programs for kids left behind," said NJEA spokesman Steven Baker. "It was never intended to harm the students who were not taking advantage of the program."
And from the Press of Atlantic City:
Ginger Gold Schnitzer of the NJEA said the organization supports choice, but is worried that the higher percentage could hurt the schools in other small districts if they lose a lot of students.
Schnitzer unsuccessfully lobbied Senator Turner to hold off a vote on the bill or to lower the quota of kids allowed to participate. Let’s hope the Legislature has the cojones to resist inevitable pressure to do the same. It's the right bill at the right time.

NJEA: Our Teachers Are Sheep

Mike Antonucci of Education Intelligence Agency, a website that seeks to reveal the inner workings of teachers’ unions, posted yesterday about NJEA’s covert campaign to overcome members’ antipathy and/or apathy toward Corzine. His reporting is largely based on a power point presentation made by NJEA’s Director of Governmental Relations, Ginger Gold Schnitzer, called “Campaign 2009: An Organizational Victory." Confused? Call it an internal victory because NJEA claims to have radically changed its members' views on the gubernatorial candidates after the leadership learned over this past summer that its members preferred Corzine over Christie by only 5 points. NJEA leaders decided that lobbying its own members was “an organizational imperative” in order to maintain control of NJEA politics. Writes Antonucci,
This wouldn't be the first time an NEA state affiliate used member dues and resources to persuade members their opinions were faulty, but the extent of NJEA's effort was extraordinary. The union live-phoned nearly 105,000 members, established campaign teams in every county, and organized school building visits to lobby members to vote for Corzine. This was nothing compared to what was going on at NJEA headquarters.

According to Schnitzer's presentation, NJEA "opened a full time campaign office in a conference room," which was "open from 8 am-8 pm for staff to phone bank, enter data, get training, and learn of other volunteer opportunities." The NJEA staff also assisted local operations from state headquarters.

The results were dramatic, at least as far as NJEA members were concerned. Corzine's favorability rating went up 18 points before election day, while Christie's unfavorable ratings ballooned 21 points. Corzine's five-point lead among members grew to an astonishing 35 points.

Christie won the state by a comfortable margin, as NJEA's influence over the general public was not as dramatic, and would not have been decisive in any case. The public's agenda is much broader than that of the teachers' union, and so the union's influence is diffused. But its influence over its own members cannot be overstated, regardless of the members' preferences.
How do independent-minded NJEA members feel about a substantial percentage of their dues going to their political makeovers by leaders in NJEA who gloat about their ability to puppeteer votes? We’d love to know.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Argument for a 3% School Budget Cap

Hold the rotten tomatoes, please.

At the risk of inciting the ire of every school board member and school employee in the Garden State, here's why Christie ought to push a hard 3% cap through the Legislature.
  • Who cares whether free public preschool is a the cure for educational equity or a needless babysitting service? The voters want lower property taxes. (Corzine forgot that it's the economy, stupid.)
  • Between 75% and 80% of a local district's school budget is payroll and benefits.
  • Current collective bargaining agreements hover at about the 4.5% mark. This is a direct result of a loose 4% cap on school budgets. As long as a district has a little cash bundled away in surplus (and sometimes when it doesn't), it will lose the case when a contract dispute is put before a state-appointed mediator because 4.5 is awfully close to 4.
  • If there is a hard cap of 3%, then maintaining salary increases in the mid-fours will have an immediate and deleterious effect on instruction in the form of lay-offs, larger class sizes, freezes on curricular material. Local bargaining units will be hard-pressed to rationalize salary proposals so out of sync with budget restrictions when students will bear the brunt of it.
  • Despite local districts' best efforts, salary increases remain stuck in an endless loop because mediators make decisions based on regional settlements. The only way to lower budgets is for the Legislature to step in with a game-changer.
  • Yes, yes, NJEA eats its young, often protecting tenured and long-term members at the expense of the new talent. Lowering the cap doesn't guarantee that settlements will come down. But they likely will, and it's a baby step toward gaining control of the unsustainable costs of a New Jersey public education.

Assemblyman Joe Cryan on Corzine's loss: "We had NJEA and CWA in our corner and we still got smoked."

That's the humble pie bubbling up during NJSBA's Lame Duck Legislature Update on Saturday morning. Featured players were
Michael Vrancik, NJSBA Director of Governmental Relations, and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, current Chair of the Education Committee and upcoming Senate Majority Leader.

Here's some highlights:

Prospects of education bills getting passed in the lame duck session: (Some of the more egregious include one that gives arbitration rights to non-tenured employees and another restricts boards from subcontracting out non-instructional services to non-union employees.)
Assemblyman Cryan: "I don't expect those bills to become law in the lame duck session" and "I don't expect a lot of education bills to go through." "I think our party has gotten the message."

On expansion of charter schools: From Vrancik: "[Charter schools] are not fair to traditional public schools because you "cream off students and dollars" and "charters don't have to play by the same rules." Cryan: "I suspect strongly a push by the new administration to reexamine charter school funding" and "charter schools do fail." On the possibility of the Christie administration loosening regulations that obstruct the expansion of charters: "That's pretty frightening."

Race To The Top: Regarding federal involvement in education, says Cryan, "it frightens me a lot."

School Financing: Regarding the prospects for a "hard cap" (currently school district budget growth has a cap of 4%, but there are ways to squirm around it so it's a "soft cap"): Cryan: "I think they're going to look that way" and he expects a "strong debate on education spending." Based on the election, public employees and collective bargaining are a "high priority for voters" and "the Christie administration will look to attack that issue." "We're clearly going to see proposed changes in CBA [collective bargaining associations, i.e., local units of NJEA] agreements]." "You're on the table, folks," especially since Cryan believes it's highly unlikely that there will be a second federal stimulus package. Post-retirement medical benefits are a "major problem."

School District Consolidation: Cryan believes that Christie won't pursue it because "he won't want to pay for [the millions of dollars] in feasibility studies."

On the bill to move school board elections to November and disallow budget votes for school districts that stay below cap: Out-going Senate President Codey buried the bill, but "I strongly suspect that the new Senate president is for it." Christie will want to "save money by not holding elections" in April and "ultimately it will pass."

Commissioner of Education authority: the Legislature "will look at how much authority the Commissioner has."

Preschool: "It will be cut."

On Corzine's "experiment" with Executive County Superintendents (primarily there to push for consolidation within counties): "The jury's still out."

Vrancik: "Is NJEA too powerful?" Cryan: "If we won, I'd say that NJEA is -- but not given the results of the election." But "they're strong, really strong."

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Quote of the Day

Dr. Diane Ravitch, chief apologist for the status quo movement, blogs on Bridging Differences,
My beef with charter schools is that most skim the most motivated students out of the poorest communities, and many have disproportionately small numbers of children who need special education or who are English-language learners. The typical charter, operating in this way, increases the burden on the regular public schools, while privileging the lucky few. Continuing on this path will further disable public education in the cities and hand over the most successful students to private entrepreneurs.
In the same post she analyzes data on charter school performance vs. traditional public school performance, adding, "No one else has done this, so our blog will be the first place in which these results appear." She might want to check out Bruce Baker's School Finance blog, where he has done a similar analysis.

Sunday Leftovers

NJSBA approved their Emergency Resolution yesterday and both accepted national common core standards while demanding local control. See our analysis here.

PolitickerNJ reports that Governor-Elect Christie has named Dr. Susan Cole, President of Montclair State University, Chair of the Education Subcommittee for his transition team. Here's a 2007 New York Times profile which describes her as ''brilliantly opportunistic'' and a ''populist educator with an intense social mission."

Today's Asbury Park Press recommends some financial savings ideas for Christie, including one from James W. Hughes, a Rutgers University public policy expert: "Click HereHughes said one idea that could be floated would be to put all state's teachers under one state contract, and make that a stipulation of districts receiving state aid."

The Atlantic City Press has a database with information on every N.J. school district's level of poverty.

In Loch Arbour, the ritzy seaside village where the new School Funding Reform Act raised per pupil costs from $13K to $68K per year (Loch Arbour is a sending district to Ocean Township and school taxes are based on ratables), an incoming Trustee proposes some solutions.

Alexandria School District in Hunterdon County is looking at out-sourcing custodians to save money, reports the Star-Ledger.

At Freehold Regional School District, one of Superintendent Frank Wasser's compadres in the diploma mill scam wants her title and pay-bump back.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Quote of the Day

Mr. Corzine left his audience with one plea, to embrace consolidation and shared services at the local level. He said the state’s population of 8.5 million was about the same as that of New York City, which has one police commissioner and school system instead of hundreds.

“We negotiate 600 times,” he said of costly municipal contracts. “We negotiate against ourselves.

“We don’t need to be New York City. But we need to address the proliferation and fragmentation of the government we have.”

Today's New York Times.

The Cost of Home Rule

If we are to ultimately control the cost of government . . . we are going to have to deal with the issue of consolidation and shared services.
That's Governor Corzine speaking yesterday at the League of Municipalities Convention in Atlantic City. And here's Governor-Elect Christie at the same dais, according to the Star-Ledger:
Christie, who throughout the campaign said towns needed to combine municipal functions to save money, said everyone in the state would need to bear some of the pain in getting New Jersey back on track.
Though he never said the words "shared services" or "consolidation," that's the message the municipal leaders in the room said they heard.

"We're talking about possible layoffs and consolidations that we'd prefer not to do," said Ellen Dickson, president of Summit Common Council. "It's going to be very painful but we have to do it or else the state will be unlivable.
The chatter is on track, but does N.J. have the stomach for it? Chris Daggett, our erstwhile candidate, said “no.” Certainly, there’s nothing in recent Jersey history to suggest otherwise. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently noted that the last consolidation was when Pahaquarry Township in Warren County, with a population of 6, merged with Hardwick Township in 1997. But all the dignitaries in the Conference Center have to do is look outside and they’ll see the cost of refusing to acknowledge the burden that our addiction to home rule places on our kids.

The Press of Atlantic City reported this week
that while N.J. ranks right near the top of states in household income, we also have some of the poorest school districts in the country. Atlantic City and Bridgeton, reports the Press, rank “among the worst 10 percent of districts in the nation and Wildwood is in the worst 3 percent.”

So let’s look at Wildwood, a school district with a District Factor Grouping of A, though it is not labeled an “Abbott district.” Wildwood High School in Cape May County is tiny – only 307 kids – and is its 4th year of a School in Need of Improvement according to NCLB ratings. A baffling 26% of kids are classified as disabled. Wildwood High actually doesn't perform too badly on test scores: 31% of kids fail the 11th grade HSPA’s in Language Arts and 32% fail the HSPA’s in Math. 16.4% go on to 4-year colleges and 45.2% go on to 2-year colleges.

Now let’s travel 6.73 miles on Seashore Road and Route 47 to Lower Cape May Regional High School with a DFG of DE. Comparing test scores, 12.2% of Lower Cape May 11 graders fails the Language Arts HSPA and 18.9% fail the Math HSPA. That’s quite a bit better than the kids 6 and a half miles south. Lower Cape May also classifies an alarming 25.7% of kids as eligible for special education (what’s going on down there? Something in the water?). Of their graduates, 32.8% go on to 4-year colleges and 44.5% go on to two-year colleges.

Here’s something to ruminate on. The cost per pupil at Wildwood High School is $21,043. The cost per pupil at Lower Cape May Regional is $14,604. If the 307 kids at Wildwood were consolidated with the kids at Lower Cape May, the reduction in cost over one year – assuming we could educate the Wildwood kids at the same rate as the Cape May kids – would be $1,976,773.

No, it’s not all about money. Neither school is anything to write home about, but a six mile bus ride gives the Wildwood children, segregated in one of the most impoverished pockets of the country, a slightly better chance. It's the most compelling reason to get over ourselves and consolidate school districts. What's unclear is whether the dignitaries in the A.C. Conference Center have the wherewithall to make it happen.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Christie v. NJEA/State Legislature

Ever wonder whether a Venn diagram of NJEA, the Senate Education Committee, and the Assembly Education Committee would display even the smallest lack of overlap? A piece in Educationweek suggests not. That intersection of principles was a cozy arrangement for Governor Corzine, who espoused an educational platform in lockstep with NJEA and NJEA-beholden legislators: lip service to charter school expansion, opposition to vouchers for poor urban students, and increased spending. It’s not nearly as copacetic with a governor like Christie who advocates an educational platform at odds with the power brokers.

From the Edweek piece: Senator Shirley Turner, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, prognosticates, “Before it’s all over, he’s [Christie's] going to wish he had asked for a recount.” Joseph Cryan, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee predicts a “legislative dead end for many of Mr. Christie’s education ideas, because of ‘philosophical differences ‘with the Democratic-controlled legislature or budgetary realities.” NJEA President Barbara Keshishian warns that “her union would oppose any attempts to tighten the cap on school district budget growth, and was “disappointed” in Mr. Christie’s opposition to the planned expansion of the state’s preschool program.”

In the meantime, the Legislature is well into duck-hunting season as it tries to push through NJEA-backed bills. One example: on Monday Turner’s committee will debate Bill S-2850, which would disallow school district from subcontracting out food service workers. New Jersey School Boards Association has a press release out explaining how passage of the bill will drive up school costs, specifically $14.9 million in savings accrued through subcontracting cafeteria operations.

NJSBA also notes that N.J.’s accountability regulations require all districts to operate “self-sufficient food services operation;" subsidizing cafeterias is a violation. But if all food service workers are paid union-scale, no district will be able to do so without violating the regulations. But never mind: from NJEA’s Legislative Program:
NJEA is proposing legislation that requires that subcontractors hire existing school employees and pay them the same level of salary and benefits that they were receiving before they were subcontracted. NJEA believes this is a fundamental fairness right for all school employees who may lose their jobs.”
In other words, districts trying to save money without cutting into class size or instructional services can’t look at non-instructional personnel. And, due to accountability regulations and financial strictures, kids will either pay sky-high prices for cafeteria food or instruction will take a hit. Talk about “fundamental fairness.” We'll watch closely on Monday to see if the Senate Education Committee backs legislation that forces districts to violate recently-mandated efficiency regulations, hurts families by jacking up lunch prices, and causes staff cuts in the classroom instead of in the lunchroom.

Quote of the Day

PolitickerNJ considers whether Christie's election bodes poorly for NJEA's political might:
Political problems for the state's largest teacher's union continue to mount. After going all out for Gov. Jon Corzine in the recent election, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) knows they have a potential problem with voucher-backing charter school enthusiast Gov.-elect Christopher Christie. And in the Senate, it looks like Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), a protégé of Newark political leader Stephen Adubato, might replace Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence) as chairman of the Education Committee. A fair assumption is that Ruiz will share Adubato's fervent support for charter schools.

Are NJSBA Dues an Unfunded Mandate?

Wally Edge over at PolitickerNJ wonders whether the state law requiring every school board in N.J. to pay dues to NJSBA represents one of those unfunded mandates that Chris Christie has promised to put on the chopping block. Those dues total $7.3 million; Edge points out that NJSBA has about $11 million “in unrestricted cash and in certificates of deposits.”

His suggestion prompted a sharp defense in the comments section from Frank Belluscio, NJSBA Director of Communications, who reels off the benefits of NJSBA membership, including energy-buying cooperatives and board member training. That $11 million? Just capital reserve to renovate NJSBA’s Trenton headquarters.

Still, it’s a fair question. With Nutley School District in the news today because it's contemplating charging parents for costs associated with holding kids after school for detention, local districts are desperate for every penny. Annual NJSBA dues vary depending on the size of the district, but it’s a fair chunk of change. And NJSBA reaps the rewards of our fractured and multitudinous infrastructure. Think about it: with a state population of about 8.6 million and over 4,000 school board members, we have a school board member for every 2,150 people. That's good for NJSBA's coffers, and not so good for good governance and fiscal efficiencies of scale.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

NJSBA's Song of Itself

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”
The New Jersey School Boards Association is walking a thin line in its Emergency Resolution, which is on the agenda for this Saturday’s Delegate Assembly. The Resolution tries to do two things at once: support national common core standards and preserve the rights of local boards of education to manage public schools.

The impetus for a full-throated defense of national common core standards is obvious: as the document says, “a state’s acceptance of the standards will likely be a factor in the federal government’s awarding of Race To The Top Grant Funding.” How can the NJSBA espouse otherwise? On the other hand, N.J. is so deeply invested in local control that top-down reform is anathema to our culture. So here’s the catch:
The NJSBA believes the authority for the management of public schools must remain with local boards of education. Federal authority over school districts should not exceed the scope necessary to meet national goals, including national standards, and fulfill the mandate for a thorough and efficient system of public education. Federal authorities must give local districts the flexibility to achieve the goals of the federal education programs while maintaining local control.
Bottom line: we’ll accept federal common core standards as long as they don’t get in the way of local control. What about charter school expansion? That’s part and parcel of RTTT criteria, as well as some version of performance-based pay. Can we release our tight grip on local governance and keep hold of it too? NJSBA says “yes.” It’s oh so transcendental.

High School Helmet Scam

The Record went online yesterday with a lengthy expose of Circle System Group, a company that has received millions of dollars over many years from public schools in New Jersey for services regarding sports equipment refurbishment, specifically testing and reconditioning of football helmets. Reports the Record,
About a year ago…its president, David Drill, became a federal felon when he admitted to quarterbacking a massive financial fraud against high school athletic departments in New Jersey, saying that Circle lied about critical helmet safety tests and lavished gifts on school officials.
And Drill is not the only one implicated because school officials accepted bribes (clothing, travel, golf clubs) and “looked the other way” at inflated bills and counterfeit price quotes from competitors. Strangely enough, not an single school official has been named, despite the fact that, according to Record research, about 4 out of 5 school districts in Bergen and Passaic Counties used Circle as their vendor.

One of the reasons that this scam worked so well and over so many years is that state regulations regarding public bidding only applies to purchases under $29,000, and Circle’s price quotes were under the cap. There’s not enough economy of scale within our municipal madness – especially in Bergen and Passaic – to protect local districts against scams that thrive on minimal oversight and small purchases.. It’s yet another reason to get over our love affair with home rule and look seriously at consolidating school districts. We’ll save some money, generate more oversight, and protect our kids’ heads at the same time.

Speaking of Oversight of Abbott Districts,

the Courier Post reports today that an audit for the Camden City Schools turned up 38 problems, 10 more than last year:
Nine current errors were cited in the troubled Food Services Department. Several others involved reporting of student activity fund accounts. And 14 of the issues that need correction are holdovers from last year, according to the audit by Ford-Scott & Associates of Ocean City.
Many of the errors stem from the Food Services Department so the Camden Board is conducting a forensic audit. Last year the department lost $1.5 million to mismanagement.

Semantic Aside: anyone notice that we're calling our 31 poor urban areas "Abbott districts" again, in spite of the fact that Corzine's School Funding Reform Act did away with the designation? Maybe it was all a dream.

Keansburg Update

Court delays continue to push off Judgement Day for former Keansburg Superintendent of Schools Barbara A. Trzeszkowski. Her retirement package – estimated at about $741,000 – received hoots and hollers when announced last January, but comeuppance remains murky. Attorney General Anne Milgram, according to the Asbury Park Press, filed an order in May 2008 for Trzeszkowski and the Keansbury Board to show why the severance part of the package, $560K, is “not contrary to good public policy.” Their reply is that it’s all good because the State hadn’t yet passed legislation overseeing superintendent contracts.

In fact, Keansburg is an Abbott district and the State BOE has every right -- and responsibility --to examine anything they want. It’s one of the levels of oversight that come with the Abbott designation. The real question is: why didn’t the DOE know that the Keansburg Board had signed such a contract in the first place?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

N.J. DOE's School Choice

Here’s (out-going) Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy defending N.J.’s record of expanding charter schools at the recent NJEA Convention:
We have supported charter schools that succeed. We want to replicate those that work. We like the idea of choice for parents, but we also have to continue to work on district change.
It’s an odd linkage: school choice, in this case charter school expansion, as a deterrent to “district change.” Davy suggests that the DOE is forced to choose between expending its energies on promoting charters (she complains in the same venue that the DOE has been “unjustly criticized” for N.J.’s molasses-like charter school growth) or on improving traditional public schools. Shouldn’t the DOE, 900 staff members strong, be able to do both at the same time? In fact, isn’t expanding charters, especially in poor urban communities with chronically failing schools, part of “district change?”

Either the DOE is understaffed, poorly managed, or only marginally committed to charter school expansion. Pick your poison.

A report this past July from the Hall Institute of Public Policy singled out three reasons why charter school expansion in N.J. is so sluggish. Here’s one of them:
New Jersey is the only state to invest in one person, the commissioner of education, the responsibility of authorization. As most other states charge single or multiple boards with that responsibility, the effects of New Jersey’s unique charter policy and that of other states are not comparable in studies such as the foregoing.
Sounds like Davy just confirmed that our authorization process for charter schools undermines meaningful progress.

Quote of the Day

Christie forcefully snubbed New Jersey's largest teachers' union, the NJEA, by refusing to even be interviewed for their endorsement. Then, he called for mass layoffs of state workers while Governor Corzine hammered out givebacks at the bargaining table… It remains to be seen whether Christie wants any allies in labor or whether he believes he doesn't need union members to succeed as Governor to or to win reelection. He may decide that his rhetoric should become reality and he should treat unionized labor as the enemy for the next four years. It's his call. If Christie chooses that path he politically endangers the many moderate Republican legislators who have made some good long-standing labor friends and who are up bat at the ballot box long before Christie will be.
Carla Katz stands by her (ex)man in PolitickerNJ.

Monday, November 16, 2009

NJ Coalition for Math Challenges Common Core Standards

The NJ Coalition for World Class Math, a group of mathematicians, engineers, scientists, and parents representing about 25 N.J. districts, has been pushing the NJ DOE to upgrade the rigor and consistency of N.J.’s math curriculum. This N.J. arm of the national United States Coalition currently is battling on two fronts: at the State level, where we’ve recently revised our K-12 math curriculum, and nationally, where the push for Common Core Standards is raising questions about whether a proposed national curriculum can prepare kids for higher learning, whether they intend to pursue so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines or not.

The N.J. Coalition has had a long slog. In February the NJ DOE issued a draft of our new math curriculum for public comment. Here’s what New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Professor John Bechtold had to say about it:
I have just taken a brief look at the algebra standards, and I was literally stunned speechless by the everywhere presence of solecisms in the document. It is not anywhere near a *mathematical* document by any stretch of the imagination. In mathematics, we insist on precision, clarity, and logical reasoning, at the very least. I could find almost none of these qualities here. If I were to document the many transgressions against mathematics, I would need a volume.
The ground war continues (and, apparently, some progress has been made: Coalition member Amy Flax was invited last Spring to join the DOE Math Task Force). Meanwhile, the brave souls at NJ Coalition continue to participate nationally and on October 21st submitted formal public comments. At the heart of their belief is that the nationally-based Common Core Standards draft for math fails to specify “the optional, higher-level mathematical content necessary for college-readiness in STEM disciplines.” In addition,
It has now come to our attention that enrollment prerequisites for BA programs in non-STEM fields of many, perhaps most, state universities also require mastery of numerous Algebra II and Geometry topics that are not included in the current draft. This omission of significant portions of essential Algebra II and Geometry content renders the Common Core Standards inadequate for students who will enter undergraduate programs in STEM or even non-STEM disciplines in much of the country.
New Jersey has put many resources into high school reform and the issues are complex. For example, the original redesign of the state math curriculum included Algebra II, but after a flurry of protests from groups as diverse as Education Law Center, representatives of vo-tech schools, and Assemblyman Joseph Cryan, it axed the course, as well as lab chemistry. It’s a hard nut to crack. On the one hand, is it reasonable for the state to mandate advanced courses for some of our poor urban schools that only manage to graduate half their kids under less rigorous requirements? On the other hand, don’t we cheat our kids by not preparing them for college-level coursework? And, finally/always (we don’t have a third hand), can a highly-segregated state school system defined by widely disparate economic and social realities insist on a single route to graduation? And, if not, how do we claim to have an equitable and adequate educational system?

The NJ Coalition, of course, is right. Our children should have adequate math preparation, whether or not they plan to pursue STEM disciplines after high school graduation. Now how do we get there?

Lame Duck Dope

New Jersey School Boards Association has issued a warning regarding the current lame duck session of the Legislature. Assemblyman Joseph Cryan put it succinctly in today’s Ledger: "There are also some people who think that we should move our agendas and commitments forward and let the future be damned."

Here’s the ways school districts could be damned, according to NJSBA:

A-4140 eliminates the option for districts to privatize non-instructional services.
A-4142 gives arbitration rights to non-tenured employees, which is a lot like giving tenure from the moment a new employee walks in the door.
S-1882 lets municipalities slough off the responsibility for hiring adult crossing guards to local districts.
S-1137/A-1547 "makes employment matters which are not exempt by statute the mandatory subjects of public employment collective bargaining.”

All of these bills, by the way, are heavily backed by NJEA.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

The Record reports on N.J.’s status in the Race To The Top federal competition, and quotes NJEA spokesman Steve Baker, who argues that RTTT “continues to follow the error of NCLB in its emphasis on test scores.”

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board
urges Governor-Elect Christie to maintain N.J.’s public preschools because they “represent the single greatest success story Trenton can claim over the last decade.”

Robert Aloia, Bergen County Special Services District is retiring among a flurry of accusations of profligacy, but The Record notes that he will walk away with a $1 million retirement deal:
A school administrator who is not performing up to the standards any reasonable taxpayer would expect can be terminated with little to no financial hardship. We ask not whether the district will have to pay a cool million to Aloia. That is a question for lawyers familiar with the wording of Aloia's contracts to determine.
What we ask is: Who is writing and approving these contracts?
The Gloucester County Times reports that eight teacher unions and their respective boards are headed into contract mediation.

The Record reports that local schools are using periods usually reserved for electives for test prep:
"It's all about the tests — it's unfortunate, but that's the way it has gone," said Hasbrouck Heights math supervisor Joseph Mastropietro. "The key is we want them to graduate from high school and move on to college."
The Asbury Park Press argues that Christie should "play hardball" with unions:
Targeting the state work force of about 73,000 alone won't do it. It represents only about one-fifth of the state's 400,000-plus public employees. And local government — municipal, county and schools — accounts for about two-thirds of all government spending in New Jersey. If Christie wants to reduce the overall tax burden in New Jersey, he must address the excesses of all public workers.
And the Asbury Park Press calls for an Atlantic City Board member to resign for a violation of the Code of Ethics.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Quote of the Day

A Pew Center on the States report issued this week said New Jersey was in the eighth-worst fiscal condition in the nation. While the report said the root cause of most states' fiscal troubles was the economic downturn, it indicated New Jersey was a victim of "years of fiscal mismanagement (that) have resulted in soaring debt and a persistent imbalance between what the state collects and what it spends."

Christie's advisers this week said he expects to tackle the state employee contract issues before he takes office Jan. 19. That's good to hear. But Christie shouldn't zero in on just state employees. Other public employee contracts — teachers, police and fire, county and independent authorities — should be subject to the same kind of scrutiny.
The Asbury Park Press urges Christie to exert some checks and balances on all public employee contracts, including teachers.

Jersey's Charter School Facilities Funding and RTTT

Peter Murphy at The Chalkboard speculates that New York State will be deemed ineligible for Race To The Top money because its charter school facilities funding is inequitable.

The same is true for New Jersey. Jessani Gordon, Executive Director of the New Jersey Charter Public Schools Association, wrote this past May,
Unlike traditional public schools, charter public schools get no facilities funding from the state. There are no bond issues for charter public school construction and improvements. Not one red cent has been spent for charter school facilities from the $10 billion New Jersey has invested in public school construction over the past 10 years. Charter schools finance their facilities from operating funds and fund-raising campaigns.
If Murphy’s right about New York, then the prognosis for N.J.’s RTTT application is equally grim. How quickly can Governor-Elect Christie push the Legislature to implement changes to give us a fighting chance?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Marlboro Melee

Marlboro Township Public Schools, a wealthy K-8 district in Monmouth County, is the site of an impasse between the Marlboro Board of Education and the 800-member local teachers’ union. After climbing the ladder of contract negotiations, the Board has rejected the PERC Fact Finder’s Report (which MTEA accepted) and elected to move to the highest rung, superconciliation. Both sides are conducting public relations wars. The district has just issued a resolution in case of a “state of emergency” if the teachers strike and is advertising for substitute teachers at $300 per day and substitute nurses at $400 per day. MTEA issued a public letter charging “the Marlboro Board of Education and district administrators have taken several provocative and inflammatory actions which can only serve to worsen the current crisis in Marlboro.”

The core of the dispute is whether teachers should contribute to health benefits. Historically the Marlboro Board has picked up the whole tab, estimated at $22,000 per year for each employee, and the teachers want it to stay that way. The Board has proposed a contribution of $950 for a family benefits package. The Fact-Finder sided with the teachers on this issue, though he recommended annual pay increases of 4.4% for 2008-2009, 4.2% for 2009-2010, and 4.1% for 2010-2011, below MTEA’s proposal of 5% per year.

Here’s what the Fact-Finder, Thomas Hartigan, had to say about the salary increases:
While I anticipate smaller increases, there is no indication of a dramatic drop off. In fact, NJSBA numbers showed a slight retrenchment from the 3d quarter to the 4th quarter of 2008, 4.69% to 4.44%
Here’s what the Fact-Finder said about health benefit contributions:
While the Board argued strongly for an employee contribution, its presentation and documentation did not carry its burden to make such a change out of the mainstream of school districts in the State and in the Country.
The status quo, according to State-appointed mediators, reigns supreme and contractual agreements are stuck in a tautology of economic indifference. It works for NJEA; it doesn't work for local districts or local taxpayers, especially given the 4% cap on school budgets and looming state aid cuts. As the Marlboro Board of Education bravely battles for "a change out of the mainstream," it may be time to take a hard look at county-wide contract negotiations so that local boards gain a little more traction.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Christie's One-Man Band

Is it possible to flip the bird to NJEA and still succeed as New Jersey’s education reformer? It sounds like Chris Christie is going to try. He’s been out and about touting his school reform wish list – expansion and full funding of charter schools, teacher and principal accountability, merit pay, a meaningful school choice program – and all items happen to be anathema to the leadership of the teachers’ union.

Christie’s not even sworn in, but he’s already being inducted by some into the exalted ranks of government leaders who advocate school reform. In today’s Asbury Park Press, the editors remark that Christie has aligned himself with educational reformers like “Mike Bloomberg and Barack Obama,” in comparison to Corzine:
Corzine, who wanted nothing to do with an educational reform agenda, portrayed himself as a champion of the urban poor. In truth, he was nothing but a sentinel for the NJEA and its status-quo policies. The NJEA, abetted by Corzine, has been the chief impediment to changes that could result in better teachers, better school environments and better educational options for disadvantaged children.
Whether Christie is deserving of the Press’s annointment or not, he’s trying on the mantle with a twist. While other reform leaders have minced through the niceties of collaboration with union leadership – Duncan spoke respectfully at the NEA Convention even though he got booed – Christie seems to be hellbent on blowing them off. For example, yesterday Christie parked himself in front of Steinert High School in Hamilton, Mercer County, a middle-class (its District Factor Group is FG) district that just happens to be the 8th largest in the state (13,000 kids in 23 schools) and one of the cheapest (cost per pupil is $11,891; the state average is $14,359). Reports the Philadelphia Inquirer,
Christie promised tough negotiations with labor unions representing teachers and state workers. He said the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers and opposes many of the urban education ideas he has backed, "has been a strong advocate for the status quo."
"They need to get realistic about the fact that change is coming," Christie said
Bottom line: he’s being about as conciliatory as a Sherman Tank with a big, rich association that controls some of the state legislators whose cooperation he’ll need to get anything done. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Maybe it’s a good strategy. After all, all he needs to expand charter schools is to appoint a like-minded Commissioner of Education, since the vagaries of N.J.’s charter school legislation put all power to approve applications in that one seat. But other items in the reformers’ pantheon include merit pay and teacher/principal accountability, and progress on those fronts may require some collaboration.

At the recent NJEA Convention, NBC40 quoted an NJEA member who said, in response to Christie’s plans, “I don’t think he knows a lot about us, he doesn’t know our strength.” Maybe the NJEA has overestimated its strength. Maybe Christie has underestimated it. But Christie’s surely feeling some wind beneath his wings (partly powered by the Race To The Top engine) and we’ll all get to see whether it takes two to tango out meaningful education reform in New Jersey or whether Christie can pull this off solo.

N.J.'s Reform Report Card

A new report out from the Center for American Progress grades each state on 8 categories relevant to educational reform. Here’s N.J.’s report card:
School Management C
Finance D
Staffing: Hiring & Evaluation B
Staffing: Removing Ineffective Teachers A
Data D
Pipeline to Postsecondary D
Technology D

From our comments: CAP says we do an “average” job managing schools "in a way that encourages thoughtful innovation, but have “mediocre academic standards. We aced “Removing Ineffective Teachers": only "70% of principals say that teacher unions or associations are a barrier to the removal of ineffective teachers." We got D’s in Finance (we don’t have a performance pay program for teachers), Data (we don’t report college remediation data and we don’t match teachers to students), Pipeline to Postsecondary (we have a low percentage of dual-enrollment programs and not enough work-based internships), and Technology (no virtual schools and no computer-based assessments. But we do play well with others.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Conventional Olive Branch from NJEA?

The kids are back in school today after a four-day weekend for the NJEA Convention, which precedes (for most districts) half-days for teacher-parent conferences, which precedes Thanksgiving vacation. November’s a tough month for learning in New Jersey. Apropos, a reader asks: do other states give teachers two full days off with full pay to attend union conventions? Answer: not many. State NEA affiliates in Vermont, Minnesota, Utah, and Wisconsin follow the same practice as in N.J. Maryland closes for one Friday (its convention goes Friday and Saturday, instead of N.J.’s Thursday and Friday). Most states still have conventions but either hold them over a weekend or over the summer.

Relationships between NJEA and our new administrations are strained at best. Might it not be a smart strategic move for the NJEA leadership to extend an olive branch in the form of a couple of extra learning days for kids and a less splintered November? If that’s too much of a stretch, why don’t we split the difference: the NJEA leadership can make the generous offer to shift its annual Convention from Thursday and Friday to Friday and Saturday. NJEA will come off looking beneficient and parents everywhere will give thanks.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Alan Steinberg predicts that the pending battle between Christie and the NJEA “could become the Ali-Frazier of New Jersey issue battles.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has a post-mortem on the Corzine loss, concluding that his"inability to stare down the state’s free-spending Legislature and its public employee unions doomed his efforts to straighten out New Jersey’s troubled finances."

The New Jersey Herald speculates
that it was Christie’s education platform that helped him "nibble at the Democrat's built-in advantage in the cities where many poor-performing schools are located," particularly his promise to bolster school choice.

The East Brunswick School Board is “dumbfounded”
by the financial impact of a new charter school set to open in the district, Hatikvah International Academy, which will use the International Baccalaureate curriculum and teach Hebrew as a second language.

The Press of Atlantic City editorializes
that the Legislature should shelve a bill that would prohibit districts from charging for extra-curricular activities, including sports.

Star-Ledger tries to have it both ways with the preschool program:
The results of this effort are in. The children graduating from these programs are now in elementary school, and their scores on fourth grade reading and math tests have risen substantially. This is a key reason why the racial achievement gap in New Jersey is closing faster than in any other state. That’s reason for this state to be proud.

Christie is surely correct, however, that we cannot afford to expand these programs now. Corzine had drawn up plans to do so, to ensure that all low-income children were enrolled, no matter where they lived. That remains an important goal. But we’re broke. So it has to wait.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Is Christie's Victory a Validation of Obama's Education Platform?

Charlie Barone over at Swift & Change Able analyzes Christie’s win:
Corzine’s education policies were 180 degrees from Obama’s proposed education reforms. Other than presiding over what is arguably the best early childhood education program in the nation, Corzine’s education policies were astonishingly stale and regressive. His most visible and self-touted "reform" in recent memory was a change in the state funding formula, which shifted money away from high-poverty urban districts to high-growth suburbans. The latter didn’t notice, and community leaders in the former were not appreciative. Bad policy, bad politics.
Barone also makes the point that Christie’s education platform, specifically on charter schools and merit pay, puts him closer than Corzine to President Obama’s agenda,, noting that “if one really wanted to really go out on a limb, one could say that Corzine’s defeat was if anything an endorsement of Obama’s education policies, rather than a rejection of them.”

Wishful thinking from the Director of Federal Policy at Democrats for Education Reform? Maybe not. The universe of education reform is sort of post-partisan anyway. (In a more Manichean world, the phrase “Democrats for Education Reform” would be either redundant or oxymoronic. Right now it’s neither.) Can a hardcore Republican like Christie, fiscally and socially conservative, share an education agenda with a Democratic president? Apparently so. Just look at the signatories at Education Equality Project: Cory Booker, Jeb Bush, Al Sharpton, Newt Gingrich. Not much of a stretch to link Chris Christie’s education agenda with President Obama’s.

Christie’s challenges are many: he may not put much truck in union alliances, but his Legislature does. NJEA, among the most militant state teachers’ unions, is not about to go gently into that good night on issues like charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay. Race To The Top incentives give him a short-term window to push hard on charter school legislation that doesn’t get the vapors when confronted by the faintest opposition. If he’s committed to expanding successful charters (like Robert Treat Academy where he gave his first post-election remarks yesterday) then we’d expect to see a fast turn-around time on proposals for some our most inglorious urban districts like Camden or Trenton, or non-Abbotts like Willingboro. Same for linking test performance, hopefully growth models, to teacher performance. But he’ll have to work swiftly and decisively. We’ll get to see if he’s really the “change” candidate in education over the next six months or so. Meanwhile, we live in hope, clinging to that tree limb.

Extra Cash Doesn't Equal Extra Learning

Alfred A. Lindseth and Eric Hanushek argue in Educationnext that court-ordered funding increases to schools has not resulted in correlative increases in student achievement. (They’ve made the same argument in book-length form, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America’s Public Schools.) Therefore, a 40-year pattern of state courts mandating school funding increases is shifting to a more hands-off approach, and the authors use N.J.’s Abbott cases as a primary example, along with Kentucky, Kansas, and Wyoming.
Notwithstanding these dramatic spending increases, we found that student performance has languished. The unmistakable picture in each of these states is that during a decade or more of court funding mandates, student performance, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (commonly referred to as the “Nation’s report card”), has not measurably improved relative to other states that did not have anywhere near the same influx of new school money.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Quote of the Day

This [Robert Treat Academy Charter School] is a model that we should replicate all over the state of New Jersey, everywhere. And there is no reason that it cannot be replicated. That's been my frustration over time with the educational bureaucracy in the state. It is not as if we're walking around in a dark room and saying, 'I wish we could just find the light switch.' The light switch is on. It's here.
Governor-Elect Chris Christie speaking yesterday at the Robert Treat Academy, a charter school in Newark with over 1000 kids on the waiting list, superb test scores, and a cost per pupil of $11,833. (Cost per pupil in a traditional Newark public school is $17,978.) See also the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability’s Thomas W. Carroll in the Huffington Post. Carroll speculates on whether Christie’s election will make N.J. a more serious contender for Race To The Top funds (Corzine approved only 1 out of 22 charter school applications in 2008, which definitely gets in our way in the education reform arena) and how Christie’s win will effect Newark Mayor Cory Booker’s gubernatorial ambitions.

It’s NJEA Convention Time,

that two-day period in November when New Jersey public schools close so that teachers can go to Atlantic City for all sorts of worthwhile activities. The oddity is the timing: why do our teachers convene during a Thursday and Friday in November when kids would normally be in the classrooms? The Connecticut Education Association holds its annual conference in August. New York State holds several one-day conferences, and schools remain open. Pennsylvania’s does also. What’s with Jersey?

Consider it a gift from your State Legislature in the form of statute 18A:31-32, which mandates that any teacher, secretary, or office clerk shall be granted permission to attend the Convention “and he shall receive his whole salary for the days of actual attendance upon the sessions of such convention upon filing with the secretary of the board a certificate of such attendance signed by the executive secretary of the association.”

It doesn’t really work like that. Schools just close down and everyone gets paid, whether they go to the Convention or not. (Most don’t; NJEA estimates the attendance this year at 50,000, though that includes a bevy of NJEA officials, vendors, etc. and NJEA membership is over 200,000.) As our public school system is evermore taxed by curricular enhancements and mandates, as pressure builds to maximize educational benefits, perhaps it’s time for NJEA to give those two days back to the kids.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Whither Goes Jersey Education Policy in the Wake of Christie’s Victory?

First, a contest: who can name the next Commissioner of Education? Post your thoughts, please. The only clues we have is that Christie vowed during the campaign that his pick would strongly advocate for charter schools. We also know that he favors vouchers in “failing, urban school districts," seems at peace with the School Funding Reform Act, and has alienated NJEA. Any ideas?

Next, read this great piece from Patrick Riccards at Eduflack on the impact on public education with a new governor. For instance, what will happen to Race To The Top applications, well underway and due in early January? The DOE, writes Riccards, has “carefully negotiated the support of the governor's office, the chief state school officer, the state board of education, and the teachers' unions to put as unified a plan forward as humanly possible. So what happens when the governorship changes party, and thus shifts priority?”

It’s true: N.J.’s RTTT application will be written by an administration with a different education agenda than the administration that will implement any proposed reforms. Riccards continues,
What's left to be seen is how the rhetoric of the last year will translate into the policies of 2010, and whether either wants to start one of their first fights on the topic of education and the spending of federal ed dollars. If they do, charters are likely to be the first battlefield, with teacher incentives (and a showdown with the teachers' unions who fought so hard to defeat them this fall) coming quickly on its heels. Let the fireworks begin!
How bold will Christie be? Can he see his way clear to piloting meaningful school choice in Abbott districts? Will he experiment with county-wide preschools? Merit pay? Can we assume that he won't sign some of more outlandish bills coming out of the Legislature, like 4142, which gives arbitration rights to non-tenured teachers or 3317, which bars school board from hiring non-union electricians?

We need bold. Let's hope Christie delivers.

Nearby Presence of Charters Benefit Non-Charter Students

From today’s Wall Street Journal, a report on a paper out from the Manhattan Institute that shows “that even students who don't attend a charter school benefit academically when their public school is exposed to charter competition.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Parent: "Pathetic" Test Scores of Black Kids in Ewing, N.J.

An informed parent in the Mercer County school district of Ewing Township, David Roscoe Brown, writes in the Trenton Times about the performance of black kids on state assessments:
I do not speak as an uninformed outsider when I characterize the test scores of Ewing's black students as pathetic. And trust me, as a black dad who is very proud of his ethnicity, it is not (nor has it ever been) a happy moment to speak of how poorly black kids are typically performing ("typically" being synonymous with "average") academically in my town.
How poorly are black kids doing in Ewing, a Central Jersey district with a DE District Factor Grouping? According to the DOE database, 65.9% of black 8th graders at Fisher Middle School failed the NJ ASK8 in math. Among white kids, 26.5% failed and among Hispanics 44% failed. For the NJ ASK8 in Language Arts, 22.5% of black failed, 10.3% of whites, and 16% of Hispanic kids. That’s slightly worse than other districts in their DFG and below average across the State.

Ewing High School reports a similar story. 13.5% of white 11th graders taking the HSPA Language Arts test failed; 28.5% of black students did. (Hispanic kids did better, with an 8.3% failure rate.) In math, only 13.4% of whites failed, but almost half of black kids did – 49.2%. Districts with comparable socio-economic ratings performed slightly better in language arts. Black students throughout the DE DFG reported a similar failure rate: 49.1%.

Mr. Brown attributes the “pathetic” performance of black students in Ewing to the lack of courage among school boards, superintendents, and principals to
summon the courage to go very politically incorrect and tell the typical -- yes, I know there are lots of exceptions -- black parent that he or she urgently needs to get his or her kids studying more each night. In order for such a "telling" to be successful, it must be loud, direct and incessant. If such a message is not unequivocally shared with black parents, there is not enough supplemental school aid in the world to significantly increase the likelihood that the typical black student in Mercer County will ever mirror the academic achievement levels of corresponding white or Asian students.
That’s a brave, politically incorrect statement. But what about preschool? NJEA just touted the academic success of 8th graders in poor districts:
So what accounts for that success? No doubt a number of factors contributed, but one stands out. Last year’s eighth grade class included the first wave of students who had access to the preschool program mandated in the former Abbott districts.
Ewing students don’t have access to free public preschool. Could that explain the dismal test scores? For comparison’s sake, we went right across the Ewing border to Trenton, an Abbott district where full day preschool is available to all takers. Here’s their 8th grade results at Grace Dunn Middle School: for the NJ ASK8 in language arts, 50% of white kids failed, 60.6% of black kids failed, and 61% of Hispanic kids failed. For the NJ ASK 8 in math, 54.5% of white kids failed, 75.8% of black kids failed, and 78.8% of Hispanic kids failed.

At least the achievement gap is lower in Trenton than in Ewing.

The answer to increasing academic achievement, at least based on the Ewing/Trenton comparison, is not as simple as preschool access (and it’s disingenuous for the people who write NJEA press releases to trumpet preschool as such, even when it's serendipitously timed to the gubernatorial election). At the NJSBA Convention last week, Commissioner Lucille Davy said that preschool is “the game-changer.” It’s not in Trenton. Mr. Brown suggests that it’s more complicated than that. Our guess is that he’s right.

Monday, November 2, 2009

School Funding Conspiracy?

Paul Mulshine has spent this gubernatorial election mourning Steve Lonegan’s loss in the GOP primary and dividing his scorn between Corzine and Christie. In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal he narrows his focus to what he considers to be the major issue at stake tomorrow: the State Supreme Court’s role in school funding. Mulshine writes,
The result is a perennial property-tax crisis. The court sends more than half of the state aid to 31 largely urban "special needs" school districts, the special needs of which were for the most part created by decades of Democratic mismanagement. The remaining 554 largely suburban towns fight over the rest.
He adds,
Suburban property taxes are high because the state Supreme Court has turned the property-tax system into a massive scheme to transfer wealth from the suburbs to the cities. Thanks to the court's meddling, Mendham [Christie’s hometown] gets back in education aid a mere 4% of the tax dollars paid by its residents to the state. That's typical for a suburb. Asbury Park gets back 800% and Newark 600%.
Paranoia aside, the imbalance in state education funding that Mulshine addresses is real. But what’s the alternative in a state divided into 566 municipalities with dramatically disparate swings of wealth and poverty? Abandon the children of Camden and Trenton to public schools hypothetically funded by non-existent ratables and allow toney towns in Bergen County to create separate and unequal gilded academies of learning?

Point to Mulshine. We’ve pretty much proven here in Jersey that funneling massive amounts of cash to segregated high-needs districts doesn’t work. But redistributing the money without reconfiguring the infrastructure won’t work either, not if the goal is creating a public school system that is efficient and fair, offering all kids at least a semblance of equitable education. It’s not just the distribution of cash that signifies imbalance; it’s also the shameful segregation of our poorest kids into our weakest schools.

There’s inequity in our Supreme Court-driven aid distribution, certainly. There’s also inequity among our school districts. One could argue that we’ve tried to resolve the latter at the expense of the former. Mulshine is arguing to resolve the former at the expense of the latter. Neither approach solves the problem.

What will? Politically unattractive options like county magnet schools, a robust system of school choice that allows kids to cross municipal boundaries, meaningful competition, expansion of charter schools. Can we deal with a little ugly in exchange for a little progress?

Upgrade Teaching Programs

Susan Engle of Williams College, argues in today’s New York Times that teaching colleges “should be selective, requiring a 3.5 undergraduate grade point average and an intensive application process. But they should also be free of charge, and admission should include a stipend for the first three years of teaching in a public school.”

Sounds a bit like an infusion of Teach for American philosophy into the traditional teaching programs where, according to Engle, “comparatively weaker students in less intellectually rigorous programs are the ones preparing to become teachers.”

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Sunday Leftovers

Last Tidbits from NJSBA Convention:
Charlie Rose, Arne Duncan's General Counsel, expects that the ESEA reauthorization proposal will be ready “early next year.”

The Race To The Top proposed language received 1100 comments on 3300 separate points, which is the most feedback ever received for any federal government program.

Senator Jim Whelan, in response to a question about whether N.J. will be able to fund the School Funding Reform Act next year: “I’m not going to tell you not to worry.”

Assemblyman Wolfe suggested that N.J. public school districts may need to look at charging families for sports and other extra-curricular activities.

Election Stuffing:
Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger
describes Jon Corzine as a Darth Vader/Luke Skywalker type of fellow, both a strong advocate for students and a “captive of the unions.”

The Star-Ledger reiterates
its endorsement of Daggett:
Only by electing Daggett on Tuesday can the voters of this ill-served state effectively vent long-standing, pent-up demand for radical change in Trenton. And that means treating taxpayers, including public employees, as rational adults able to handle the harsh truth about the state’s dire financial condition and the need for belt-tightening by all.
Standard Fare:
Diane D’Amico of the Atlantic City Press
agrees with our analysis of the NJEA’s use of NAEP data.

Like the rest of the country, N.J. students bombed end-of-year tests in Algebra 1 and Algebra, says The Record.

Eastside High
may be remodeled after a successful turn-around in Providence, RI.

Move out NJSBA, move in NJEA: New Jersey Newsroom reports on the teachers' convention in Atlantic City this week, which is expected to attract 50,000 people.

Today's New York Times on whether Montclair's school board should be elected or appointed.

Lauren Grodstein, a creative writing teacher at Camden's Rutger's campus, muses on the failure of gubernatorial candidates to express a full-throated commitment to N.J.'s ailing cities:
In years past, before Election Day, I’d give my classes a big speech about getting to the polls, taking the future into their own hands. But lately I’ve been thinking I might let this year’s election slide without comment. If I swore to my students that voting for governor would help reinvigorate Camden, lower Rutgers tuition, increase job opportunities and make their taxes more affordable, I’d probably be as wrong as when I promised them the Yankees would win in four. It’s not good for a teacher to be wrong too many times in a single semester.