Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why Didn’t N.J. Make the First RTTT Cut?

Here's The Record's list of reasons why our first Race To The Top application was rejected:
* It was unclear whether county offices, instruction specialists and the New Jersey education department had the "capacity, knowledge and skills necessary" to support districts in making major changes.
* The application did not show how teacher evaluations would affect promotions.
* The state did not maintain data to show which teachers were highly effective.
* The state lacked a plan for removing ineffective principals, cutting the number of ineffective teachers and making sure an equitable share of talented faculty worked in high-poverty schools
While we were praised for Trenton’s “thoughtful reform agenda, investment in early education, support for charter schools and national core standards, the fix was in because of lack of support from NJEA. Reviewers commented, “The overwhelming lack of support among labor has the real and credible possibility to weaken the state’s reform agenda." In fact, the two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, were able to solicit union buy-in, and many attribute their success to this accomplishment.

The Wall St. Journal calls foul: “By giving unions and school boards such a huge sway over grant money, the Administration is saying that union buy-in matters as much or more than the nature of the reforms.” But here’s another point of view from Andy Smarick at Fordham’s Flypaper.
I’ve been going through state RTT scores, and based on what I’m seeing, I’m becoming convinced that states should refuse to capitulate to stakeholder demands to weaken their applications. I’m growing confident that states that put together bold proposals can win in the second round even if a significant number of their unions and districts refuse to sign on.
In other words, don’t water down initiatives like linking student assessment to teacher evaluations, expanding school choice, and closing down failing schools in order to garner support from NJEA’s execs. Keep focused on a strong, systemic reform agenda and don't pander to stakeholders determined to maintain the status quo. Counsels Smarick, “Don’t. Back. Down.”

An Abbott District Superintendent Explains It All

Speaking of our long history of correcting academic inequity through cash compensation, here’s Passaic Superintendent Robert Holster on how that remedy doesn’t work so well:
The spirit of Abbott (the state Supreme Court ruling that increased spending to the state's 31 poorest school districts) gave opportunity to give equity for kids, but I think it wasn't thought out enough for the past five years. And, I felt hostage to run required programs that to me didn't show or demonstrate the degree of improvement it should have. I always believe you need three things to have success in education: a highly qualified teacher, small classroom size — reasonable classroom size, especially with our kids — and resources. I think we got too big too fast and we took on more than we could handle. We exhausted not only our buildings, but we exhausted ourselves over the past seven, eight years.

Divining Christie's Fiscal Strategy

When Gov. Christie slashed $819 million in state school aid on March 16th he wasn’t simply trying to balance a budget. In one fell swoop, our fearless leader opted to tackle a slew of thorny problems that have stymied the effectiveness of public education in New Jersey for decades. If you live in Moorestown or Montgomery or Mahwah, one of our many well-to-do suburbs, then your school system gleams with high achievement and success. But if you live in Camden or Trenton or Willingboro, your school system reeks of poverty and failure. Welcome to New Jersey, home of the most segregated and expensive school system in the nation.

School districts had been told to expect state aid cuts of up to 15%, a troubling scenario but nothing like the crushing blow of 5% of total budgets that Gov. Christie announced on the 16th. Within moments some school districts were cut by more than $10 million. New Jersey Education Association leaders, accustomed to ushering local units to annual 5% pay increases and free benefits, ran smack into unprecedented salary caps, mandatory contributions, pension reform, and (just this week) promise of extra money if local bargaining units accept salary freezes. Poor urban districts, however, already beleaguered by cash cuts engendered by former Gov. Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act (intended to curtail unsustainable costs per pupil under the guise of equity), made out better than expected: with so much of their revenue coming from state aid, a 5% cut of total budgets favored their bottom line far more the threatened 15%. .

The end result for wealthy districts was fiscal havoc; the end result for poor districts was cuts that manage to preserve the Abbotty flavor of fiscal compensation for impoverished students. Example: West Windsor/Plainsboro Regional Schools, a wealthy district, lost $7.5 million out of its $166 million budget. Trenton, West-Windsor Plainsboro’s poor Mercer County neighbor, lost $12.4 million of its $265 million budget.

Let’s divine Gov. Christie’s strategy. Question: Why didn’t he stick with the initially proposed 15% in state aid? Answer: Abbott district advocates, primarily the Education Law Center, are drooling over a chance to run back to the NJ Supreme Court waving budgetary evidence that the State DOE is violating Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act, and 15% aid cuts would have been dangerously close to that fine line. ELC is posturing for a fight, pumping out press releases like a geyser (here, here, and here), accumulating resentments over diminishing influxes of cash begot by Corzine's newborn funding formula. Far better for Christie to sit tight and wait for 2012 when four out of seven Supreme Court justices will reach the ends of their terms and he can appoint more friendly jurists.

Here’s Gov. Christie on the prospects for reappointing sitting justices:
I did say during the campaign that I do not subscribe to the theory that people once appointed must be reappointed. I know that's the way it's been in the state. But I don't think we set up the constitution with a method where the executive has to reappoint after seven years before tenure attaches just for fun. I think we did it because they want you to make an evaluation and a judgment. If we've learned anything over the course of the last year, it is that elections have consequences.
The School Funding Reform Act is due for reevaluation by the State Supreme Court in 2012. Look for a new set of justices more sympathetic to the ineffectiveness of remedying educational inequities through cash compensation.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

“How do you spell Asshole? C-H-R-I-S C-H-R-I-S-T-I-E”

That’s one of the cleaner tirades posted on the Facebook group New Jersey Teachers United Against Governor Chris Christie’s Pay Freeze, according to Wally Edge at PolitickerNJ, who also notes that most comments get posted during school hours.

Quote of the Day

Gov. Christie is a very shrewd politician, and he's using crafty political tactics to impose his agenda on the state. But when he turned his attack machine on teachers and school employees, he really stooped to a desperate new low, because our members are not the problem.
That’s NJEA President Barbara Keshishian responding to Gov. Christie’s latest gambit: he’ll offer additional aid to school districts where bargaining units agree to a one-year salary freeze. West Essex, Boonton, Montclair, and Metuchen have already done so and, according to the Star-Ledger, these districts may be eligible to a 7% increase in state aid from savings in Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes as a result of the salary freeze. Pretty slick.

We may not have made the first cut for Race To The Top,

but yesterday Comm. Bret Schundler announced that the US DOE has given us $66.7 million to turn around some of our schools on the bottom. New Jersey’s 34 worst-performing schools (see here for complete list) are divided into Tier 1 and Tier 2. Each can apply for between $50,000 and $2 million to implement one of four models: Turnaround (replace principal and half of staff, curricular reform, and extended school days and years); Restart (reopen as a charter school); School Closure (close the school down and send the kids elsewhere); and Transformation (replace principal, curricular reform, extended school days and years).

Example: Malcolm X Shabazz High School in Newark, a Tier 1 school, has a 20% mobility rate among its 1081 kids. 58.1% fail the HSPA in language arts and 77.4% fail the HSPA in math. 45% of seniors graduated last year by relying on the Special Review Assessment, which won’t be an option this year in its old finesse-able form. 58 kids at Malcolm X Shabazz High took an Advanced Placement test last year. Not one student got a 3 or higher. For this we pay $18,378 per pupil per year.

Of these 34 chronically failing schools, 8 are in Camden City and 10 are in Newark. Students in these cities are also potential beneficiaries of the Opportunity Scholarship Bill, proposed by Senators Ray Lesniak and Tom Kean Jr., a 5-year pilot program whereby students in failing schools could apply for private scholarships to attend more successful private and public schools. Two hundred and five schools throughout the state meet criteria for these vouchers, including 24 in Camden and 42 in Newark, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There’s plenty of resistance to the bill. Senator Shirley Turner said, "It looks like a duck, walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck. It's a duck. Instead of trying to help improve the public schools, this is going to help them to deteriorate even further." NJEA spokesman Steve Baker declared, "We're still opposed to vouchers and this is a voucher bill. These are taxpayer-subsidized vouchers for public schools." And Jose Delgado, President of the Camden City School Board complained, "Generally speaking, my question is: How does this help the public schools become better? I think the legislators and all of us should be talking about issues related to enhancing public schools, not providing a lifeline to a small minority of students."

That’s the main gripe: programs like the Opportunity Scholarship Bill and the federal turn-around grant help individual kids, not the NJ public school system. But isn’t that the problem? Programs designed to implement systemic change pay homage to our unwieldy educational infrastructure and are subject to all the usual political infighting, undermined by compromises and concessions to power. Programs that pay homage to the plight of the individual child’s lack of educational achievement are infused with a fierce urgency that decries compromise and concession. What’s potentially beneficial to NJ’s system of public schools is only beneficial to an abstract student body some years down the line. What’s potentially beneficial to a real student in a school like Malcolm X Shabazz has to happen right now.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Trenton Central High Gets Wacked By New S.R.A.

The Trenton Times looks at the impact of the DOE’s decision to amend the rules surrounding the Special Review Assessment, the test given to high school seniors who fail the HSPA three times. Critics of SRA have pointed out that it is virtually impossible to fail the SRA – it’s given over and over until the student parrots back the answers – and that this “diploma backdoor” artificially inflates NJ’s high school graduation rate.

After assorted outcries from education advocates, the DOE has tightened up the SRA and it’s not such an easy pass. Instead of in-district teachers administering the test to their own students, the assessment is now given by outside proctors in “more tightly controlled ‘test-like’ conditions.’” Last year, according to DOE data, only 53.8% of kids from Trenton Central High were able to pass the HSPA; 37.7%, more than a third of high school graduates there, relied on the SRA. Principal Elizabeth Ramirez is currently administering “intensive tutoring” to 200 kids, almost half of the 12th grade class at Trenton's only traditional public high school.

The article goes on to discuss the impact of ESEA reauthorization, which will rely on growth models instead of one-shot high-stakes tests. That’s good for schools like Trenton Central that will get a shot at removing themselves from the dreaded School In Need of Improvement list by demonstrating incremental progress. It’s meaningless for the 200 kids at Trenton Central who may not get high school diplomas this year.

Don't Cry For Me, New Jersey

Ex-Governor Jon Corzine may have left us but his annual salary at MF Global Holdings, a futures and options broker, is $1.5 million a year plus an additional annual bonus of at least $2 million, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer.

A Brave Public School Teacher Speaks Up

New Jersey Newsroom has reprinted NJEA President Keshishian’s editorial on how Gov. Christie’s call to local bargaining units to accept pay freezes is merely a way to distract voters from focusing on his non-renewal of the “millionaire’s tax.” The piece is then followed by comments, including this one from a NJ public school teacher.
All teachers do not feel this way. Many teachers, though we disagree with the extent of Christie's cuts, would GLADLY freeze our salaries to save jobs and programs for the kids. Our union is not giving us that option. The powers that be have made the decision to not freeze salaries. There was not even a vote by the members before this decision was reached.Many of my coworkers feel the same way, but scare tactics are everywhere. Teachers are told if they open up their contracts, the school board will "take everything" from them. The union is fearful of losing power. Very distressing was an article where Vince Giordano [Exec. Dir. of NJEA] was quoted as saying that the union contributes a great deal to the politicians campaigns and "expects a certain level of respect", Does that mean that $$$$ correspond to the politicians being puppets. The whole thing is disgusting. Christie is not blameless - nor is the NJEA....problem is the kids will be the ones to lose, and the teachers who will lose their jobs.

It’s Race To the Top Day

Today the US DOE will announce winners of the federal competition in education reform. Andy Smarick at Flypaper is placing odds if you’re a betting man.

Here in New Jersey we’re watching from the stands. On Friday Ed Commish Bret Schundler blamed the leadership of NJEA for squashing NJ’s chances. Here’s Schundler:
I was disappointed the grant application put in by the Corzine administration failed, but I was not surprised. For a state's grant application to be approved, the Obama administration requires that local school and teacher union leaders commit to support the initiative's objectives. The application for funds put in by New Jersey had phenomenal support from local school board presidents and superintendents, but very little from union leaders. This doomed New Jersey's application and cost our public schools hundreds of millions of dollars. The reason the New Jersey Education Association encouraged local union leaders not to support Obama's program is that it requires grant-receiving school districts to take student learning into account when evaluating the performance of teachers. The union fears that school districts will judge teachers unfairly.

He goes on to “implore” NJEA’s leaders to support NJ’s resubmission in June. Now we’ll place some odds: slim to none unless NJEA can maneuver out of its fighting crouch and stand up tall, a reversion possible only if Gov. Christie and Comm. Schundler can give it a hand up by offering some face-saving measure. Lay-offs, threats of pay freezes, the 1.5% of base pay to health benefits: Pres. Keshishian and her cohorts are assailed from all sides as they suddenly are cast as villains instead of heroes in NJ’s public education soap opera.

How to amend the plot to encourage redemption and collaboration, followed by buy-in to RTTT? It all depends upon whether the Governor and Commissioner can see their way clear to toning down the rhetoric (which, admittedly, is working fairly well for them right now) and offering Keshishian a route out of the morass that casts a rosy hue on NJEA’s leadership. How badly does the new DOE want that RTTT money? Bad enough to stretch out a hand to NJ’s fiscal Darth Vader? Bad enough to stay true to essential principles – teacher accountability, expansion of school choice, improved data systems – yet bend a bit around the edges?

Update: Winners are Delaware and Tennessee. Some snarking about the fact that US Ed Sec Arne Duncan recently praised Republicans Lamar Alexander and Mike Castle -- who happen to be from Tennessee and Delaware respectively -- for supporting reauthorization of ESEA. More relevant, perhaps, is that the two states' RTTT applications had total union buy-in.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

"The bottom line, the battle between the NJEA and the governor will utlimately be decided by the public -- for lawmakers will ultimately side with the majority. So far, the NJEA’s losing." In The Lobby.

"Everything Christie said [about NJEA’s moral imperative to encourage local bargaining units to make concessions] makes sense. The New Jersey School Boards Association supported his call, saying it agreed with his findings that the pay freeze and modest givebacks toward benefits would save jobs and prevent heavy property tax increases. How can the NJEA argue with that?" Bob Ingle

The DOE has released its Comparative Spending Guide.

The Philadelphia Inquirer looks at Sens. Lesniak and Kean’s voucher bill, which either harms urban schools and costs taxpayers money or gives kids in failing schools a way out and saves taxpayer money, depending upon whom you ask.

A last-minute teacher union concession at Bridgewater-Raritan Public Schools will contribute $1.4 million to the bottom line and save jobs and programs.

Here’s a new blog on Trenton Public Schools authored by Skip Harrison, educator, freelance journalist, and parent and here’s a good profile in the Courier-Post regarding the fiscal machinations of school districts.

Former Keansburg superintendent Barbara Trzeszkowski has given up her quest for a severance package worth $556,290, reports the Star-Ledger.

Chester Finn, President of the Fordham Institute, in the Wall St. Journal:
"Disadvantaged youngsters really need—for their own good—the benefits of longer days, summer classes and Saturday mornings in school. But nearly every young American needs to learn more than most are learning today, both for the sake of their own prospects and on behalf of the nation's competitiveness in a shrinking, dog-eat-dog world. Yes, it will disrupt everything from school-bus schedules to family vacations. Yes, it will carry some costs, at least until we eke offsetting savings from the technology-in-education revolution. But even Aristotle might conclude that this is a price worth paying."

Friday, March 26, 2010

Schundler on NJ's Prospects for RTTT $

Ed Sec Schundler in an opinion piece in today's Asbury Park Press:
New Jersey will be submitting a second grant application for federal Race To The Top dollars. I would like to implore the NJEA to support the state's resubmission. The union's support will open the door to hundreds of millions of federal dollars flowing to our schools.

Our New Jersey schools need this money. Moreover, the Obama administration has signaled that, going forward, an increasingly large share of federal education dollars will be tied to the very same requirements. If the NJEA holds fast to its current position, not just hundreds of millions of dollars, but ultimately billions of federal education dollars, could end up going elsewhere.
Schundler explains that he wants to address teachers’ fears that the accountability requirements of RTTT – measuring instructor effectiveness in the classroom – will lead to unfair testing. He proceeds through a careful description of growth models and defends Obama’s insistence on measurement.

Will it matter? Will NJEA still advise its local units to refrain from signing the application, thus speedily dispatching any chance for NJ to partake of the federal education pot?

This next round of applications due in June is actually a wonderful opportunity for NJEA’s leadership to demonstrate to the public that it’s able to escape the bounds of obstructionism and show a little courage by trusting that its membership is fully capable of implementing inevitable instructional innovations. Does it really want to be in the position of freezing out pleas for salary adjustments followed quickly by sabotaging for a second time NJ's RTTT application? Talk about the party of "no."

NJEA/Christie Head-Butting Match

It’s like a drumbeat: one group after another calling on NJEA’s leadership to authorize one-year salary freezes to its local affiliates. Forgot about Christie’s letter to NJEA Prez Barbara Keshishian. Now joining him on the band wagon is New Jersey School Boards Association (which coupled the request with an addendum that Christie throw back in the “Millionaire’s Tax” to placate NJEA’s objections) and just about every newspaper editorial page in the state. So far nothing but a few nibbles – West Essex, Montclair, a three-month chill in West-Windsor/Plainsboro – and, with final school budgets due next week and many spring breaks starting Monday, that may be it. Lay-offs everywhere, mostly of young, non-tenured employees, big program cuts, new charges for sports and extra-curricula activities, any way to cobble together some cash.

It makes sense that NJEA’s leaders would disdain a one-year salary freeze and counsel its members to refuse to open contracts, despite the logic that it saves jobs (and proof that it does in Essex and Montclair). NJEA can’t deal in increments or shades of gray; with 200,000 members in close to 600 districts, subtleties get lost. It’s all or nothing. The argument that a pay freeze would save some jobs is a non-starter. It’s NJEA logic, though, not New Jersey logic and that presents a strategic problem for them in the form of an unsympathetic public.

Then there’s the requester himself, our ham-handed, loud-mouthed Gov. Christie. He may be well-intentioned (we believe that he is) but he’s no sweet-talker, no diplomat (see Albert Doblin’s Star-Ledger piece today). His take-no-prisoners style may be endearing to some but it’s fuel on the fire to NJEA because they employ pretty much the same style. He’s intent on harnessing discontent towards economy-immune public employees and that strategy demands a no-holds-barred mentality towards opponents. NJEA is intent on harnessing discontent towards rich Republican wretches with the same sort of no-holds-barred mentality. (Here’s the facebook page now 60,000 fans strong called “NJ Teachers United Against Gov. Christie’s Pay Freeze.”)

In this head-butting contest, Gov. Christie is coming out on top, sounding like a defender of tax-poor New Jerseyans who sit numbly and contemplate higher school taxes due to state aid cuts. NJEA leaders, on the other hand, just sound greedy. If they could see their way clear to loosening up the tight grip they maintain on local units, allowing some districts to save jobs through salary freezes, even just reductions, they’d look like heroes. It’s an opportunity to change public perception and they’re missing the boat for fear that a tiny bit of gray will undermine their message. Maybe NJEA’s execs should have a little bit more faith in their membership’s ability to understand ambiguity.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

How Do You Get From Trenton to Montgomery?

A new organization, Citizens for Successful Schools, examines the gaping disparities in opportunity and achievement between poor and rich districts in New Jersey. Example: Montgomery High School, a “J” district with the highest wealth rating on our District Factor Group scale of A to J, and Trenton Central High, an “A” district 14 miles away in distance and light years away in academics.

CCS makes the important point that it’s not about money: “The spending per-student in Trenton is $16,000, while in Montgomery it is $12,000.” If it the answer were so simple we would have solved it decades ago.

Will the newly-passed Assembly Bill 355, the Interdistrict School Choice Program, offer any succor to students in Trenton barred from neighboring Montgomery? Not specifically because Montgomery is in Somerset County and Trenton is in Mercer; the bill limits interdistrict transfers within home counties. However, Trenton is surrounded by successful Mercer school districts like Princeton and West Windsor. Problem solved? Not so readily. Princeton or West Windsor would need to apply to participate in the Interdistrict School Choice Program and offer their districts to applicants with tuition and transportation paid by Trenton.

We live in hope that officials in successful school districts will see beyond their borders and offer educational opportunities to students stuck within the walls of cities like Trenton.

First Crack In the Dike?

Ignoring the counsel of NJEA executives, the West Essex Education Association has just voted 133-7 for a wage freeze, reports the Star-Ledger. The school district has four unions and three of the four have contracts that expire in June. The remaining union comprising custodians has one more year in a previously-negotiated contract but representatives agreed to waive the promised 4% pay increase. In exchange for concessions, teachers will work one less day per year and can leave early on specific days.

There will be no lay-offs in West Essex because the wage freezes will save the district $700,000.

NAEP Scores Out

New Jersey's 2009 NAEP (National Assessment for Education Progress) reading scores are hot off the press. Look here for 4th graders and here for 8th graders. Scores appear basically flat from 2007, which is either good or bad news depending on your point of view. NJ’s achievement gap remains steady. For 4th graders, Black students scored 25 points lower than White Students, Hispanic kids scored 24 points lower and students eligible for free and reduced lunch scored 26 points lower. For 8th graders, Black students had an average score 31 points lower than White students, Hispanic students scored 25 points lower and children eligible for free and reduced lunch scored 27 points lower.

Quotes of the Day

From Barbara Keshishian, NJEA President:
In New Jersey, school employees' contracts are negotiated locally, and each local association may decide whether or not to reopen its settled contract. However, NJEA members will not be bullied by this governor into paying for his misguided priorities. Despite his preposterous claim that state funding for education has actually increased, the truth is that the governor has slashed more than $1.3 billion from direct aid to local districts through his executive order last month and the budget he proposed earlier this month. Those are his priorities, and he is responsible for their consequences.
From the Star-Ledger Editorial Page:
If the NJEA has its way, teachers will watch friends and colleagues get laid off, class sizes increased and extracurricular programs eliminated — rather than reopen sacrosanct contracts and accept a pay freeze. Remember, these are the same teachers who chanted, "Think of the kids!" during their protest of the governor’s proposed funding cuts. Local union chapters should think of the kids (and the suffering taxpayers), defy their militant state leadership and agree to a pay freeze. It’s the right thing to do.
From Jason Jones, a teacher in Montville Township:
Please, teachers are not the enemies here. We are not parasites, or money-mongering selfish people like the Governor would have the public believe. We work hard, we give our sweat and blood for our students, and we are up against unprecedented challenges: kids from broken and blended families; kids with increasingly serious health and psychological problems; kids who have no family support; kids from poverty – the list goes on and on.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Interdistrict School Choice Bill Passes Assembly

Snaps to the NJ Assembly for approving A-355 by a vote of 75-0 yesterday, a bill that would create a permanent interdistrict school choice program. The bill was sponsored by Assemblywomen Mila Jasey and Joan Voss and Assemblyman Paul Moriarty. Our former interdistrict program has been in suspended animation since it expired in 2005, in spite of an enthusiastic recommendation from then-Commissioner William Librera that it be expanded. Look here and here for some of our past coverage.

NJEA: Fashion Disaster

Big education news today: In a letter to NJEA Prez Barbara Keshishian and NJSBA Exec. Dir. Marie Bilik, Gov. Christie has formally requested that teachers statewide accept a pay freeze and contribute towards health care benefits to mitigate the vast lay-offs and program cuts that every district faces due to state aid slashes. The Governor told the Asbury Park Press yesterday, "I'm going to take them at their word that it's all about the kids. Well, if it's all about the children, then step up to the plate.”

Christie’s punt is more interesting strategically then financially. Surely he knows that NJEA’s leadership would never recommend that local bargaining units reopen existing contractual agreements, especially since there are currently calls to curtail union dominance at the negotiating table by reinstalling “last, best offer,” which was rescinded by the Legislature in 2003 under the McGreevey administration. And NJSBA? Been there, done that. Just last week it issued a press release calling on NJEA “to urge its affiliates to cooperate in the reopening of existing contracts, with the goal of freezing salaries for the coming school year. Local school districts need to take this approach now. Otherwise, the loss of teachers and other staff will diminish the quality of school programs and will hurt New Jersey’s children.”

Public sentiment has never been fiercer against NJEA obstinance. Christie’s challenge serves to widen the gulf between the NJEA leadership and, well, everyone else.

Here’s Pres. Keshishian’s response to the Governor’s:
NJEA members will not be bullied by this governor into paying for his misguided priorities. In his typical fashion, Gov. Christie is talking at school employees, not with them. He shared his letter with the media well before he shared it with NJEA. If Gov. Christie would ever like to have a genuine discussion, conducted face to face among serious people, rather than through press releases and media stunts, we stand ready to meet with him. But we will not stand by while he attempts to coerce school employees into bearing the full burden of his wrong-headed educational priorities.
And there's the problem: this sort of unrepentant martyrdom on the part of union leadership is obsolete. It’s been at least a decade since teachers could claim the nobility of grandly toiling in an underpaid and overworked profession, and the public knows this. Keshishian might as well be wearing bellbottoms and a “make love, not war” tee shirt while everyone else is suited up in skinny jeans and Obama buttons.

Is a makeover likely? We're doubtful. NJEA's bosses are in full-throated adamance, singing out virtuously defiant protest songs over perceived injustices while many New Jerseyans endure soaring health care costs and frozen wages themselves. NJEA is not just sartorially-challenged. It’s painting itself into a shrinking corner and Christie knows it.

Quote of the Day

From Gov. Christie's letter to NJEA President Barbara Keshishian and NJSBA Executive Director Marie Bilik:
I am today asking that all school boards and local education associations immediately come together to achieve the following cost saving initiatives prior to April 3d, the final date by which all school boards must have their budgets adopted:
  • Implementing a salary freeze for fiscal year 2011 in all collective bargaining agreements;
  • Require that school district employees make contributions to their health benefits that equal those required of State employees under the NJ State Health Benefits Program.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Quote of the Day

The Statehouse halls were lined today with teachers as the Assembly looked at bills that would, among other things, require teachers to pay 1.5 percent of their salary toward health care costs. "Think of the kids" they yelled to lawmakers. OK. Who's in the classroom teaching the kids while you're in Trenton protesting? Did they hire substitute teachers and how much did that cost the taxpayers? Most of the bills would affect future teachers. If nothing is done and the system collapses, that affects all teachers. Think of the kids.
Bob Ingle at Politics Patrol

Trenton Prefers Not To

What to do when your state aid has been cut and your Superintendent recommends closing three elementary schools and eliminating 200 jobs? If you’re the Trenton City School Board, you vote to not vote on the budget. Superintendent Rodney Lofton, according to the Trenton Times, “seemed unsure of what a delay might mean.”
"I can't tell you of the unknown," Lofton told the board. "I don't know what the state will do when we don't submit a budget. There could be a state monitor coming in here as of tomorrow."

Our F-Word Schools

The educational bureaucracy cannot bring itself to say the F-word — ‘failing.’So let me say it. These schools are failing the students of our state.
That’s Democratic Senator Ray Lesniak who, along with Republican Tom Kean Jr., is supporting the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a bill that would offer tax credits to corporations that donate money for scholarships to private schools for poor kids stuck in failing public schools. According to the Asbury Park Press, students eligible for scholarships would be those whose families make no more than 2.5 times the poverty rate and live in designated districts with those f-word schools; eligibility equates to a school where 40% of the kids there don’t achieve proficiency on state assessments in language arts and math, or 2/3 of kids don’t pass either one. That list includes 176 schools in 34 school districts, including Newark. The bill is supported by both the Black Ministers Council and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, unlikely bedfellows. It is opposed by NJEA.

We move on now to an editorial in the Star-Ledger by Jose Aviles, principal of Barringer High School in Newark, who examines the dearth of options available to children in chronically failing school districts, just like those targeted in the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Aviles (whom we covered yesterday in regards to the unlikely alliance of public and charter school leaders in Newark seeking to share successful practices) examines the “two-tiered system for secondary education comprised of magnet and comprehensive high schools” in our most troubled cities. In Newark specifically, he says, magnet high schools, which compose curricula around subjects like arts, science, technology, humanities, “cream skim” high-performing kids from the top and create non-magnet “dumping grounds” for everyone else. He writes,
Though it is difficult to track which students and how many are lost from the comprehensive high schools to magnet schools, there is a strong perception that cream-skimming has a negative effect on the students that remain at the comprehensive high schools, thus having a major impact on test scores, college acceptance rates and graduation rates.
And it’s not just students who are dumpers or dumpees:
In addition, poor-performing teachers from the best schools are often transferred to comprehensive high schools as punishment and good teachers are often transferred to magnet schools as a reward. Poor-performing teachers at comprehensive high schools often finish out the rest of their careers at these schools, damaging countless students.
In short, students at large comprehensive high schools like those in Newark (or Camden or Paterson or Passaic) are in Aviles’ words, “designed to fail.” Principal Aviles doesn’t propose a concrete solution, but suggests that “creaming” off students – the same argument used by charter school opponents – devastates large comprehensive schools and may not be worth the trade-off (although assigning our best teachers to failing schools -- with appropriate merit pay -- seems like an obvious option).

Might there be some synergy between the Opportunity Scholarship Act and the plight of Newark’s non-magnet school students? Those non-creamed-off students have no other recourse at the moment. Sure, Newark boasts 6 charter schools; all have waiting lists. Team Academy Charter School has 1,800 kids waiting, Lady Liberty Academy has 273, New Horizons has 212, North Star Academy has 1,775, Marion P. Thomas Charter has 180, and Robert Treat Academy has 1,047 kids waiting for an open slot. Will NJ's reluctance to embrace school choice leave these kids on endless waiting lists or leave them with an opportunity?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Quote of the Day

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian to an audience of local union presidents regarding recent events:
I wanted to speak to you directly and tell you that I’m angry about the attacks our members are facing. I’m angry about the way we are being treated by legislators and the media. I’m angry about the lies being spread about everything from our salaries and benefits to our commitment to our profession. As a matter of fact, I’m mad as hell! And I know you are angry, too! The angrier I get, the harder I fight.

NJ's Charter School Charade

Amidst the ruckus surrounding Gov. Christie’s $819 million cut in state aid to public schools we’re detecting a spike of attention to charter schools, often the only recourse for motivated children and parents entombed within dismally-performing urban districts. For example, the Star-Ledger looks at a group of 55 Newark educators from both traditional and charter schools whom have started meeting regularly to compare ideas and share successful practices. The Record discusses the lack of public funds available to charters, “far less than what they actually need to operate” since “they receive 60% to 70% of what regular schools get.”

While there is no shortage of reasons for NJ’s lack of charter schools – count lack of governing agencies, political will, and inequitable funding arrangements among them – one issue that is getting more attention is the opposition of NJEA’s leadership. This is old news. For years NJEA has followed its parenting organization NEA’s lead in circumscribing charter schools within the narrow confines of short-term “laboratories for innovation,” intended to experiment with innovative techniques and then shut down once successes are (theoretically) transferred to the “real” public schools.

Here’s the problem: those successes can not be transferred to the “real” schools because local contracts bar that sort of innovation.

The Star-Ledger coverage of Newark’s unlikely alliance quotes Jose Aviles, principal of Barringer High School (where 65.3% fail the language arts HSPA and 73.5% fail the math), who says that “the constraints of the teachers’ contract has prevented him from exploring the major innovations used by charters.”
"The advisory concept — that’s when a teacher has a group of kids and they meet with them on a weekly, monthly basis — that’s something I’m trying to implement," Aviles said, but added that ideas such as longer school days, limited tenure, and after school strategy meetings are prevented largely by union-negotiated contracts.
It’s not that charter schools have some hidden ineffable strategy, some potent elixir that produces high academic achievement in poverty stricken neighborhoods. They simply have access to logical supplements – longer school days, limited tenure, after-school hours, citing from Mr. Aviles' list – barred by local bargaining agreements. DOE data on Robert Treat Academy in Newark, a K-8 charter school and one of those “laboratories of innovation,” shows that only 6.1% of 8th graders fail the language arts ASK and 2% fail the math assessment. Robert Treat, one the partners in the Newark alliance, has strategies out of reach to public schools because of NJEA recalcitrance.

Another example: yesterday’s NY Times editorial page cites a study from the Center for American Progress that looks at charter schools’ “culture of accountability”:
Charter schools run on public money but are often exempt from union contracts that can influence how and when teacher evaluations are done. In many conventional schools, for example, tenured teachers are evaluated only once every three or four years. Evaluations typically consist of one or two short classroom visits. Nearly every teacher passes, even at failing schools, and an overwhelming majority get top ratings.
If charter schools in NJ are allowed to live up to their stated purpose – those much hallowed laboratories of innovation – then logically our chronically failing urban schools should be implementing successful strategies like longer school days and years, limits on tenure, and teacher accountability. If those strategies are not being transferred to schools like Barringer High – and they’re not – then we need to reexamine the ways in which NJEA's leadership is empowered to scuttle the academic hopes of the non-charter school children in cities like Newark.

Question of the Day

(courtesy of In The Lobby):
The New Jersey Schools Boards Association is asking the teachers unions to agree to renegotiate contracts to stop layoffs. But some local unions have already said they would not reopen their contracts, all but assuring layoffs of their members. In Rockaway Township, for example, which is slated to lose $2.3 million, the teachers union said no when asked, according to the Daily Record. The district, as a result, is looking at layoffs, tax hikes and program cuts to make up the difference.

So we ask: How does it make sense to reject out of hand a solution that could save jobs?

Is it more important for some members to keep their raises and free health insurance premiums intact, than it is for other members to lose their jobs?

And if it is, then who really is responsible for the layoffs?
One side note: NJEA's leaders have already advised local affiliates against re-opening contracts. So let's ask the question again -- "who really is responsible for the layoffs?" -- and change it to a "what." Answer: the imbalance of power between Trenton bosses and locals, which make it well-nigh impossible for district unions to show any independence, especially when guided during negotiations by an NJEA rep. Add to that the predilection of local bargaining teams to eat their young and the odds are small that the the elders of the a school district union will sacrifice personal compensation for the continued employment of the youngest and most vulnerable members of a unit.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

"I agree with the governor's theory, I absolutely do. Phasing in the 2.5, controlling the cost of government — it's the only way we are going to survive. But you can't do it three days before the budget's due and expect to maintain high-quality education. The boards are faced with challenges and decisions like they've never been faced with before." Marie Bilik, Exec. Dir., NJSBA.

Passaic is cutting 138 employees, Teaneck and Randolph are raising local taxes by 10% (that's why it's called a "soft 4% cap").

The Star-Ledger looks at the cost of firing an incompetent tenured teacher. Example: “The school board in Lopatcong spent nearly four years and $350,000 to dismiss a teacher who had directed his elementary school students to give him back-rubs.” Says Parsippany superintendent Rober Copeland, ""There’s just been such reluctance to whisper the words ‘tenure reform. But the time has come."

Jersey City’s superintendent Charles Epps negotiated a contract with the teacher union with raises between 4.35% and 4.7% and the board voted it down. The “loud and dramatic board meeting included this quip from board member and former mayor Gerald McCann to the teachers: "I know a lot of you have to go home...I know a lot of you have to get to the Turnpike," referring to the fact that only about a third of the district's 3,400 teachers live in Jersey City.

The Asbury Park Press looks at the value of publicly-funded preschool.

Gov. Christie to charter school operators: "We will do many good things for charters schools. In fact, I’ve held charter schools harmless in this budget because you already pay enough. There are going to be more charter schools a year from now than there are today."

Paul Peterson in the Wall St. Journal cites a study that shows that charter school supporters in America outnumber non-supporters by a margin of 2:1. "Among African Americans, those who favor charters outnumber opponents four to one. Even among public-school teachers, the percentage who favor charters is 37%, while the percentage who oppose them is 31%."

The Asbury Park Press
reports that some districts in Monmouth and Ocean counties spent federal money intended for special education programming to “pay legal bills, expand non-special education programs and pay benefits for non-special education teachers.” And Ridgefield, explains The Record, overcharged local districts $1.1 million in special ed tuition.

Friday, March 19, 2010

NJEA Channels John Wayne

New Jersey School Boards Association yesterday called on Gov. Christie, the state legislature, and NJEA executives to collaboratively freeze salaries so that districts can maintain programs and personnel in the face of deep state aid cuts. The press release also requests that the “millionaire’s tax” be extended for one year, that the proposed pension/health benefits reform package, S-3/A-2460, which requires employee contributions of 1.5% of base pay be enacted immediately, and that school board budget elections be suspended in April.

How likely are local bargaining units to reopen contracts? A tough proposition without support from NJEA chiefs. Head spokesman Steve Baker seemed to send mixed messages, telling the Star-Ledger that "it’s a local choice, but we won’t be encouraging them to do that. They need to make that decision on their own." He added that teachers’ salaries are not “extravagant” and that Gov. Christie is “trying as hard as he can to set up teachers and school employees” as “the villains in this scenario.”

Technically Mr. Baker is correct: it is a “local choice.” However, each local affiliate is represented during contract talks by an NJEA rep, just as local school boards are in most cases represented by a lawyer. The dynamics of negotiations tends to stymie independence so the qualification of “we won’t be encouraging them to do that” is tantamount to an iron-clad edict against moderation.

Teachers are by no means the villains. They are, in fact, victimized by NJEA’s directive. If there are no concessions, there will be more lay-offs, a scenario that is playing out right now in, say, Manalapan-Englishtown (22 jobs) and Bridgewater-Raritan (185 jobs) and Brick (said Superintendent Walter Hrycenko, “I can't even begin to estimate the number of layoffs”). NJEA’s reluctance to engage in negotiations does not protect their members; instead, it subjects them to unemployment. For this teachers pay $700 a year?

Baker’s diametric of teachers vs. taxpayers fuels residents’ resentment at economy-immune teacher compensation and hurts hard-working educators, many of whom are willing to work with local school boards. This sort of my-way-or-the-highway stance is better suited for cowboy movies than educational leadership.

Quote of the Day

Abundant evidence demonstrates that money is not an Archimedean lever for moving the world of education. Inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending tripled over four decades; pupil-teacher ratios were substantially reduced as the number of teachers increased 61 percent while enrollments rose about 10 percent. Yet test scores stagnated or declined.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Christie's Big Gamble

Okay, everyone breathe. We’ve all seen the state aid cuts – not the measly 15% of projected aid, but instead a migraine-inducing 5% of total budgets (unless you’re in an urban center) – and the sun still came out this morning. Administrators spent the night crunching numbers and calculating cuts, school board members are bracing for nasty budget hearings, and staff members feel beleaguered and beset by public outrage.

Here’s the bottom line: it is now mathematically impossible for school districts to sustain annual salary increases of 4-5% and fully subsidized health benefits, historically the proud mantle swaddling NJEA’s wide shoulders. Call it a sea change, call it a paradigm shift, call it a zero-sum game, call it (if you’re Barbara Keshishian, NJEA Pres.) a “political vendetta.” The times they have a-changed.

Where does this leave local school boards and NJEA affiliates? So much depends on whether local bargaining units are able to exercise some autonomy and collaborate with school district officials on producing agreements that are fair to teachers and within legislative fiscal constraints. Will locals be able to disentangle themselves from the lockstep of NJEA’s directives? Is there hope that public education in Jersey can have a relatively healthy adjustment to a new fiscal austerity, a shared vision, a new kind of calculus in assessing appropriate compensation?

That’s Gov. Christie’s and Comm. Schundler’s big gamble. If they win, then we’re looking at an overdue marketplace correction that will offer financial stability to public education in NJ. If they lose, then we dive into a game of chicken, each side – school board and local bargaining unit – testing how far the other will go in order to either change or protect the status quo. Much is at stake -- teachers’ jobs, educational integrity, fiscal solvency – and it will take some independent thinking on both sides to ease adjustment to this brave new world.

The Day After

Samples of Budget Chatter:

Monica Yant Kinney in Philadelphia Inquirer:
By publicly vilifying public employees and their union leaders, Christie risked starting a class war in which private-sector citizens attack their children's teachers over health care and pensions. But he may be too busy to notice, since his kids go to Catholic school and he's already plotting to lay off 1,300 state workers come January.
Carl Golden in New Jersey Newsroom:
He has undertaken a bold gamble. He's shoved all his chips into the middle of the table and bet his future on public reaction being one of understanding the severity of the current situation and a willingness to accept short term distress in the interest of long term fiscal stability...He has thrown down a challenge not only to the Democrats in the Legislature, but to county, municipal and board of education officials throughout the state.
Christie’ Interview with Bloomberg TV’s Margaret Brennan:
CHRISTIE: And just as importantly it's school districts because teachers pay nothing right now. Zero towards their health insurance benefits. Family health insurance benefits that run anywhere from $18,000 to $24,000 a year that the taxpayers pay for that teacher and their family from the day they're hired until the day they die - fully paid medical benefits.

BRENNAN: So the teachers union can be expecting that in 2011, June 2011?

CHRISTIE: Well, the teachers union can be expecting that coming now in this budget that we're going to be trying to force that to happen because we simply can't afford this level of benefit anymore, and your statistics show it.
Superintendent Thomas Smith of Hopewell Township:
Programming and staffing cuts are inevitable for us. Inevitably, we're going to have to reduce staffing.This will have an impact on unemployment and there could be potential property tax increases as a result. I don't see how this remains true to the governor's statements or vision.
Montclair Education Association President Dennis Murray:
"I watched Christie's address and was very incensed as he painted us — not only teachers but all public employees — in a negative light. For 42 years I have contributed to my pension, with the guarantee that the state would match that contribution. Obviously that didn't happen.
Press Release from the NJ Association of School Administrators:
The Fiscal Year 2011 Budget is the result of hard and difficult choices. The reality is that, given the current economic and fiscal climate, no department or program can go untouched. The unfortunate consequence is that many services Governor Christie considers priorities will have to share in the sacrifice. However, by putting New Jersey’s fiscal house back in order now, it will be possible to restore funding for the most effective and desirable programs in the future.
David Sciarra, Exec. Director of Education Law Center:
So much of the talk about school funding is overheated rhetoric and wild claims about out-of-control spending, without any consideration of what resources our students need, especially those in high poverty schools. It is our hope that the [Fully Weighted Formula] will lead to a more informed, deliberate dialogue about this critical issue.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

State Aid Cuts

are right here.

Doing the Math

Princeton Township Public Schools offers a template on what will most likely occur across many districts on the heels of Gov. Christie’s budget: an effort by school boards to cajole local unions into accepting contract concessions. With cuts of up to 5% of total school budgets, increases in health benefits, and annual salary increases ranging in the mid-4%, there’s no other way to find the money. Other costs – supplies, utilities, transportation – are not fungible.

A few quick facts about Princeton, a 3,500-student school district with sky-high test scores. The annual cost per pupil there is $18,340 compared to a state average of $15,168. (These are 2008-2009 figures from the state database.) The median teacher salary is $69,829 plus benefits. The state median salary is $59,545 plus benefits. Costs of benefits in Princeton come to 23% of each teacher’s salary.

So last week Princeton Superintendent Judith Wilson sent a letter to the Princeton Regional Education Association asking for concessions. (Here’s its 2008-2011 contract.) The union then issued what the Trenton Times calls an “ambiguous statement” saying “they would not be willing to discuss contract concessions but leaving the door open to ‘continuing discussions.’” That’s better than a flat “no,” though School Board President Alan Hegedus noted that “the union was putting its head in the sand in response to the fiscal emergency that the state is in."

While every high-spending district in NJ may not be able to boast Princeton’s academic achievements, every high-spending district in NJ will be able to commiserate with Princeton’s fiscal problems. There’s nowhere else to go but teacher salaries, which is precisely what Gov. Christie had in mind with Proposition 2.5%, and precisely why NJEA Boss Barbara Keshishian is in a lather. NJEA could show some real leadership right now by allow their local affiliates to reopen contract negotiations so that we maintain educational standards in Princeton and elsewhere. Imagine the fount of goodwill erupting from an over-taxed public, the outpouring of gratitude in store for a Union that demonstrates an unequivocal compassion for kids and an astute comprehension of fiscal necessity. It’s just math.

For You Data Wonks

here's Gov. Christie's budget.

Reactions to Gov. Christie's Education Cuts

Marie Bilik, NJSBA Executive Director:
For too long, too many state leaders have criticized local school boards for contract settlements that, in fact, were made possible by union-initiated proposals that were put into state law. We hope today’s budget message represents the beginning of the end of that scenario.
Barbara Keshishian, NJEA President:
Chris Christie claims he respects our members, but his actions suggest otherwise. Today’s budget address was a new low, even for a governor who clearly disrespects all public employees.
Star-Ledger Editorial Board:
New Jersey’s existing 4 percent cap is weak and porous. And local referendums on school spending today are mostly advisory, given that they can be overruled by town councils or the state. Christie offers a stronger and more elegant solution
The Record Editorial Board
Education is taking a huge hit in the Christie budget — he proposes a reduction of $819 million in state funding. It is an extraordinary cut, and one that will have significant ramifications. The governor criticized the teachers union's political clout. "Political muscle fueled by intimidation tactics, political bullying and smears of public officials who dare to disagree," is how he described it.

Those were more than fighting words. That was the opening round in what will surely be a bare-knuckles brawl between the governor and the unions during Christie's four-year term. It is a fight long overdue
Philadelphia Inquirer:
When Gov. Christie told school districts yesterday afternoon they should expect aid cuts up to 5 percent of their overall budgets, Jim Devereaux, the Cherry Hill district's assistant superintendent of business, couldn't believe what he was hearing...The governor also took aim at the New Jersey Education Association, the union representing most of the state's teachers, encouraging legislators to enact changes to bargaining and employee benefits that would help districts contain labor costs.
Barbara Keshishian, union president, fired back, accusing Christie of "carrying out a political vendetta against NJEA" and hurting students by attacking school staff.

The New York Times:
Mr. Christie’s budget stands as a stark example of how a fiscal conservative determined not to raise taxes grapples with the budget of a once-expansive, now-humbled state government in challenging economic times.
Deborah Yaffe, Historian of NJ's School Funding Wars:
Will [Christie's proposed education cuts] be enough to bring the Abbott case back from the dead? Hard to say, although the court’s May ruling made clear that School Funding Reform Act would be constitutional only if fully funded, the justices did not specify how severe the underfunding had to be in order to render the law unconstitutional...The administration says that districts getting less than 5 percent of their budgets from the state — in other words, the wealthiest suburbs — will lose all their basic aid. Historically, the politically savvy voters in those districts haven’t taken kindly to cuts they believe threaten their treasured schools.

Michael P. Riccards, Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy-NJ:
Christie’s cuts are necessary, if only as a form of shock treatment; large numbers of people have come to believe their government is dysfunctional, if not simply corrupt. But even with Christie’s tough love, we still need to rethink the need for new revenue streams. For example, school funding is mainly based on property taxes, and the historic reason is that property was the major form of wealth in the nation and in most of Western Europe for so long.
Ben Dworkin, Director of The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University:
He is a conservative governor who is acting like a conservative. It's a question whether anyone is going to follow.
Bob Ingle at Politics Patrol:
Christie singled out the teachers union, saying its leadership has used its money and political clout to create two systems in New Jersey — those who enjoy rich benefits and those who pay for them. He called it a system that can’t be sustained “a system fueled by mandatory dues of more than $700 a year taken out of every one of the nearly $200,000 teachers’ paychecks.”

And the teachers are complaining about having to pay more for their benefits? Why don’t they get their dues lowered and use that toward their benefits?
Assemblyman Patrick J. Diegnan, Chair of the lower house‘s Education Committee:
Make no mistake. The pain will be felt in virtually every classroom.Gov. Christie should do what he promised during the recently completed gubernatorial campaign and come up with a new plan that invests in education.
Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer:
Spencer said Christie's speech was unnecessarily hostile toward the teacher's union and unnecessarily aggressive.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Mr. Christie Goes to Trenton

The Governor just finished his budget address. (Full transcript right here.) First, the bottom line: a $819 million cut in education with reductions in aid of up to 5% of a school district’s budget; a push for Proposition 2 and ½, a constitutional amendment capping the growth of all local and state spending at 2 ½ percent per year; collective bargain reform.

Here are some highlights regarding school finance reform:

On the disconnect between a rotten economy and public employee benefits:
From 2002 to 2008, pension payments to retirees grew 56%, triple the inflation rate. Our benefits are too rich, most public employees contribute too little, and the taxpayers have had enough enough of out of control pensions to public sector unions while they are losing their own jobs, enough of losing their homes, and then being told by the union bosses that they must pick up the tab for rich pensions at the same time.
Description of union leadership:
Political muscle fueled by intimidation tactics, political bullying and smears of public officials who dare to disagree.
The “dual system” between those who “enjoy” rich benefits and those who pay for it:
My proposal is simple: school district employees should pay for a reasonable portion of their health care costs, just like every other New Jerseyan. If we do not end this dual system, state and local government will have to raise taxes endlessly to pay for it. Teachers are not the problem, they get it.
On NJEA’s “Bosses” vs. hard-working teachers:
The leaders of the union who represent these teachers, however, have used their political muscle to set up two classes of citizens in New Jersey: those who enjoy rich public benefits and those who pay for them. That has created a system that cannot be sustained - a system fueled by mandatory dues of more than $700 a year taken out of every one of the nearly 200,000 teachers' paychecks
On Typical Teacher Salary Increases:
Does a child learn more if the union gets 5% taxpayer funded raises every year for its members? This is nonsensical and self-serving - and we all know it.
Biggest Applause Line/Race To The Top Reference:
Just how arrogant has the union gotten? By refusing to accept merit pay and use it to reward their best members, the union may have cost New Jersey $400 million in race to the top school aid from Washington. They did this in a year when they complain about budget cuts; in a year when we could truly use the money. Ask yourself, just who is putting their personal interests ahead of our children's?

Newsflash: Christie Willing to Meet with NJEA

The Asbury Park Press reports on that NJEA protest in Mendham, held conveniently in Gov. Christie’s place of residence, where 1,000 members held up signs, some lettered “Buck Off,” and chanted “Oppose the legislation, support education!” When queried, Christie’s press secretary, Michael Drewniak, said “the governor would be willing to sit down with the NJEA if it were willing to find some common ground,” adding, “it is difficult to sit down with an organization that refuses to see beyond its own self-interests. People in New Jersey know that the main drivers of their taxes are out-of-control benefits and pay raises. Until they accept some responsibility, it will be difficult to chat in any meaningful way.”

Sitting down with the NJEA leadership is a great idea. Props all around. We're all for meaningful chat.

Quote of the Day

While the 2011 budget hasn't been made public yet, it is absolutely going to have cuts in state aid to public school districts. It's also going to have cuts in aid to colleges, to local governments, to hospitals for charity care, to nonprofits, to various state agencies, to assorted social programs, to grant funds, to parks. Get the picture. Everything is going to get less state cash this year. The state can't spend $30 billion a year anymore because it's not bringing in that much in taxes...The NJEA says shame on the governor for cutting state aid and shame on any New Jerseyans who don't gladly accept tax hikes year after year. We say, shame on the NJEA for its out-of-touch, taxpayers-be-damned attitude
Editorial Staff at the Courier-Post.

NJ Plays "Biggest Loser"

It’s Budget Day in the Garden State and school district business administrators are frantically running spreadsheets based on projected cuts in state aid while superintendents contemplate elimination of programs and staff. Gov. Christie delivers the bad news at 2 pm today and possibly within hours districts will get the bottom line. The Star-Ledger is guessing an $820 million cut, though the devil’s in the details, i.e., districts that spend above the adequacy formula will take the biggest hits.

Meanwhile, districts are playing “Biggest Loser.” Is it wealthy suburban districts who stand to lose the largest amount of state aid? Cherry Hill, for instance, an I district (based on District Factor Groups that rate local wealth from A-J), may be cutting 175 staff members and slicing sports programs. In Moorestown, another I district, Superintendent John Bach says that “for us, this will be the first round of significant lay-offs in memory,” as programs on the chopping block include major reductions in middle school and high school sports, plus enriched summer school.

On the other hand, maybe the Biggest Losers are our poor urban districts. David Sciarra of the Education Law Center points out that Christie’s cuts effectively violate the court-approved School Funding Reform Act by not fully funding the formula intended to provide economic equity (thus, goes the old tune, educational equity, though we won’t address the atonality now). Legal challenge, anyone?

Not to oversimplify, but the cuts are the cuts. The real drama in this reality show will take place around the perimeter of the State House, where the NJEA leadership is leading rallies intended to protest “a disaster that would begin to dismantle the best school system in America,” according to Prez Barbara Keshishian. (Bob Ingle claims the last one in Mendham only tied up traffic and pissed off motorists.) Christie has promised districts a “tool kit” to allow for breaks at the bargaining table, which most take to mean passage of the proposed 2.5% cap on tax increases – logically, a hammer on 4% annual salary increases – and a pair of pliers in the form of a return to “last, best offer,” which would give school boards some teeth at negotiations time. Will NJEA allow their local affiliates a little lattitude to bend in order to prevent massive lay-offs? Stay tuned.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Demystifying Education

Tomorrow Gov. Christie will announce, if rumor holds, $800 million in cuts in state aid to public schools. In doing so, he’s gambling that the groundswell of anger towards public employees’ compensation is deeply rooted, neither a replaceable scapegoat nor a target amenable to a backlash of friendly support.

As education reform stumbles ahead (braced at the moment by President Obama’s announcement of reauthorization of ESEA with liberal seasoning from Race To the Top, and buffeted by the opposition led by Diane Ravitch in yesterday's Los Angeles Times), positions become more entrenched. NJEA is now running television and radio spots featuring the NJ Teacher of the Year valiantly battling “the Governor’s attack on public education” and the NJEA-sponsored facebook page, “NEW JERSEY TEACHERS UNITED AGAINST GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE'S PAY FREEZE,” has 53,000 fans. Right now NJEA’s strategy is to go a bit louder, a bit more self-righteous, than other targeted industries. The same could be said for Gov. Christie, who recently used the word “no” eight times when asked by a reporter if he would meet with NJEA execs.

At the same time, what one could call “education mythology” has taken a few hard hits. For example, this mythology holds that our instructors grow in pedagogical ability with each passing year. Programs like Teach for America show us that bright and well-trained college graduates do just as well. Education mythology says that teachers are underpaid. Taxpayers in NJ are well aware that very few industries award lifetime job security after three years, annual 4+% salary increases, and free health benefits. Education mythology holds that merit pay, or any kind of accountability or competition among instructors, is a destructive force. (See this NJEA screed.) Some innovative experiments in successful charter schools, and even public school systems, show us otherwise. There's a kind of healthy demystification going on - if we quantify good instruction then it becomes scalable, available to more and more children. Sure, there's magic to a brilliant teacher. But we can't rely on prodigy to education all our schoolchildren.

This evolution of our mythology is not limited to non-public school employees. Ask any reasonable teacher what his or her view is of a one-year freeze on salaries. Odds are he or she will state unequivocally that such a move would be proper and justified. It’s not the teachers. It’s their union leadership that clutches past paradigms. Even the comments on the facebook page show just as many dissenters as supporters.

Where does this leave Christie? He needs to soften his tone. The 2.5% proposed cap on school budgets for 2012 is necessary because it’s the only way to force annual salary increases down. But he needs to meet with NJEA leaders and be nice. To assuage any concern from the public about teacher-directed belligerence, perhaps he can provide his own Teacher of the Year to advocate for school choice, accountability, and improved educational opportunities for poor kids. (Can’t find an NJEA member suicidal enough to withstand assault from the leadership over there? How about a saintly staffer at a charter school?) He’s banking on the public anger, but a little courtesy goes a long way.

NJEA’s leadership has a big problem. It’s already sabotaged our last Race To The Top application, and there’s no sign that the next one will go any better. Its indefatigable resistance to something as reasonable as a 1.5% contribution of base pay to health benefits will win no friends. Relentless opposition to merit pay and accountability starts sounding evasive, even irresponsible after a while. How to get out of the only unpainted corner in the room? It needs a magnanimous concession to win back support – either that salary freeze or a promise to collaborate on a mutually acceptable RTTT application. Maybe both. Not only will the public salute them, but our best teachers will too.

Pleasantville Blast

We looked at Pleasantville High School last week in the context of Diane Ravitch’s new book, chosen at random among the cohort of segregated, impoverished, and failing Jersey schools. Coincidentally this challenged Abbott district made non-bloggy headlines s a day later because at that week’s Board meeting Pleasantville Superintendent Gloria Grantham blasted away at teachers to the consternation of her Board.The Press of Atlantic City reports,
Grantham spoke at length Tuesday night about the benefits teachers get - vacation days, free health coverage, free professional development - and the effort they owe their students.
"This is not to hurt anyone, this is just to present the facts. We have got to do a better balancing act between what our students receive and what our adults receive," Grantham said. "They're benefiting pretty well from the opportunity to teach in our high school."
Board members tried to muzzle her, the union president called her remarks “disgraceful.”

A rare public display of frustration from the leader of a district in dire academic circumstances. Her ground time in Pleasantville may be brief.

Meanwhile, back in Ravitchland, Rich Hess at EdWeek says that her “read on [Race To The Top] is dead wrong” and, in fact, both Ravitch and Arne Duncan are making the same mistake:
Both Diane's stance and Duncan's reflect the misguided premise that chartering or accountability is a way to improve instruction--like a new curriculum, professional development model, or reading program--rather than an opportunity to create the conditions where sustained improvement in teaching and learning become possible.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Leftovers

Speaking of caps on municipalities and school districts, Bob Ingle remarks on the Star-Ledger's analysis of Corzine's 4% cap, "nearly a third of the state's 566 municipalities went beyond the cap with the state's permission last year. Many, the paper said, could show the town was almost dysfunctional. Of 33 school districts wanting to exceed the limit, 25 were approved."

The New Teachers Project "provides a roadmap for layoff rules that teaches will support and will allow schools to retain their best teachers.

The Daily Record argues that New Jersey School Board Association's proposal to eliminate budget votes this year because of the tight calendar is a violation of democracy.

Gina Genovese, Executive Director of Courage to Connect NJ, writes in New Jersey Newsroom, "Before our state is forced to declare bankruptcy and our business base relocates to more affordable areas of the country, we need to make sweeping changes now. Let’s begin the conversation about how best to consolidate our municipalities and end the legacy of waste that has our state teetering on the brink."

Schools boards are struggling to sell their budgets to the public without state aid numbers, reports the Star-Ledger.

Sunday Main Course: Hard 2.5% Cap

The Record has a scoop: Christie will propose on Tuesday a constitutional amendment limiting school and municipality tax increases to a hard cap of 2.5%. His budget address will also cut state aid about 9%.

Unlike the current 4 percent limit, the new "hard" 2.5 percent cap on municipal, school and county property tax levies would be all-encompassing, without exceptions for such essentials as rising health insurance or debt payments. The tax could be raised higher only if local voters grant their approval in referendums. The state also would be constitutionally barred from increasing its own spending on direct state services by more than 2.5 percent per year.

At the same time, the officials said, Christie will propose other reforms that could help local officials control spending, including changes to the pensions and benefits of current public employees, and collective bargaining negotiations for police, fire and teacher contracts, and the civil service system.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Quote of the Day

Take education. Obama has taken on a Democratic constituency, the teachers’ unions, with a courage not seen since George W. Bush took on the anti-immigration forces in his own party. In a remarkable speech on March 1, he went straight at the guardians of the status quo by calling for the removal of failing teachers in failing schools. Obama has been the most determined education reformer in the modern presidency.
David Brooks in today's New York Times on "Getting Obama Right."

So a Reporter says to Christie, "Will You Meet with the NJEA?"

That question sufficiently set him off and he may have set some kind of State House record for the number of times he said "no" in one answer. Christie replied, "During the Primary?!?!? Was that the question?!?!? Yeah. Really? Yeah. While they were spending the millions of dollars against me in AFSCME (American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees) and CWA (Coommunications Workers of America) and NJEA. I thought while they were mischaracterizing my record and smearing me on television and on the radio might be a good opportunity for me to sit down and see if they were looking to work together if I was elected. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. I....No. "

Eight, "no's" in one answer to one question is a lot even by Christie's standards.
Dialogue courtesy of Millennium Radio New Jersey.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Schundler Confirmed By Senate

The final vote this afternoon was 35-2. Senators John A. Girgenti and Nia Gill voted against the Education Commissioner’s confirmation.

NJ's "Two-Tier System of Widening Inequality"

Diane Ravitch, famous education historian, has just published her 18th book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Her tome has aroused rapturous reviews, not to mention a plethora of newsprint. (Here’s a more balanced review from Chester Finn.) Much of the attention focuses on her change of heart, well documented in her blog “Bridging Differences.” Once a dyed-in-the-wool education reformer, she’s now reconsidered her views and hung up her boots with defenders of traditional American public education, well represented in New Jersey with its lack of school choice and fierce opposition to accountability. A visit to the Garden State might prove enlightening for Dr. Ravitch.

Ravitch believes that the education reform movement’s emphasis on school choice and accountability is motivated by greed, animosity towards teachers, and badly misguided policy. Arne Duncan is a thinly-disguised profiteer. Race To The Top is a malignant conspiracy engineered by the Gates Foundation, and No Child Left Behind is “a system that borders on institutionalized fraud.” Charter schools are “a great business opportunity” run by “right-wing ideologues who [see] them as a chance to bust teachers’ unions.” Accountability is a hoax.

Therefore, she concludes, we need to abandon school choice and accountability because it creates“a two-tier system of widening inequality” which will “be an ominous development for public schools and our nation.

Certainly in NJ, parents are starting to choose public charter schools for their children as an alternative to chronically failing traditional schools, although we can only serve 22,000 kids out of a total public school population of 1.37 million. Additionally, the road towards teacher and school accountability, as in much of the country, has been rutted with union opposition and data systems poorly designed to accommodate the necessary metrics. NJEA resistance is intensely strong. Some charters fail. Ravitch writes in her blog, “Nothing good can come of any reform that teachers do not embrace.” But Ravitch’s logic -- because education reforms have had graceless moments, we should abandon the entire enterprise – is badly flawed.

For upper and middle class families, perhaps, Ravitch’s thesis is palatable. In Moorestown or Saddle River, NJ towns of wealth and opportunity, who needs school choice and accountability? But her thesis self-destructs when we look at poor minority kids, and her predilection for status quo education starts acquiring a flavor of noblesse oblige, a kind of arrogance that privileges abstract principles over the lot of the impoverished.

Dr. Ravitch should pay a visit to Pleasantville High School in Atlantic County, largely comprised of poor Black and Hispanic kids. 42% speak Spanish as their first language. 20% are classified as eligible for special education services. 51.7% of the students fail the High School Proficiency Assessment in language arts. 68.7% fail the HSPA in math. 44.5% fail the HSPA’s three times and proceed to the Special Review Assessment, a back-door-to-diploma scam engineered so that no child can fail.

There’s no high school-level charter school in Pleasantville so there’s no school choice. Our embryonic interdistrict school choice program for Atlantic County is limited to Folsom Elementary School, so high schoolers are out of luck, even if they could get in. Accountability? You know the test scores. Cost per pupil at Pleasantville High is $16,307 per child. Another fun fact: in September 2007 five members of the Pleasantville Board of Education were arrested as part of a federal corruption case for accepting bribes from insurance and roofing firms.

Here’s the irony: Ravitch’s fear of “a two-tier system of widening inequality” is here already, at least in NJ. The children and families in Pleasantville live it every day. Their only hopes are tied to the very principles of education reform – school choice and accountability -- so easily dismissed by Dr. Ravitch and her posse of ardent fans. She writes of dissenters, “they do not recognize that schools are often the anchor of their communities, representing values, traditions and ideals that have persevered across decades.” Ah, but we do recognize schools as anchors. We just don’t believe that schools like Pleasantville – flimsy, assailed by the detritus of low standards and corruption – represent our children’s values, traditions, and ideals. These kids deserve a choice. By Ravitch's reckoning, they shouldn't get that.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Draft Standards Just Released

Here’s the link to the Common Core Standards, which represent an effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association to standardize curricula across the country (except for Alaska and Texas, which have declined to participate). The standards are available for public comment until April 2nd.

For a Concrete Cap

In The Lobby argues that Gov. Christie should take a page out of gubernatorial candidate Chris Daggett's book and place a strict cap on municipal, county, and school district budgets. Huh? Don’t we have a 4% cap on schools already? Not really. Districts can always apply for a cap waiver, plus there’s all sorts of increases that get a bye: previously-negotiated pay increases, pension payments, etc:
The need for a strict cap is clear: too many local entities feel free to approve raises and contracts that are far greater than the cost of living. If the Marlboro school district were under a strict cap tied to the CPI, would they have felt free to approve a contract with 4.5% pay raises and no contribution to health care costs?
[“Felt free” is a bit unfair. In fact, the Marlboro Board of Education engaged in a fierce battle with their local union, mountaineering its way up every available rung in the ladder of contract mediation and stumbling at every step. In the end the Board was defeated by a system heavily rigged towards the status quo (i.e., 4.5% pay raises and no contributions to benefits) whereby a state-appointed Decider makes a decision based on settlement and concession averages and there's no longer any"last, best offer" option. From the Fact-Finder’s report: “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.”)]

But there’s an equally strong argument to be made for a strict cap, especially given the State’s track record; last year 33 school districts asked for waivers and 25 got their wishes granted by our magnanimous state. In fact, a 4% cap is too high and too easily tied to annual teacher pay increases. 3% hard cap anyone?