Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Must-read Record piece on NJEA vs. Christie. Says Exec. Dir. Vince Giordano (who makes $263K/year) "We're as strong as we've ever been. We're not out of the ring...When the politicians get out of education, we'll get out of politics." Replies Richard Bozza of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. "It's the union's job to protect its members and it's the governor's job to protect everyone."

John Bury of the Star-Ledger calculates the true savings in the pension and benefits reform bills, concluding that “S2 is likely to pass over the fake outrage of unions. I expect NJEA radio ads and maybe a rally somewhere in Trenton if the snow isn't too bad. It's all for form. The bill will do nothing. Nobody with any significant benefits coming from this plan will be impacted in the slightest.”

The NJEA leadership outlines the impact of the bills for its members.

Bob Ingle worries
that the pension and benefits reform bills will get stalled in the Assembly and notes that while the "rank and file" union members understand the need for reform, "it's the union leaders who think the gravy train can go on forever. There's a big dose of reality just ahead for them."

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board applauds the bills,
but says they don't go far enough: "Sick pay is for being sick. How about banning these payouts altogether?"

The Record says Editorial Board says "stop the madness": "Whatever sweet deals existed in the past are over — the double-standard between public and private workers is about to end."

The Gloucester County Times suggests
that the NJEA leadership and Christie tone down the rhetoric: "This is a vital debate, but making it sound like a grudge match or a never-ending election campaign is not especially helpful."

New Jersey School Boards Association urges local districts to pass resolutions opposing the State's seizure of surplus funds and the projected aid freeze.

Teachers at Trenton Central High say grading policies were changed so that failing students would be given passing grades.

Union City News tries to figure out how Union City Public Schools was able to sock away $38 million in surplus funds.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Quote of the Day

New Jersey saw its municipalities and state agencies spend $96 billion in taxpayer dollars during the 2008-2009 fiscal year, nearly double the expenditures of a decade ago -- and outpacing the 74 percent increase in spending among all states in the same period.

But by year's end, New Jersey may end up as reputed for spending cuts, clampdowns on lavish public pensions and staring down affiliates of the mighty National Education Association, as for Miss America, its famed turnpike, and the Jersey Shore. Most-surprisingly, it is happening in a most-bipartisan manner.
RiShawn Biddle, editor of Dropout Nation and co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, in the American Spectator.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Even the Wealthy Get Squeezed

NJ State’s seizure of school district surpluses has aroused much anguish as board members and administrators huddle around balance sheets; much of the focus has been on poor districts that managed to sock away money and now find themselves making harsh cuts. It’s not so different in wealthy communities such as Bridgewater-Raritan Regional School District, with a DFG of I.

Mostly White and Asian, the district boasts top-notch programs and performance. For example, Bridgewater-Raritan High School, with 2,804 kids, aces the HSPA’s (the 11th grade standardized tests) with a failure rate in language arts of only 3.5%. In math, only 8.5% fail (the state average is 26.4%) and 37.9% of kids there actually make the cut-off for Advanced Proficient. SAT scores are 568 in math and 533 in verbal. The state average is 515 and 494. Listen to this: B-R High School offers 28 Advanced Placement courses, including Microeconomics, Chinese, and Latin (Vergil). 28.7% of the kids participate, 931 take A.P. tests, and 817 score 3 or higher. 92.6% of graduates go to college.

Two local articles (here and here) describe the painful Board meeting Tuesday night when a standing room-only crowd heard that the district is losing $4 million in surplus, is cutting $2 million in costs, and may cut another $2.4 million if state aid drops by 15%. In addition, teachers and administrators are due annual raises of 4.35%. Proposals to close the gap include privatizing 84 custodians, cutting 15.5 teachers, changing the gifted and talented program, and raising class size.

NJEA Goes Viral

The new Facebook page mellifluously entitled “NEW JERSEY TEACHERS UNITED AGAINST GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE'S PAY FREEZE” has this disclaimer prominently displayed: “This page is not sanctioned by the NJEA.” That’s a relief, because the page includes somewhat questionable claims such as “Christie is a disciple of Karl Rove - the chief architect of the George W. Bush administration. He is governor today because Rove picked him to run against Corzine.” Certainly it would be unseemly for a professional organization representing the fine educators of NJ to stoop to such tactics. Not so fast. Here’s a comment from one of its 31,769 fans:
When NJEA warned its members that Chris Christie would take away their pensions, health benefits, and collective bargaining rights, he accused us of lying. Now, a month into his term, he's trying to do all of these things. Let the record show who the liar was.
Who’s the fan? None other than Steve Wollmer, chief spokesman for NJEA.

Quote of the Day

Suggesting that great schooling is all about teachers is like suggesting that great restaurants are all about waiters. If the food is lousy, the service doesn’t matter. And make no mistake, the food is lousy. We continue to put thin, tasteless gruel on the menu, and blame the waiters when the customers leave hungry.

I must be not very bright, because I still can’t get my head around how we can create measures of teacher effectiveness without agreeing on what they’re supposed to teach first.
Robert Pondiscio at CoreKnowledge blog.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Charter School Oppositional-Defiant Disorder

We’re sensing an energetic focus in the media on problems endemic to teacher tenure. From today’s New York Times:
[I]n the two years since the [N.Y.C.] Education Department began an intensive effort to root out such teachers from the more than 55,000 who have tenure, officials have managed to fire only three for incompetence.
From yesterday’s Wall St. Journal:
In 2005, when California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger backed a proposal to extend the probationary period for new teachers to five years, the California Teachers Association spent more than $50 million to defeat it. In New York, a union-supported law that bans the use of student data in making tenure decisions helped disqualify the state for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal Race to the Top grants.
From today's Kausfiles in Slate:
In the past decade, [Los Angeles United School District] officials spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven of the district's 33,000 teachers for poor classroom performance — and only four were fired, during legal struggles that wore on, on average, for five years each. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The average cost of each battle is $500,000.
This preoccupation is understandable, isn’t it? What other profession waits only three years and then awards life-time job security? For example, in Newark Public Schools during 2001-2005 five teachers out of 3,850 tenured instructors were fired. In other words, .032% of the workforce was deemed incompetent and 99.068 performed acceptably. What other industry boasts such proficiency? Impossible. Even teachers are human.

Yet no education reform initiative incites as much ire as teacher accountability and, in turn, instigates attacks by normally sane people on public charter schools which, coincidentally, often don’t offer life-long tenure. Diane Ravitch, the renowned education historian, practically foams at the mouth describing evil-hearted charter operators conspiring to corrupt the sanctity of traditional public school policy. From her blog, “Bridging Differences:” “the explosive growth of charter schools would lead to financial and political scandals, as greedy entrepreneurs and unprincipled speculators discover the riches ripe for the picking.”

The heart of her fury, excuse the shrinkrap, stems from the belief that any intrusion of fiscal and professional accountability snaps at the heels of that American idol, traditional public education. Teacher union rhetoric echoes her righteous indignation. Here’s our very own NJEA stuffily responding to Gov. Christie’s Transition Team Education Subcommittee recommendations to expand our charter schools, currently mired at a grand total of 68:
NJEA is not opposed to high quality public charter schools as one component of an innovative, progressive system of public education. However, charter schools should be held to the same high standards as other public schools. Also, rushing the application process in order to meet an unrealistically short time line of opening 5-10 new charter schools this year would not allow for adequate review by the Department of Education and planning by the charter school operator. That is not the way to maintain high standards.
(Same high standards, huh? How about the child who was stabbed yesterday in the bathroom at Grace Dunn Middle School in Trenton? How’re those high standards working for you?)

Sorry. We digress. Diane Ravitch and her many admirers are no doubt sincere in their belief that charter schools and, more generally, education reform threaten the bastion of American democracy by demanding lifelong professional competency, not lifelong job security. Charter schools operators (those greedy entrepreneurs like Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone and Steve Barr of Green Dot or, closer to home, Steve Abudato of Newark's Robert Treat Academy) also threaten other mainstays of Americana by implementing proven best practices for poor urban children, like extended school days and school years. Here's NJEA's Barbara Keshishian on this proposal: "That could add costs for everything from salaries to student transportation to facility maintenance and beyond."

In other words, logical innovations -- tenure reform, expansion of the school day -- are off the table. It's this sort of reckless recalcitrance that wins no friends. Informal teacher spokespeople like Diane Ravitch and formal ones like Barbara Keshishian do teachers no favors by subscribing to an antiquated industrial model. It's practically un-American.

NJEA's Take on Christie/Schundler Reforms

Here's a memo from NJEA's main office (which was posted on several local NJEA affiliates websites, including this one from the Montgomery Township Education Association) responding to pension and benefit reforms and the Transition Report from the Education Sub-Committee, which includes recommendations on expanding school choice and increasing teacher accountability. There's also a comment on the State's efforts to restrict lobbyists through new pay-to-play legislation:
NJEA’s attorneys are reviewing the order to determine if it is applicable to NJEA. While we are awaiting a final opinion, it appears likely that the executive order will not be able to prevent NJEA and its members from exercising our rights to engage in the political process.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

Charles Stile ponders the “reversal of fortune” for unions in NJ (specifically NJEA and CWA), as public opinion veers from sympathy to frustration to contempt for unsustainable entitlements divorced from economic realities:
The reversal of fortune is stunning. Typically, the Legislature bands together in bipartisan unity to boost public employee pensions — a 9 percent hike in pension benefits nine years ago is the poster child of egregious pro-union giveaways. But on Monday, the Senate voted 36-0 on four bills that reduce or strip away pension benefits, mostly for future employees. Among the perks new hires will not get: that infamous 9 percent hike.

In the past, the unions yawned as smaller-government conservatives railed at government worker pensions. But this time, Democrats led the charge, and not just any Democrats, but those who double as union members. It made you wonder if the vote was held in a right-to-work state like Georgia, not New Jersey.

Did Senator Scutari Forget To Eat His Wheaties?

Over the objection of Republicans, the Senate Judiciary Committee gave Education Commissioner Nominee Bret Schundler ninety minutes before cutting off debate on his appointment so that Democrats could attend a caucus luncheon. Reports in the Star-Ledger and The Record note that questions centered on Schundler’s opinion on prayer in schools (he doesn’t endorse it), abstinence-only sex education (he’d leave it up to individual districts), school aid, and school choice. Debate may continue next week.

New Jersey Newsroom calls the postponement on the vote “an unusual action.”

“New Jersey Teachers United Against Christie’s Pay Freeze”

That’s the name of the hottest new Facebook group, with 14,000 fans yesterday and 20,000 this morning. From its mission statement:
Join this group and help tell Trenton that they are out of touch with reality. Teachers are already sorely underpaid - a pay freeze is UNACCEPTABLE. And his general hostility toward education is shameful. There IS a fiscal crisis in New Jersey - but assailing an already underpaid and famously undervalued profession is not a solution.
The goal appears to be a massive rally in Trenton at the State Capital Building on Friday, March 5th, from 9am-4pm. That’s a school day, and there are several comments from responsible educators suggesting a weekend rally, but the organizers appear undeterred: “If elected officials want to hurt or impair the progress of our children, their political careers in New Jersey are in jeopardy.”

Other tidbits:
“Christie is a disciple of Karl Rove - the chief architect of the George W. Bush administration. He is governor today because Rove picked him to run against Corzine.”
“Join this group and help tell Trenton that they are out of touch with reality. Teachers are already sorely underpaid - a pay freeze is UNACCEPTABLE.”
“The Governor is supposed to work for us - let's show that he is not doing the will of the people. Instead, he is following his personal fiscal philosophy - one that is easily debunked!”
“Christie has stated that his intention to increase the number of charter schools in cities” and “Christie supports merit pay for teachers.”
“John Locke said and Thomas Jefferson wrote and enforced the following: If the government does not protect the people's rights of life, liberty, and property, the people can rise up and take charge.”

Peace on.

Monday, February 22, 2010

RTTT Finalists Announced Next Week?

The Washington Post reports on Ed Sec Arne Duncan's prediction that "good superintendents" will be sending out lots of pink slips in light of projected teacher lay-offs. Towards the end of the article is this: "Meanwhile, Duncan said the $3.5 billion "Race to the Top" grants included in the stimulus plan are on track to be distributed soon, with the finalists for the grants announced next week." (Hat tip to Andy Smarick at Flypaper.)

Keep The Heat On

As Gov. Christie continues to position the NJEA leadership in the role as Chief Obstructionist to creating an affordable and accountable NJ public school system, the typically obsequious New Jersey School Board Association is finding its inner lion. This past Friday the Senate State Government Committee added an amendment at NJSBA’s request to the pension/benefit reform package currently making its way through the Legislature. The original Bill 3 mandated that all school employees who use the state School Employee Health Benefits Program have to contribute 1.5% of their base salary. NJSBA’s amendment requires the 1.5% contribution regardless of whether the local school district uses the State’s program or a private one.

Kudos all around to NJSBA and the Senate Committee. Only 47% of school districts use the State insurance plan, which leaves 53% of districts picking up the whole tab. (Close to 90% of local districts pay the full load for employee benefits.)

We’re less enthusiastic about NJSBA’s push to eliminate school budget votes this April for districts that come in under the 4% cap. Gov. Christie and Ed Commish-to-be Schundler should be also.

NJSBA argues that school districts are under enormous pressure as they develop 2010-2011 budgets because of the uncertainty surrounding State aid. Surpluses, typically used to buy down property tax increases, have been seized by the state. No one knows how low state aid will go next year; a 15% cut is being bandied about, but it’s anyone’s guess until Gov. Christie comes up with firm numbers in mid-March – 5 weeks before the vote on April 20th. NJSBA’s Mike Vrancik calls this “an extremely volatile atmosphere” that demands a legislative act to mitigate the stress and uncertainty.

While we can certainly sympathize with school boards struggling manfully with daunting fiscal scenarios, this well-intentioned rescue attempt advocated by NJSBA would be a strategic error for three reasons:

1) The leadership of NJEA is in a tight corner; while it’s been able to bank on the kindness of public sentiment, there’s been rising ire in response to lack of accountability and annual pay increases of 4%-5% that seem vacuum-sealed from a sour economy and salary and benefits trends in the private sector. NJEA’s leadership is on the defensive right now (here’s their latest salvo entitled “NJEA Fires Back”) and Christie needs to maintain the half-nelson.

2) If the State gives districts a bye on school budget elections under the 4% cap (which Christie has likened to a “swiss cheese cap” because it’s so full of holes) then there’s no pressure on local districts to push hard for lower salary increases or contributions to health benefits. It’s no coincidence that annual pay hikes hover around the same level as our perforated budget cap. If there’s no budget vote then there’s no public pressure on school boards to bargain for lower salaries during negotiations of reopen current contracts. (Unlikely, though a savvy reader forwards to us an article from Stowe, Vermont where teachers sacrificed a 5.25% salary increase this year.) A big part of reinventing NJ’s public schools into an economically and educationally sustainable enterprise depends on public pressure and awareness. Budget votes promote public pressure and awareness.

3) A large part of Christie and Schundler’s education reform agenda squares precisely with the federal Race To The Top competition. If school districts can handle unprecedented fiscal pressure and the NJEA execs’ resistance can be tamped down, then we have a better shot at implementing meaningful reform, like increased school choice, teacher accountability, and improved data systems, which will in turn increase our chances at winning some money during the second round of RTT applications.

Here’s a compromise: Make the cap a hard 3%. Allow school districts to bypass a budget vote if they come in under the newly-stringent cap. Such a move would force districts to play hard ball with NJEA affiliates, create a fiscal scenario that demands logical salary increases and benefits contributions, and sets us up for a fighting chance at stimulus funds.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

On NJEA's media campaign against school aid cuts and benefits reform, Gov. Christie tells the Independent Press that “[c]andidly, teachers aren’t the problem. The union has to stop playing politics and get real." He also remarks to the Star-Ledger, "The NJEA loves spending their teachers’ dues criticizing me. They spent $3 million of it trying to make sure I couldn’t win the election. You saw how successful that was. They’re just going to put more lies and distortions on the radio, on TV and all the rest of it."

Kevin Manahan of The Star-Ledger editorial board ruminates today, "I’ve always marveled at the NJEA’s ability to have it both ways: It demands the unparalleled job security that comes with tenure, then rebuffs any attempt by taxpayers to make sure they’re getting what they pay for — quality teaching. So public school salaries continue to be based on longevity and education credits and not what happens in the classroom. It’s preposterous. But that’s okay with the union because that pay policy treats all teachers equally. Unions like that. There’s one problem: We all know teachers are not equal."

Senator Jim Whelan, an Atlantic City school teacher and a perennial NJEA favorite, tries to explain to his colleagues that times have changed. He tells a group of government workers, reports the Press of Atlantic City, “There were times when raises weren’t given, but benefits were, enhancements to pensions were," but he said times had changed.“We no longer make lousy money. The fact of the matter is that public employees across the board in New Jersey make above what the private sector is paying, of comparative education and comparative time of service.”

Charles Stile of The Record questions Gov. Christie's executive order that gives him authority over local school boards, and whether the order banning "pay to play" over-reaches: "But in his desire to poke NJEA in the eye, Christie's executive order applies to any union that "enters into contracts with the State of New Jersey … or with other New Jersey public entities. That means the NJEA would risk losing its ability to bargain any local teacher contract if it continues to make campaign donations. That could put teachers into demanding the union to stop giving or choose another bargaining representative. Critics argue that the ban is a thinly disguised form of union busting, a possible violation of collective bargaining law."

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center argues that Christie's seizure of school districts' surplus accounts "penalizes fiscal prudence."

Is the 15% reduction in next year's school aid a sure thing or not? A piece in The Record has Commissioner-To-Be Schundler telling the Senate Education Committee, “We’re working hard to see if we can achieve state aid that’s flat but we don’t know if it’s possible."

Max Pizarro of PolitickerNJ muses on “a showering of bipartisan praise on a controversial nominee,” Bret Schundler.

The Wall St. Journal
cites a growing trend of parents and government officials who protest the “last hired, first fired” seniority rules that govern teacher lay-offs.

What to do when state regulations require that a quorum of five board members evaluate the superintendent, but only three don’t have conflicts of interest? Answer here in Plainfield.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Concretizing NJ's Segregation

Yesterday the Fordham Institute anointed NJ with the dubious honor of having the most segregated schools in the nation. With last week’s issuance of the 2009 NJ State Report Cards it seems an appropriate time to revisit one of our favorite examples of the inequity in NJ public education: Moorestown and Willingboro Public Schools. Nine miles apart in Burlington County, the starkly different demographics can be teased out of the DOE’s disaggregated data. For example, one can look at the breakdown of Moorestown High students who took the language arts HSPA: 361 (just add together the males and females) of whom 308 are White, 24 are Black, and 14 are considered Economically Disadvantaged. At Willingboro High, 163 children took the language arts HSPA (much fewer than last year when 236 did). Of those 163, 151 are Black. We don’t know how many are White because the State suppresses the numbers of any subgroup when there’s so few kids that they could be identified. 72 of the 163 are categorized as Economically Disadvantaged. Anyway, here’s the data:

Moorestown High has a District Factor Grouping (DFG) of I, an socio-economic rating on a scale from A-J. Willingboro is a CD.

Moorestown language arts HSPA scores:
Partially Proficient: 4.4% Proficient: 80% Advanced Proficient: 15.5%
Willingboro language arts HSPA scores:
Partially Proficient: 41.7% Proficient: 57.7% Advanced Proficient: 0.6%
Moorestown math HSPA scores:
Partially Proficient: 6.1% Proficient: 46.4% Advanced Proficient: 47.5%
Willingboro math HSPA scores:
Partially Proficient: 63.3% Proficient: 34.7% Advanced Proficient: 1.9%

Moorestown SAT scores: 584 Verbal, 565 Math
Willingboro SAT scores: 405 Verbal, 409 Math

Advanced Placement courses in Moorestown:
22 courses offered, 17% participation rate among 11th and 12th graders, 284 test scores higher than 3.
Advanced Placement courses in Willingboro:
8 courses offered, 3.6% participation rate among 11th and 12th graders, 1 test score higher than 3.

Moorestown percentage of students who graduate via the HSPA: 97.1%
Willingboro percentage of students who graduate via the HSPA: 55.2%
Moorestown percentage of students who graduate via the SRA*: 4.3%
Willingboro percentage of students who graduate via the SRA*: 36.6%
Percentage of Moorestown students who go to college: 94%
Percentage of Willingboro students who go to college: 62%

*SRA=Special Review Assessment, a test given to children who fail the HSPA 3 times. No one fails the SRA.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Thursday Tautology

Scholastic’s Administrator Magazine includes four views on whether states should raise charter school caps. One administrator queried is Bernard Pierorazio, superintendent of Yonkers Public Schools in New York, whose comments are worth reading in full:
Instead of increasing charter schools, let’s learn from what they do well. What is the attraction of charter schools for parents? Why is the federal government bullying states into increasing the charter school cap in the recent Race to the Top legislation? The attraction is a rigorous core curriculum that challenges all students; a support staff that cares about children; an extended daily learning schedule and a year-round program; smaller class size; parental involvement; dynamic school leaders who use data and have empathy for children; and, most importantly, an instructional staff that disaggregates data, individualizes learning, and consistently evaluates student progress through formative assessments.

Urban school superintendents across this nation struggle to implement the same goals as charter schools on a daily basis but are thwarted time and again by the well-negotiated but adult-centered rules imposed by organized labor, as well as state and city governmental financial constraints that cause an annual disruption to education. Unions must become cognizant of the big picture. Teacher evaluation based on student success must be woven into every contractual agreement. Tenure rules must be reexamined to enable retraining and dismissal of continuously unsatisfactory teachers. Commensurate salaries and recognition of master teachers must also be part of every negotiated agreement. In addition, a longer school day and an elongated school year, including a robust early childhood program, must be part of every large urban district. This is how we make our public schools system strong and keep our students in it.
Mr. Pierorazio’s conclusions are correct: teacher union leaders and governmental bodies thwart educational improvements by resisting effective innovations piloted in charter schools, like extended learning schedules, tenure reform, and merit pay. But how can one argue that, therefore, we should limit charter school seats and implement those reforms that, by his own description, can’t be implemented because of institutional resistance?

New Jersey’s “Private Public Schools”

Today's New York Times features a report just out from the Fordham Institute that surveys public schools that serve no poor students, and New Jersey is the worst offender: “about one-quarter of New Jersey’s white and Asian students attended the 402 wealthy schools, compared with 2 percent of black students and 3 percent of Hispanic students.” Comments Derrell Bradford of E3, “What I find very frustrating is that this state masquerades as one where integration by race and economic opportunity are important. When you look at this study, you realize the reality is 180 degrees away from that.”

One solution? Expanding our Interdistrict School Choice program, now sitting before the Legislature. Another? Expanding charter schools that serve more than one district so that students in both wealthy and impoverished communities can choose to be educated in an integrated and diverse environment.

NJ Left Behind's “Surplus Drill-Down” is “highly suspect if not outright bogus"

Ouch. That’s Dr. Bruce Baker’s assessment of our analysis of Gov. Christie’s seizure of school district surplus to garner $475 million to help plug up this year’s budget deficit. Dr. Baker bases his slap-down on the (true) fact that we haven’t taken into account district size: “larger districts take in larger surpluses,” so our conclusions are unfair because Abbott/poor districts are taking the biggest hit even though “Abbott districts seem to be carrying somewhat smaller per pupil surpluses.”

A couple of points. First of all, surplus is generally used to buy down tax increases. Typically a district will take a chunk out of surplus at budget time and apply it to the bottom line, just like someone buys down points on home mortgages to lower the interest. Abbott districts don’t need to buy down tax increases because school costs are almost completely covered by State aid. Example: Union City has a total operating budget for the 2009-2010 school year of $193,988,694. However, the total tax levy – the amount of taxes collected from local residents – is only $15,418,637. That’s less than 8%, and rightfully so, because the poverty level in Union City is so high. The point is that this district doesn’t need the surplus to drive down local property taxes. Let’s take another example: Hamilton School District in Mercer County, with a DFG of FG. Hamilton’s total operating budget is $178,812,981 and the amount of tax levy collected from residents is $92,579,869. That’s more than 50%. One can certainly make the argument that Hamilton needs more money in surplus to buy down the tax rate. Yet Union City has a surplus of over $29,000,000 and Hamilton has a surplus of about $3,500,000. (Here's the link to our surplus spreadsheet.)

Dr. Baker also avers that larger districts, generally poor urban ones, need bigger surpluses because they have more kids, i.e., on a per pupil basis their surpluses are smaller. Union City’s total public school population is 9,730 students and Hamilton’s is 13,015.

Our more important point in the original post was not that Abbott districts get too much state aid. The point was that the children within these districts present with enormous educational, social, and developmental needs. State aid should not be shoved into surplus lines but spent on the kids. There’s something screwy with a system that allots equalization aid intended to compensate for poverty, yet districts relegate substantial portions of that aid into a surplus account.

Here’s a question for Dr. Baker: how does per pupil surplus vary by district size? Is there a difference between Abbotts and non-Abbotts of comparable size?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Quote of the Day

An ex-School Board member from Hamilton Township had almost as much fun writing this op ed in the Trenton Times as his audience will have reading about the breath-taking degree of nepotism in this Mercer County school district. Entitled "Everything is Relative," George W. Fisher, tongue firmly in cheek, espouses his esteem for this "exclusive patronage pool," a veritable "family welfare system is in the making:"
Nevertheless, I feel compelled to express publicly my admiration of the district's ability to engineer its version of relativity into a family support system . A greater utopia I am hard-pressed to imagine. Let me offer supporting facts. In 2003, only one of the nine members of the board had any relatives working in the district. He had three, so he might be regarded as a pioneer of the project. By 2008, five members were relative-on-board, with a total of seven employed in the district. In 2009, while the number of members with family in-district dropped to four, the total of employed relatives remained at six. Meanwhile, the superintendent and two assistants were also nurturing the value of paid family togetherness. In 2003, they contributed five relatives to the district; by 2009, the number had doubled to 10.

The Asbury Park Press Agrees With Us:

Gov. Christie’s proposed cuts in school aid hit poor urban districts the hardest: “About $126 million, or 25 percent of the total cuts, come from the state's poorest.” The Press story, based on an Associated Press analysis (did they use our spreadsheet?) fails to note that, while most of the seized surplus does come from Abbott districts, questions remain about why these districts were able to accumulate millions of unused state aid in the first place. See yesterday's story here.

Speaking of the Wrath of NJEA's Leadership,

the head honchos in the Trenton office are hitting back fearlessly against Gov. Christie's school aid cuts and the new pension and benefits reforms currently making their way through the Legislature. Here's a radio ad that's been running on 101.5 which berates Christie for "going back to the old Trenton ways of doing things" with "politicians blaming teachers" by "cutting school programs and raising property taxes." And here's the full-frontal assault on four bills that amount to “the Legislature…attempting to saddle working families with the burden of closing New Jersey’s budget gap.” The four bills cited are S-2, which would eliminate defined-benefit pension plans for future part-time employees”; S-3, which would require teachers to contribute 1.5% of their salaries towards benefits; S-4, which would cap sick leave compensation at $15,000; and SCR-1, which would allow the State to take 7 years to fully fund the pension fund.

NJ: Charter School Purgatory

The Record offers at timely look at the NJ’s (in)ability to promote charter school expansion, an important option for children stuck in chronically failing urban districts (as well as a requirement for Race To The Top funds). It’s one of our political hot-buttons, subject to wrath from the leadership at NJEA, as well as many local school boards. The piece gets at the heart of the pokey growth of charters in NJ: our lack of state funding for facilities.

We’ve had a charter school law for 15 years, yet enroll only 22,000 children in them out of a total public school population of 1.4 million. A new “fast-track” process put into effect by Gov. Corzine will result in only 3 new charter schools in September, in spite of the fact that there are 11,000 kids on waiting lists. Says The Record,
The biggest stumbling block is the lack of money for buildings.
In Newark, some charter schools hope they can use vacant space within existing public school buildings. Other groups have found homes in former Catholic schools, church basements and converted warehouses, borrowing to make renovations.
"Districts get their schools for free," [Rick] Pressler, [interim director of the state association of charter schools]. Pressler said. "We have to pay a mortgage or rent."
How do other states with healthy charter school growth manage the facilities issue? According to the Education Commission of the States, 40 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have charter school laws. About 75% of them provide facilities funding or some sort of financial assistance for facilities, while we stand proud with such diehards as Arkansas, Kansas, Puerto Rico, Texas, and Mississippi. (Okay: also Maryland and Iowa and Oregon.) For example, in Massachusetts facilities funding is embedded into the tuition formula for commonwealth charters. In Pennsylvania “the state department of education calculates an approved reimbursable annual rental charge for leases of buildings or portions of buildings for charter school use.” In Delaware, “school districts must make unused buildings or space in buildings available for charter schools and must bargain in good faith over the cost of rent, services and maintenance related to such space.”

If New Jersey is serious about education reform, then Gov. Christie and Commissioner Schundler will join the majority of the nation in facilitating the growth of charter schools by providing aid for buildings. The other option? Toss out the Race To The Top application and leave 11,000 kids spinning their wheels in schools like Camden High.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Surplus Drill-Down

Following Gov. Christie’s Budget address last week, the State published a PDF file listing by county each of our 591 school districts. This is a convenient and welcome release since Christie’s intention is to proportionately tie the loss of state aid to 100% of the district’s surplus, plus a few dabs from reserve funds. Therefore, one can view each line in the State file used to arrive at the district’s liability. Each line includes the following information: District Factor Grouping (DFG), Excess Surplus, Capital and Maintenance Emergency Funds, April and June Projected Fund balances, Total Surplus, Total State Aid, Excess Surplus Withholding, Total Withholding, and Remaining Payments Withheld. To put it more elegantly, it’s a doozy.

In the interest of utility, we’ve converted it to a spreadsheet, so have fun and share your insights and questions. Here’s a few to get us started:

Top Ten School Districts in the “Excess Surplus Withholding Category:
Union City ($26,313,800); Perth Amboy ($15,155,778); Newark City ($10,373,157); Vineland ($13,143,132); Paterson ($10,308,731); Union Township ($9,122554); East Orange ($7,969,516); Camden City ($5,050,022); Pennsauken ($5,648,866); Atlantic City ($6,371,707).

These districts are all Abbott districts with an DFG of A, except for Union Township, listed as a DE, and Pennsauken, listed as a CD. Gov. Christie needed $475 million. Over 20% of that came from hitting these ten mostly poor districts, whose total excess surplus withholding topped $109 million. Or, 2% of our districts (10 out of 591) held 20% of our surplus.

Question: within these districts reside extremely needy kids. Why is this money in surplus – intended to be rolled over to next year’s budget – rather than used for additional services right now?
Question: are we giving these districts more money than can realistically/productively be used for supplementary services?
Question: Most of these districts post dismal achievement scores, though Union City – with an astounding surplus of $26 million –shows improvement. One difference between Union City and the others is that its school day is considerably longer than the others on the Top Ten list. (The state average for a high school day is 6 hours and 51 minutes. Union City tops them all at 7 hrs and 50 min., while the other are anywhere from 6 hrs. and 25 min. [Atlantic City] to 6 hrs. and 39 min. [Paterson].) In other words, Union City offers its kids almost 5 more hours of school per week than other comparable districts. Has this link been explored?

Outliers: Union City has $26,316,916 in Total Withholding. If we’re badgering them too much, take Perth Amboy: $15,260,039 in Total Withholding. Now look at Trenton City. Total Withholding: $0. What’s up with that? It’s still owed $66 million by the state, but does Trenton truly have not a penny in reserve accounts?

Baby Steps for Interdistrict Choice

Our restricted interdistrict school choice program is set to be unfettered this week if the Assembly Education Committee gets with the program. NJ’s Interdistrict Program, which allows students in rotten schools to transfer, if invited, to schools in neighboring districts, has been on extended life support since the pilot program died in 2005. (See our posts here and here.) The new bill to be considered this Thursday, according to the A.P., would revive the Interdistrict Program, though it’s unclear if legislators will concur with Gov. Christie’s Transition Team’s recommendations and expand the horizons of this well-conceived yet handicapped program, which limits school choice within a county to volunteer (and sometimes unsuitable) districts. Yet it’s a start and we applaud.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Troubling piece in the Courier Post, which reports that test scores of Camden High’s students were suppressed last year because they were so bad: "Two years ago, 87 percent of Camden High's students taking the High School Proficiency Assessment math test failed it. Last year, however, no data was reported by the state. The reason the state didn't report the result is because more than 90 percent of the students who took the exam failed it. And, “To contrast this, 90 percent of students in the neighboring school district, in Cherry Hill High School West, passed the test. The figure is higher at Cherry Hill East, which had 93 percent of its students pass the test.”

New Jersey Newsroom again mistakes an NJEA press release for a legitimate news story.

The Record
defends Gov. Christie's spending cuts: "We agree with the governor, that these are difficult times and that rainy day funds are needed when it is raining all over New Jersey. We urge all New Jerseyans to not be taken in by the hysteria sure to surface that public education will be irrevocably damaged. Christie is proposing a solution to the current budget shortfall. It may be a precursor of where he may go in developing a budget for next year, but the governor is correct: New Jersey does not have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem."

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board says that Gov. Christie’s proposed pension and benefits reform doesn’t go far enough.

The Asbury Park Press grades the NJ School Report Cards and gives them a “ solid B,” mainly faulting the lack of context and a clumsy database: "If an overview had been provided this year, it should have noted that spending on the public schools in 2008-09 rose another 7.9 percent and explained why. It should have mentioned that the composite SAT score went up for the third straight year and, for the sake of perspective, pointed out that it remained below the national average, again offering reasons for why. It should have addressed the school funding equity issue, and analyzed the impact of former Gov. Jon Corzine's changes in the funding formula."

The Record points out that some Morris County superintendents are getting perks disallowed under new regulations because are in the midst of multi-year contracts. (Raises the question of how Gov. Christie could freeze teacher salaries, including those in the midst of multi-year contracts.)

A new organization is advocating for merging municipalities and school districts. Courage to Connect NJ, strives to show "the richness and diversity of New Jersey and how we can keep that diversity without separate costly governments."

Friday, February 12, 2010

Politicians and Pundits Respond to Christie's Education Cuts

Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono on Gov. Christie's plan to force school districts to use surpluses in lieu of state aid when that money would typically go back to residents in the form of property tax relief: "It's a solution to the budget crisis that falls disproportionately on the backs of middle-class homeowners, which is something I can't support."

Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney
: "So much for a handshake. Governing by executive order and keeping plans secret until the last minute is not bipartisanship.''

Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. on Christie's plans to cut state aid to schools: "Democrats were able last year to increase school aid even as we slashed the state budget, so Gov. Christie's plan to cut resources for our schools and children is the wrong approach for our state. New Jerseyans have long had a shared commitment to the nearly 1.5 million children in our public schools, but Gov. Christie's approach steers us in a different direction."

Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger:
"Like Julius Caesar himself, the new governor came to the Legislature Wednesday and issued his decrees to balance the budget. You had to wonder why he wasn’t wearing a toga. "This is not a monarchy," said Sen. Barbara Buono, the budget chairwoman. "That’s now how you govern, with edicts. This was martial law. He’s made things much more adversarial now."

Education Commissioner Bret Schundler on how Christie can justify cutting state aid in spite of fiscal conundrums just handed off to local school boards, courtesy of Paul Mulshine: "We’ll give them tools to avoid tax hikes," Schundler said of the school boards. It sounded nice, like a trip to Home Depot. But you can buy a screwdriver in one aisle and a chainsaw a few aisles over. Schundler didn’t say which tool he was recommending. And with Schundler, the press doesn’t want to get him started anyway. Ask a question and you get a dissertation."

John Bury in the Star-Ledger on why it's not unconstitutional to cut back previously-negotiated pension benefits to public employees: "Funding pensions is a little like promising your kid that you'll send them to Princeton. You estimate how much it will cost in 15 years to pay the tuition and you begin setting money aside. Are you still obligated to send your kid to Princeton even if you have to sell the house and live in debt-induced poverty for the rest of your life? What about UCC?"

Alfred Dobin: "The only conclusion I can come to after reading reactions by both union and Democratic leaders (I know that is redundant) to Governor Christie’s Thursday address to a joint session of the Legislature is that the Golden Age of bipartisanship in Trenton has come to an end. I must have blinked and missed it. Damn."

The Record Editorial Board: "We urge all New Jerseyans to not be taken in by the hysteria sure to surface that public education will be irrevocably damaged. Christie is proposing a solution to the current budget shortfall. It may be a precursor of where he may go in developing a budget for next year, but the governor is correct: New Jersey does not have a revenue problem; it has a spending problem."

Quote of the Day

RiShawn Biddle, editor of the education blog Dropout Nation and the co-author of A Byte At the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post NCLB Era, discusses the changing dynamics between the public and leaders of NJEA as the state budget collapses under the weight of hefty entitlements:
New Jersey taxpayers know all too well about the high cost of the array of generous defined-benefit pensions, employer-subsidized healthcare plans, job protections and degree- and seniority-based pay scales struck by states, districts and locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. The Garden State's Teachers' Pension and Annuity Fund offers annual payouts that can be equal to as much as 72.7 percent of average annual compensation, even as taxpayers wrangle with how to pay down $43 billion in pension deficits and unfunded retiree healthcare benefits (as of the 2006-2007 fiscal year). This is partly why the average retired teacher in New Jersey collected $34,643.48 in the 2007-2008 fiscal year (the last year available), 59-percent more than their public-sector counterparts elsewhere.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

NJEA on Christie's Budget Remarks: "Path to Educational Ruin"

Here's the full text of NJEA's response.

Advanced Placement Inequity

More and more kids are taking Advanced Placement tests: the Record reports today that 25.1% of New Jersey’s high school class of 2009 took the tests and 18% of those kids scored 3 or higher. However, “minority participation rates and scores continue to lag behind those of white students.”

Let’s examine that a bit more closely. We took two schools in Mercer County: West Windsor/ Plainsboro North and Trenton Central High. West Windsor Plainsboro has 1567 kids in grades 9-12 and in the school year 2008-2009 1,172 took AP courses. (Some of those kids took more than one AP course, and get counted more than once.) 782 children took the AP tests and 692 scored 3 or higher. Ethnic breakdown? Hard to say. NCLB requires disaggregated data, but requires 40 children at a minimum for a subgroup. West Windsor-Plainsboro North doesn’t qualify in the categories of African-American, Hispanic, or Economically Disadvantaged.

Meanwhile, 9 and a half miles down Route 1 at Trenton Central High, 72 children out of a 9-12 population of 2,356 took AP classes. 58 took the AP tests and 11 scored 3 or higher. Again, we can’t address the ethnic breakdown referred to in the Record piece because there are not enough White kids to count as a subgroup in the NCLB disaggregated data.

Live-Blogging Christie's Budget Address

  • NJ has a $2 billion gap in this year's budget: fiscal year 2010.
  • Ex-Gov. Corzine's budget projected a 5% growth in sales tax revenue this year (huh?).
  • "Today we give change...not a happy moment...defenders of the status quo will start chattering as soon as I leave this chamber...Today's the day for the complaining to end and the statesmanship to begin."
  • All state spending gets frozen today.
  • "NJ does not have a revenue problem... Trenton's addiction to spending and higher taxes is the road to ruin...We must and we will shrink our government."
  • Pension and benefit costs are the major drivers of our state spending. Fortune 500 companies spend 40% less on health benefits than we do. Example: a retired teacher who has paid out $62K toward her pension and nothing towards her full medical benefits will receive back from the state $1.4 million in pension payments and $215K in health benefits.
  • The state's "special interests" are screaming the same word as my 9-year-old son's favorite word: unfair.
  • To legislators: Get pension and benefits on my desk before March 16th. Unlike "former governors," if you "do the right thing this governor will not pull the rug out from underneath you." "Come to the center of the room and be part of the solution." Stand up to special interests.
  • This year, school aid will be cut by $475 million. 500 districts will be affected. More than 100 districts will lose all their school aid for the year. Districts must make up the difference from their surplus funds. These cuts won't touch the classroom. (Hmm. They will next year.)
  • NJ must be "a home for growth as opposed to a fiscal basket case."
  • "Union defenders" are "self-interested and wrong."
  • In total, 375 different state programs will be cut.
  • "We don't have the money: you know it and I know it."
Update: Here's the full text of Christie's address, courtesy of PolitickerNJ.

Christie to Freeze Budget Surpluses This A.M.

At 10:30 this morning Gov. Christie will announce that NJ is in a fiscal state of emergency and he is freezing unspent money from this year's budget, including $475 million earmarked as aid to school districts. According to The Record, this freeze will primarily affect districts that have surpluses – i.e., districts that are run most efficiently and would, under normal circumstances, convert the surplus funds into tax relief.

Ex-Gov. Corzine was going to do this anyway, but planned to ask for legislative approval first. Gov. Christie won’t bother.

From the Asbury Park Press,
here’s NJSBA’s Frank Belluscio:
You look at the districts who would be paying for that, who would be losing their surplus, are those that have managed to get services or products at lower amounts than anticipated — those that were fiscally prudent. They felt that you might actually wind up being penalized by this. But the state has to look at preserving programs above all else in the current year and avoiding disruption mid-year."

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Did NJ's Cost-Per-Pupil Increase by 7.9% in 2009?

(That’s an average of $1,003 per child.)

1) Last year’s federal stimulus bill included $100 billion for education to mitigate the effects of the recession. This money was intended to last for two years but some states used up all the money this year. The New York Times reports that even though Ed Sec Arne Duncan “repeatedly warned states and districts to avoid spending the money in ways that could lead to dislocations when the gush of federal money came to an end,” some states disregarded that advice. New Jersey is part of that club. The Times piece quotes our very own Dr. Bruce Baker of Rutgers who predicts that “States are going to face a huge problem because they’ll have to find some way to replace these billions, either with cuts to their K-12 systems or by finding alternative revenues.” Bottom line: we spent more this year because we imprudently allocated federal funds and spent it all in one shot.

2) Teachers’ annual salary increases continued at an unabated 4.5% or so. Some districts reported slightly lower settlements – about a 4.3% range – but not enough to make a difference. Health benefits packages also saw big hikes and 86% of school employees in Jersey make no contributions.

3) Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act did in fact decrease aid to our poorest urban districts but increased aid to middle-wealth communities. There’s more of the latter than the former, so overall spending was up. However, as Dr. Baker points out in the Star-Ledger, the state didn’t fully fund its own formula; if it had, our per pupil costs would be even higher.

Quote of the Day

"We always get this question, when is too small, too small?"
That’s David Rauenzahn, chief school administrator in Avalon and Stone Harbor, responding to a question from the Star-Ledger about the total comparative cost per pupil in teeny-tiny districts like the ones he serves in Cape May County. Avalon, all of 77 kids, spends $32,384 for each one. Stone Harbor is a relative bargain with 80 kids and a cost per pupil of $23,698. Then, of course, there’s Sea Isle City Elementary with 66 kids and total cost per pupil of $35, 983. When is too small too small? Right now.

MSM Gets Spun

Okay, okay, we weren’t there. But here’s our best guess: after the NJDOE sent out a press release yesterday offering an call-in news conference with reporters regarding the release yesterday of the 2009 School Report Cards, lots of local Jersey papers took up the offer. Deputy Commissioner Willa Spicer (a hold-over from Corzine’s administration) explained how, while indeed cost per pupil is up 7.9%, this minor detail is overshadowed by the wonderful news that SAT scores are up too. Voila: almost every major daily in the state leads with this analysis.

Here’s the Trenton Times, the Star-Ledger, the Asbury Park Press, and the Courier Post, every last one led by the nose to an illogical lede. One paper saves the reputations of the others, however: the Record. This paper explains, “North Jersey students in affluent suburban high schools consistently had dramatically higher SAT scores on average than those in poor urban areas, the New Jersey School Report Card released Tuesday shows.” True enough. Rich kids do better on the SAT’s than poor kids, and that’s one of the reasons why more and more colleges make the standardized tests optional. Says Ada Beth Cutler, dean of education at Montclair State University, “I don’t think SAT scores reflect very much about schools themselves at all but rather the nature of the populations of the schools.”

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

It's All About Multi-Tasking

The NJ DOE released today its School Elections and Budget Procedures Calendar. Warning: it's tight. Gov. Christie gives his budget address -- and releases state aid numbers to school districts -- on March 16th. The following Monday, school budgets must be submitted to respective Executive County Superintendents, who have til Friday, March 26th, to approve them. Required public hearings on individual school district budgets are anywhere from March 26th to Saturday, April 3d. One teeny problem is that this is the week that many districts are on Spring Break, not to mention that Passover begins March 29th. Election date is April 20th.

2009 NJ School Report Cards Are In

Click here.

Some Friendly Advice to NJEA

When Chris Christie introduced his pension reform proposals yesterday, the reaction of the leadership of NJEA was fast and fierce. Within moments an email blast erupted into cyberspace, urgently instructing “parents and all citizens of New Jersey to not let the politicians use the people we all rely upon to educate our students as the scapegoats for their own irresponsibility.”

Well, one can understand NJEA's ire. The proposals, which seem likely to pass through the Senate and the Assembly (the Star-Ledger is reporting that each has more than enough votes) include

1) Requiring governmental workers and retirees (including school teachers) to contribute at least 1.5% of their annual salaries to their own health care costs.
2) Banning governmental part-time workers from participating in the state pension system and rolling back a 2001 pension increase of 9%.
3) Capping sick-leave payouts at $15,000 per employee.
4) Calculating pensions based on the last 5 highest years of salaries instead of the last three years.
5) Constitutionally requiring the state to fully fund its pension obligations every year.

Unreasonable? While the NJEA’s executives may answer “yes,” it probably makes perfect sense to the average New Jerseyan. Most people contribute far more than 1.5% to their health care and who could argue with a financially responsible state government prudently disinfecting its bloodied bond rating? While the NJEA execs and NJ government have had a special understanding for many years, recently that kinship has devolved into a rupture between the average Jersey Joe and a union that, well, is supposed to represent the average Jersey Joe. A large part of this dynamic is directly linked to a growing sense among the public that the leaders at NJEA project a sense of entitlement ill-suited for these stripped-down times.

Even the genteel Daily Record has this to say about the tendency of the NJEA leadership to overreach, specifically in regard to Bergenfield Public School District where the local union chapter is demanding an annual 4.5% raise, which is about average for recent settlements:
[T]axpayers fed up with rapidly escalating property taxes are by and large commenting that they’ve had enough. We understand. In fact in this space over the last half dozen years or so, we’ve cautioned members of the New Jersey Education Association, the parent organization of the various teachers’ unions, that they are in danger of losing their good name…What they don’t understand is that once public opinion turns, overcoming the inertia to get back in the public’s good graces takes a herculean effort. In their case, asking for 4.5-percent increase when roughly one in five working-age Americans are either unemployed and underemployed comes across as not just greedy but out of touch. Not only that but when these folks and others just barely getting by figure out that teacher contracts are generally structured by steps, many will be outraged…When fortune’s wheel turns, it’s hard to get back on top.
Well, you can’t really blame the NJEA. Their heads must be reeling. Just three years ago, in February 2007 NJEA President Joyce Powell (now promoted to the NEA Executive Committee) and NJEA Vice President Barbara Keshishian (now promoted to NJEA President) assured “NJEA Leaders” that newspaper reports claiming that NJEA had reached an agreement with the State on stalling key changes to members’ pensions and benefits were “accurate.” They continue in this missive,

You will recall that last December bills were introduced that would have made major changes to the pension and health benefits of current and future retirees. Gov. Corzine asked the Legislature to withdraw them because he believed they should be negotiated at the bargaining table.

Three years can be a lifetime in politics. With the State’s announcement yesterday, Gov. Christie manages to gracefully evade the contention that the state is interfering with contractual bargaining agreements by fading in the 1.5% employee contribution as contracts expire. Sure, it’s a ham-handed swipe at bargaining table balletics, but the mass of Garden Staters seem ready for a change in their dance card. They’re rolling their eyes at comments, also from today’s Star-Ledger piece, from Bill Lipkin, President of the New Jersey State Federation of Teachers, typically regarded as the less militant union. Insists Lipkin, teacher benefits packages – sans contributions – are fair: “It’s not really a perk, it’s part of their income — part of when they decided, ‘I’m going to become a teacher, I’m going to make $35,000 a year.” But here’s the problem with that argument: people know that teachers make more than $35,000 per year, and it’s an easy fact-check. (Here’s a data base from NJEA titled “$40K Minimum Salary.)

We’re smart here in Jersey. The leadership of NJEA should know this by now; the teachers certainly do. Here’s some suggestions to regain that bally-hooed position on the top of fortune’s wheel: smile nicely and suck up the concessions. Local school boards will be more likely to continue annual increases in the 4-5% range if they know their teachers are making meaningful contributions to healthcare benefits and you’ll come out ahead, both in regards to finances and reputation.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Close Down Camden High

The Courier-Post is in high dudgeon over managerial misdoings at Camden City Public Schools. According to the paper, Superintendent Bessie LeFra Young is defending charges of excessive teacher absenteeism by “saying to Camden parents not to worry about [it] because it might not be true; the district keeps poor records and can't verify that things are as bad as the story laid out.” On top of that, the district has a history, some predating Young’s tenure, of being unaccountable to tax payers, misusing state funds, and tolerating poor building security that puts students at risk.

Let’s look more closely at the state of Camden schools, specifically Camden High. Home rule be damned: State coffers fund 90% of school costs and every resident in NJ has an interest in whether the mostly impoverished kids in Camden are getting a fair educational shake. With an annual budget of about $360 million dollars for the city’s schools and a new high school construction project slated to cost $120 million for the 1500 kids at Camden High, what kind of academic experience are we paying for?

Camden High’s graduation rate is 49%. The state average is 92.8%. 23% of Camden High’s students can pass the HSPA, a middle-school level test required for graduation. The state average is 89.2%. Average attendance for Camden High’s 10th-graders is 69%. The state average is 93.8%. Camden High offers no Advanced Placement courses and the average SAT scores are 344 in math and 346 in verbal. Fewer than 20% of graduates go on to college. It’s hard to get exact numbers but cost per pupil is around $18,000 per year.

There are 1500 kids stuck in this hothouse for failure. A mile and a half away, however, sits Camden Academy Charter High School. The graduation rate is 100%. 68.7% pass the HSPA. Average attendance for 10th graders is 93%. There are 6 A.P. courses offered, although SAT scores are only 383 in math and 375 in verbal. 90% of Camden Academy’s graduates go to college. Annual cost per pupil is $12,501, which includes facilities upkeep because NJ doesn’t contribute to charter school buildings. There are hundreds of students on the waiting list.

How bad does it have to get for the State to shut down Camden High and let a reputable charter school operator take over? How long do those kids have to wait?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Out Tomorrow: Teachers Must Contribute to Health Care Benefits

The Star-Ledger is reporting that tomorrow Gov. Christie will announce major pension and benefit reforms that will affect all public employees, including school teachers. The proposals include requiring all local school district employees to contribute at least 1.5% of their annual salaries to health care costs. Pensions would be calculated based on factoring in the highest five years of salary instead of the current three years to determine pension pay-outs, sick leave would be capped at $15,000, and part-time school employees would be enrolled in defined-contribution plans. In addition, the government would put up for voter approval a constitutional amendment requiring the State to fully fund its pension obligations in each year’s budget.

The NJEA had no immediate comment.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Big question for fiscally functional school districts: is the State going to seize our carefully nurtured surplus funds? Senate President Steve Sweeney tells Today’s Sunbeam “no,” but Gov. Christie is “examining the proposal.”

Woodbridge Public Schools has to slash $5-10 million from its budget, and a logical first step, according to some community members (and several other school districts struggling with current budget mayhem), may be privatizing cafeteria workers. But the current Board members were elected through support of the local union and are loathe to antagonize members, prompting Superintendent John Crowe to remark, "I simply cannot look at this and say we are going to remove Gifted and Talented arts, family programs, administrators, certified staff while we then say support services have to stay."

The Times of Trenton
looks at some local Mercer County districts who are also struggling to construct budgets: "At the center of officials' concerns are three main questions: Will state aid be cut, will the state's tax levy cap change and will schools be forced to use excess surplus to make up for aid gaps?

The Record examines school funding in the Essex County district of Montclair, which was the site of a forum underwritten by the NJ League of Municipalities. Montclair administrators say the School Funding Formula rewards large poor urban districts at the expense of suburban communities.

Joining escalating attacks on the School Funding Formula is the editorial board of My Central Jersey, which says that Corzine had the right idea but didn’t go far enough because the system still awards aid unevenly.
While the Corzine formula was an improvement, it was deeply flawed because the administration was too anxious to keep too many districts at least somewhat happy as Corzine kept an eye on re-election possibilities. Spread the money as widely as possible, give everyone at least something, and the potential is there for more votes
More and more high schools in NJ (and elsewhere) receive “need improvement” status because of the failing test scores of children with disabilities. The Daily Record looks at seven schools in Morris County who fail into that category, and the difficulties inherent in evaluating academic achievement for kids who are held to the same bar regardless of special needs.

Diane D'amico of the Press of Atlantic City counters charter school advocates by arguing that plenty of charters fail: "Christie and Schundler have an obligation to parents and taxpayers to make sure any alternative they propose is based on more than political rhetoric."

Friday, February 5, 2010

Fact-Checking the NJEA

After Gov. Christie’s Education Subcommittee’s recommended that the Legislature reinstall the ability of school boards to use the practice of “last, best offer” during negotiation impasses, NJEA spokesman Steve Baker told the Philadelphia Inquirer,
Before the law to disallow the practice - passed during the McGreevey administration - strikes were not uncommon, education association spokesman Steve Baker said. Since then, he said, "we've settled every contract at the table."
Hmmm. The NJ Legislature in its wisdom rescinded the right of school boards to resolve intractable impasses through “last, best offer” in 2003. According to the Journal of Collective Negoiations, a thirty-year profile of teacher strikes in NJ through 1999 “demonstrates that the number and severity of teacher strikes has systematically declined. The author suggests that this long term decline in strike activity is at least partially explained by the maturation of the system and its participants.”

In other words, before the approval of "School Employees Contract Resolution and Equity Act" teacher strikes in NJ were hardly “not uncommon” but, in fact, already a rarity. And the New Jersey School Boards Association noted in 2001 (while it was fighting – unsuccessfully – against approval of the Act) that “implementation [of last, best offer] has occurred less than a dozen times during the 33 years of collective bargaining in New Jersey schools and only under strict standards applied by the Public Employment Relations Commission.”

We don’t fault the NJEA leadership on lobbying hard for its local units to have the competitive edge at the bargaining table. That's its job. But do they have to misconstrue history while they’re at it?

In “How Unions Work”

Megan McArdle argues that teacher unions kill initiatives to tie compensation to performance because
unions are always going to be looking for the simplest, least subjective metrics by which to measure their members. Furthermore, they will be looking for metrics which are not under the control of the other side. The school board cannot change how many years you have in service, or whether or not you have a degree. But it can change the curriculum, or the tests… Unions are set up to minimize frictions and maximize benefits for the bottom 55%. That's how they work everywhere--in schools, and out. That's how they have to work. No amount of cajoling, no number of white papers, is going to change that.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Education Law Center's Field of Dreams

The Education Law Center (ELC), NJ’s preeminent defender of poor urban schoolchildren, has just issued another in its series of upbeat press releases, this one devoted to the “four most pressing challenges of the coming year”: fair school funding, effective school reform, preschool expansion and school construction. Consistent, right? These goals square perfectly with ELC’s agenda of equalizing school funding across the state, providing extra services intended to ameliorate the disadvantages of poverty, and refurbishing or rebuilding school facilities on a par with those in wealthier neighborhoods. GO 4 in 2010! (That’s actually the title of the press release.)

Here’s the disconnect: ELC has been defending the educational rights of poor children since 1973. One would think that this hoary-haired warrior should be a big player in the educational reform movement gathering momentum in Jersey and elsewhere, sharing strategy with groups like E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone, Peter Denton and Derrell Bradford's group) and EEP (Educational Equality Project, much in the news yesterday). ELC should fit right in, and not just orthographically.

But it doesn’t. ELC is steadfastly rooted in an obsolete paradigm for reform that clashes with current models and with federal priorities expressed through Race to The Top and impending ESEA reauthorization. Once a fiercely independent advocacy group, it’s evolved into an equally fierce defender of a status quo that has been failing poor children in NJ for decades and segregating them from wealthier and higher-performing districts.

“Go 4 in 2010” centers its rhetoric on ELC’s most recent setback, the passage of Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act. SFRA overturned the 1990 Abbott v. Burke Supreme Court decision that ruled that the education of our poorest children must be funded at the same level of our wealthiest children. It’s a twist on the Field of Dreams’ mantra, “if you build it they will come.” Abbott v. Burke says, “if you fund it they will succeed,” reducing educational inequity to dollars. Decades of U.S. educational history shows this to be a pipe dream. Despite vast amounts of money spent on extra services and facilities, the traditional public schools in our poorest cities stink. Trenton Central High, an Abbott district, is in its 7th year of School In Need of Improvement status. And just today Rodney Lofton, Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, issued this news: “In the coming weeks, all security staff will be trained to operate a high-tech Magna scanner for better detection of contraband. Students will be warned only once that electronic devices and weapons of any kind are not allowed in school and if found in their possession will be confiscated and disciplinary charges will be filed for noncompliance.”

This is the results of years of cash flow, the remedy that ELC relies upon. Despite the fact that this doesn’t work, ELC continues to salute the same paradigm just as the ed reform movement coalesces around an emphasis on school choice, merit pay, and data-driven instruction.

Let’s take charter schools, an important plank of ed reform’s slate. Here’s another recent press release from ELC that quotes an analysis by Dr. Bruce Baker:
But my analysis of the data paint a different story: some charters do well, but overall, charters are ranked among the lowest statewide, performing far below successful, suburban and middle class public schools, and at levels comparable to schools in poor districts.
(For a rebuttal, here’s Jessani Gordon’s “NJ Charters: A Worthy Option in Public Education.)

ELC’s disavowal of the potential of the charter school movement is a sentiment shared by NJEA, one of their primary funders. Yet charter schools offer an out-of-the-box opportunity for our most challenged kids. They cost less and are generally safer then, say, Trenton Central High.

Wouldn’t ELC serve its children better by moving away from a failed prototype that segregates children into chronically failing and unsafe traditional public schools? Why doesn’t this proud group advocate for increased school choice, for access to successful schools outside of urban centers, for merit pay, for increasing academic accountability? Its stalwart obsession on dollars instead of achievement undermines its original mission, casts suspicion on its alliance with NJEA, and limits its advocacy to obsolete principles out of step with the agenda of the education reform movement.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Soft Shoe of School Board/Union Negotiations

The Asbury Park Press slams the Marlboro Board of Education for taking a hard line with the local teachers union during contract negotiations and then, apparently, folding after two years of an escalating impasse. If only it were that simple.

Here’s how it works in N.J.: as the end of a typically-three-year contract approaches, a school board, represented by an attorney, and the local NJEA chapter, represented by NJEA reps, exchange proposals and proceed with negotiating everything from minor changes in contract language to salary increases and contributions (or not) to health benefits. If the two sides reach an impasse (usually once they hit salary and benefits, but sometimes over a seemingly insurmountable semantic technicality), they call in a state-appointed mediator who proposes a compromise. If one or both sides reject the compromise, they go to a state-appointed fact-finder who recommends a settlement. (Here's Marlboro's fact-finder's report.) If that doesn’t work, they go to someone called a super conciliator, who writes up a lengthy resolution to the impasse. None of these interventions are binding.

Once upon a time in N.J. (as is still the case in many other states) school boards could exercise a “last, best offer” to avoid strikes after exhausting mediation remedies. According to a report from the Public Employment Relations Commission, this happened 11 times between 1977-2003, or once every 3 years. Not too shabby, given our 600 or so school districts. However, in 2003 the NJ Legislature in its wisdom passed the "School Employees Contract Resolution and Equity Act," a bill heavily backed by NJEA, that took the option of “last, best offer” off the table. This legislator-as-lapdog dynamic leads to predicaments like in Marlboro, where negotiations drag on for years, frustrating whole communities not to mention schoolchildren and teachers. In Marlboro, the school board took the unusual step of publicly explaining its proposals, which included a $950 annual contribution toward health care benefits and a 13% salary hike over three years. The union’s position was a 15% salary increase over three years and no employee contribution towards healthcare. At its most fierce moment, the school board solicited substitute teachers in anticipation of a strike.

In a letter posted on the district’s website, the Marlboro board president tried to explain why the final settlement – a five-year contract with annual salary increases between 4.1-4.5% and an agreement from the union to switch to a cheaper health plan without any employee contributions– is a good deal. (In some ways, he’s right: the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association reports that as of this past August the average salary increase in 2009-10 contracts was 4.47 percent.) He notes parenthetically,
The large presence of NJEA representatives at the bargaining table [is] something I have never seen during by 20 year tenure.
The negotiations in Marlboro were watched attentively by other NJ school boards: if members take a hard line towards a local chapter of NJEA – working the press, publishing points of contention, lining up substitutes in anticipation of a strike – can boards prevail in winning concessions? Marlboro tells us “no.” In many ways the whole union/local board negotiation process in N.J. is a Kabuki dance, a set piece with predetermined posturing and pirouettes. How rational is a settlement over 4% when school district budgets are capped at 4% (possibly 3%, if rumors circulating Trenton are credible)?

So, how can we make this stylized process meaningful?

1) Restore “last, best offer” as a tool for resolving contractual disputes.
2) Conduct negotiations on a county-wide or regional basis to level the playing field.
3) Mandate public employee health-care contributions.

Is the Legislature serious about lowering property taxes for NJ taxpayers? Marlboro’s saga tells us that local volunteer school boards can’t control school costs without a little help from our lawmakers.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

NJ's "Sham Reform"

Kevin Huffman in the Washington Post
(hat tip: Schoolfinance101) has this to say on NJ’s RTTT application:
While the bumblers have made headlines, the heart of the administration's education agenda lies in the distinction between real and sham reform. Take New Jersey's Race to the Top application. The Garden State promises it will adopt new standards for students, change its data systems, provide teachers with computers for to-be-determined activities and convene a commission to devise a new teacher evaluation system.

But beyond all the promises, predicated on various commissions and boards miraculously completing complex political activities, there is little chance of reform trickling down to schools. The state asked school districts to sign on, but it gave them the option of signing on only to the pieces they liked. As a result, school district commitments to enact reform are a hodgepodge of assorted activities.

I'm picking on New Jersey not because it has the worst plan (it doesn't) but because it so perfectly embodies the old way of applying for federal education funding -- lots of promises and ideas; little chance of change on the ground.
Huffman’s criticism is fair. Our RTTT plan is earnest and well-intentioned, an essence of vapid milquetoast that’s heavy on the buzzwords and tepid on substantive change. This is in large part because the reforms itemized in our application rely on the monolithic DOE for implementation of everything from professional development to internal data assessments. It’s trickle-down reform, which has its place, but not without strong implementation prospects on the ground. Admit it: everyone you know is rolling their eyes before we even hit the track. Sure, we’ll cheer for charter schools, as long as we all agree that 11,000 kids on waiting lists is acceptable. We’ll wear the colors of interdistrict school choice, as long as we establish that the program is at capacity, with no plans for growth. With dignified demeanor, we’ll stand silent as only 20 out of 591 local leaders of NJEA express support for federal education aid while 571 turn their backs.

Our triumph in completing the RTTT application is that we made sham reform look respectable.

Teachers’ Salaries Have Either 1) Gone Down or 2) Gone Up

First NEA put out a press release claiming that “inflation over the past decade has outpaced teachers' salaries in every state across the country.” Bloggers pounced on NEA’s data and arrived at a different conclusion; in fact, teacher salaries rose at a rate of 3.4% over the last ten years and faster than the rate of inflation in 36 states.

No problem. A new press release is out today qualifying the original claim. Inflation has outpaced teachers salaries in “many states,” as the average rose “only 3.4%.”

NEA’s full report, which lists NJ as one of the 6 states where salaries declined 5% of more. On the other hand, a report from less inflammatory and error-prone sister-union AFT reports that NJ teachers have the 3d highest salaries in the countries, closely following Connecticut and California.