Thursday, June 30, 2011

The "Opportunity Gap"

ProPublica, which describes itself as “journalism in the public interest,” has a study out on America’s “opportunity gap.” Using data from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, it analyzed whether school districts offer students access to advanced classes in math, science, and A.P. courses. Three-quarters of all public school children are represented in the analysis. The smallest opportunity gap is in Florida, which has the largest percentage of kids enrolled in advanced classes across both wealthy and poor districts. Laggards are Kansas, Maryland and Oklahoma.

How does Jersey stack up? Not so bad: check out the data yourself. But the lead article in the study uses us as a “stark example” of the opportunity gap when comparing opportunities for advanced academics at Trenton Central High, Millburn Senior High, and International High in Paterson. At Trenton Central 58% of kids qualify for free and reduced lunch. In Millburn it’s 1% and at Paterson it’s 85%. At Trenton Central High, 2% of students take at least one A.P. course over their four years in high school and 4% take advanced math. In Millburn, 72% take at least one A.P. course and 21% take advanced math. In Paterson 1% of the students take at least one A.P. course and 7% take advanced math.

Quotes of the Day

"Education is the New Abortion," says Richard Whitmire in the Daily News:
From the perspective of most teachers, poverty explains education problems. A valid point. Reformers insist that school quality, especially effective teaching, can make a sizable dent in the learning inequities we see across the lines of race and income. Also a valid point.

Mostly, however, the two sides no longer engage about their differences. They just glare and shout. Abortion has nothing on education, except bumper stickers. And I can only assume those are in production.
Andy Rotherham at Eduwonk adds,
Today about 8 percent of low-income kids can expect to earn a college degree by the time they’re 24 – a figure that is actually lower in some American cities. And high school dropout rates for black and Hispanic students are, on average, around 40 percent – and far worse in many urban and rural communities. That’s a catastrophic problem perpetuated by an incredibly powerful and durable set of political and stakeholder arrangements that are now under unprecedented scrutiny. So, given the history of social change in this country, it’s also worth asking if we’re going to see major changes without a lot of contention?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

New Poll Out on Charters

Save Our Schools-NJ and Education Law Center (which issued the press release) are reporting on a new poll from Rutgers Eagleton that shows that “NJ residents overwhelming support local approval for new charter schools.”

According to the poll information (go to SOS-NJ and click on link at top) 386 NJ residents were asked, “Should the state be allowed to open new charter schools without local approval, or should voters be required to approve any new charter school in their community?” 72% of respondents said that new charters should require voter approval.

SOS-NJ is a lobbying organization that is concerned that NJ's "excellent public schools are under a political attack" and opposes the 2% cap on school budgets, the expansion of charter schools, and voucher programs. Education Law Centers fights for educational equity for students in poor urban districts. Politics makes strange bedfellows.

Public Votes on Charter Schools?

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board points to weaknesses in Assembly Bill 3852, which “[r]equires voter approval at the annual school election or by the board of school estimate prior to designation as charter school district of residence or expansion of a charter school.” In other words (and check out earlier discussion here) the bill would require a community referendum on whether or not a charter school is allowed in the neighborhood. Queries the Ledger Editorial Board, “Why would districts that hold a monopoly want to invite competitors?”

Good question. And more to the point,
But the referendum would make a political campaign out of every new charter application. The state Department of Education is in charge of opening and closing charter schools, and we don’t vote on anything else the DOE does, such as the creation of magnet schools.

This bill would give parents or members of the politically entrenched teachers union who resent popular charter schools the ability to simply vote them down. That would take school choice away from parents in cities and in suburbs.

Newark Celebration/ Blaming the Messenger

A Star-Ledger article today celebrates the successful graduation of Newark Central High School’s Class of 2011. All but 7 seniors passed the qualifying tests – the HSPA or its alternative, the AHSA – in part due, says Principal (and City Councilman) Ras Baraka, to a federal grant that enabled the school to extend the school day and offer college-readiness classes.

Last year, according to the DOE data base, 37% of Central’s students passed the HSPA in language arts and 20% passed the math portion. This year, says Principal Baraka, almost 70% passed the language arts portion and 45% passed the math portion.

Newark Central’s results are even more impressive in light of a press release issued today by Education Law Center (check out their cool new website!) that notes that
According to a June 23 statement from the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), 3164 seniors who took the Math AHSA did not pass, and 3591 who took the Language Arts AHSA did not pass. In addition, an unknown number of seniors who need AHSA to graduate did not complete the assessment.
ELC also remarks on the lack of info from the DOE despite a $1.1 million contract with Measurement, Inc., the vendor hired to grade the alternative test (which a student takes after failing the HSPA three times), and extrapolates that up to 5,000 high school seniors this year will not receive diplomas despite successful completion of high school requirements.

The DOE, ELC charges, “has fallen far short” of its goal to limit failure on the AHSA to 2,000 kids. If the 5,000 number holds up, that’s true: the DOE has fallen short. So what does that mean? Is the AHSA improperly graded? Is there a lack of oversight that allows high school students to pass courses when they haven’t mastered the material? Does a diploma signify mastery of subject matter or diligent attendance?

Several years ago Lucille Davy, former Gov. Corzine’s Commissioner of Education, acknowledged that Algebra I in a prosperous high school is not the same as Algebra I in a poverty-stricken high school. Our standardized tests make no distinction. ELC berates the DOE for faulty test administration, but a better target might be the lack of access for poor student to high school courses instantly available to kids who don't live in places like Newark.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Quote of the Day

Today’s Wall Street Journal looks at how the Pennsylvania Legislature has screwed up a school choice bill that would “allow parents of a needy child to take the money the state pays to their home school district and apply it to the public, private or parochial school of their choice.” Reasons for the screw-up include erratic leadership from Gov. Tom Corbett and other law makers:
Their hesitation reflects one of the ugly realities of the issue: Many Republican voters, especially those in the suburbs, do not like school choice because they see it as more black kids in their schools.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Two Charter School Bills Pass Through Assembly Committee

The Record reports that two of the four charter school bills have passed through the Assembly Education Committee. Bill 2806 sets conditions by which traditional schools can convert to charters and Bill 3083 allows for multiple authorizers. See post below for more detail.

And here's an update from NJ Spotlight, which casts the odds as relatively low that these bills will pass through the Senate.

Grading NJ's Charter School Bills

A package of four bills, NJ Spotlight reports, is making its way through the Assembly this week, all relating to charter schools. As is often the case, it’s a challenge to separate the politics from the educational value. Let's give it a try.

The first one, A2806, sets forth the conditions under which non-public schools can convert to charter schools: no religious instruction or activities, no religious references in the school name. Additionally, more than half the staff and more than half the parents have to sign a petition in support of the conversion. It’s a solid bill.

The second bill, 3083, takes NJ towards a more functional charter school environment by moving to multiple authorizers. Right now the only entity that can approve a new charter is the DOE. This bill allow the State Board of Education to approve “up to three four-year public institutions of higher education as charter school authorizers.”

Again, a step in the right direction. The Center For Education Reform compares charter laws across the state; one of the marks of strength is multiple authorizers, including universities. NJ’s historic reliance on the DOE as the only authorizer has been criticized by entities as diverse as The Fordham Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education (in our Race to the Top application). Two for two.

The third bill, 3852, however, diverges from the educational soundness of the first two and gets lost in political weeds. It begins by restating the language on charter conversion from Bill 2806 (not sure why) but then but then veers off into policy supported by a host of lobbying organizations, including SOS- New Jersey and the Education Law Center:
The commissioner shall not approve an application for the establishment of a charter school unless the designation of a school district as the charter school district of residence or inclusion of the district in the charter school region of residence has been approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district or a Type II district with a board of school estimate. In the event that a subset of school districts included in the region of residence of a proposed charter school does not approve of the inclusion, the charter school applicant may submit a revised application to the commissioner that does not include the school districts in which the inclusion was not approved.
Whew. Who writes these things? (And I've removed the legislative apparatus to increase fluidity.) Short version: no charters can be authorized without voter or representative (school board) approval.

If the only problem with this bill was its readability, we'd move right on and call it three for three. But think about this proposal: that applications for new charter schools must be approved by voters in the school district or, if the district doesn’t have elections, by the school board.

Um, okay. But why are we suddenly talking about community approval for new charters? Why shouldn’t voters get to vote on awarding a contract to a new superintendent? Or the purchase and implementation of a new math program? Or the local bargaining unit’s pay increase? True, voters in most districts already vote on annual school budgets, but there’s a bill (backed by NJEA and NJ School Boards Assn.) currently working its way through the Statehouse that would eliminate that vote if the district stays below the 2% cap.

Bill 3852 is inconsistent with current practice. That’s because it’s driven by politics, not educational priorities. In the white paper, “ A Sum Greater Than Its Parts: What States Can Teach Each Other About Charter Schooling,” Sara Mead and Andy Rotherham note that
Local school boards, which are the majority of authorizers nationwide, are often hostile to charter schools, which compete with them for students, funds, and prestige. As a result, state charter laws that allow only local school boards to authorize charters can result in very few charter schools in that state.
Now, it’s true that South Brunswick and Princeton, high-performing school districts, may not need a Mandarin immersion charter school in their midst. (This proposed charter has generated so much heat that a google search turns up 2,130,000 results.) In fact, 3852 is informed by this sort of scenario: a highly-specialized school that drains much needed funding from a state-aid-starved suburban district. So why not propose a bill that focuses our charter expansion in districts with poorly-performing schools? Why cut off charter school growth throughout the whole state? That's politics for you.

The last bill in the package, 3356, has some worthwhile elements – implementation of meaningful monitoring systems for charters – but is misguided, not to mention riddled with errors. Example:
"In order to enroll in a charter school, the student must first be registered in the school district in which the student resides." Glad we cleared that up.

The bill goes on to propose that every single student in the districts covered by the charter be admitted into a lottery, regardless of whether the parent has expressed interest. Why such a cumbersome proposal? Because the bill is driven by fear -- that charters discriminate against poor kids and special needs, that charters "cream off" the top performers.

A bill driven by fear is not a good bill.

We'll grade Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr., Chair of the Education Committee, two for four. Pass the first two. Send back the last two for a little more editing and a lot more analysis.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sunday Leftovers: Special NJEA Edition

Vince Giordano, executive director of the NJEA, concedes, “This [passage of the pension/benefits reform bill] is a setback. This was not a result we were seeking,” and tells the Asbury Park Press that NJEA’s lawyers are evaluating whether or not it was legal for the Legislature to combine the pension and health benefits reforms into one bill. And the freeze on retirees' cost-of-living adjustments may be overturned in court.

Jeremy Rosen of the Courier-Post muses,
I left the hours-long protest feeling for disgruntled public employees who have been poorly represented by their union leaders. The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), for example, makes maximum campaign contributions to state legislators (mainly Democrats) in exchange for protection of members' best interests.
But NJEA also spent tens of thousands of its members' dues on ultimately ineffective advertisements attacking Christie.
The union still has a voice, but its misguided message is one most state lawmakers are ignoring.
Speaking of NJEA political contributions, BlueJersey points to the list of NJEA contributions during the last election cycle to legislators who voted for the pension/benefits reform bill, noting, “teachers, read it and weep.”

The Daily Journal praises Sen. Sweeney for being both a union guy and a pension/benefits reformer.

The New York Times has a drill-down of the actual impact of the new bill on individual state workers and retirees.

Ray Pinney at NJ School Boards points out that NJEA’s cry during the recent Statehouse drama to “Negotiate, Don’t Legislate" was a tad inconsistent:
Let me give you some examples of where the state legislature, at the request of the NJEA, enacted laws that interfere with a “completely open bargaining process.”

They are in no particular order: minimum teacher’s salary, getting the NJEA convention days as holidays, sick leave (minimum of 10 days per year), elimination of last best offer, and most recently, in 2010, the passage of A-420 which extends tenure protection to paraprofessionals in districts that receive Title 1 funds. And this is just an abbreviated list!
The Record examines how the public unions used imagery from the Tea Party movement, a natural linkage because, explains political scientist Kyle Konkid, both groups “are trying to keep things the way they are.” Adds NJEA spokesman Steve Baker, “Our members are patriotic Americans.They love the Constitution and are very concerned about what they see happening in New Jersey, because it comes across as very un-American."

NJ Spotlight explains the link between the Democrats’ plan to fully fund the school funding formula and the push for the Millionaire’s Tax.

Gov. Christie derides the Democratic budget, which uses an optimistic calculation of state revenues for next year: "They’re using numbers that are unconstitutional," he said. "The budget is unconstitutional, and I won’t sign an unconstitutional budget." He tells the Star-Ledger,
"I’m complying with Abbott even thought I don’t like it, and they should comply too," he said, referring to the Supreme Court ruling ordering him to spend an additional $500 million for poor school districts. "We don’t want them acting in a lawless manner."
Bruce Baker has a good take-down of Sen. Mike Doherty’s “Fair School Funding Plan," which would allot exactly the same amount of per pupil state aid ($7,481) to every district, regardless of socio-economic level or tax base. I haven’t mentioned this wacky scheme because it’s, well, dumb. Bruce explains why.

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board
likes Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s new policy which evades the "dance of the lemons" by empowering school principals to select the best teachers available.

The Herald News counts the number of school superintendents retiring this year because of new salary caps: 1/3 of all supers in Bergen County and ¼ statewide.

The Hillsborough School Board considers the criminal background check for school board members (now on hold until the DOE gets info from the Feds out how it works. Update from NJSBA here).

The Economist examines the politicization of charter school expansion in NYC, where the NAACP and the UFT (the NYC teacher union) is in court to stop new charters from using empty public school facilities.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

Adam Ozimek in today’s Atlantic has a fascinating and respectful analysis of Diane Ravitch’s journey from the education historian “who once wrote so passionately and doggedly in favor of school choice and accountability from the halls of the Hoover Institute” to the “Diane Ravitch who now writes reform criticisms with the hyperbole and one-sidedness of a teacher's union spokesperson":
I think one can criticize Ravitch for failing to follow her remaining Hayekian wisdom and criticisms through to their natural conclusion, or for applying them unevenly. For instance, she criticizes the Gates and other foundations for being a powerful centralized force that overrides the autonomy of local forces, calling them "bastions of unaccountable power" who are not "subject to public oversight or review", and "have taken it upon themselves to reform public education, perhaps in ways that would never survive the scrutiny of voters in any district or state". But she fails to apply the same criticisms to the powerful teachers unions, about whom all of the above could be said, and who lobby state governments for centralized rules that favor their members.

Number of the Day

The [NJ] Democrats' version of the budget appropriates $447 million in additional funding to the 31 poorest school districts, as the Supreme Court ordered. It adds $580 million to 184 other school districts the court has found are inadequately funded. It applies $87 million to the hundreds of remaining districts and would use $500 million generated by the millionaires' tax to fully fund the aid formula.
From today's Daily Reporter.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Quote of the Day

Matt Bai in tomorrow's NY Times:

And so Mr. Christie was calling, minutes before the New Jersey House started voting on a bipartisan reform package, to do a little crowing. He wanted me to know that he and the leaders of New Jersey’s Democratic-controlled Legislature were about to do something pretty amazing...

Assuming Mr. Christie is able to sign that bill into law tonight, it is, in fact, a pretty extraordinary thing. Other states have chiseled away at their mountains of long-term liabilities, but none would seem to have achieved anything quite this sweeping. (“Sweeping” is a word we journalists tend to overuse, but in this case I think it fits.)

Update on Spurned Pension/Benefits Deal

I reported earlier this week that the public employee leadership had declined a last-minute deal that would have saved union members money in legislated contributions to pension and benefits premiums. PolitickerNJ is reporting now that the heads of CWA, AFSCME, AFT and IFPTE have jointly signed a memo stating that the deal offered by Sen. Steve Sweeney and Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver was “worthless” and “ill-defined,” adding that “no union leader in America would have accepted the deal.” Apparently the leaders of NJEA, the teachers union, did not sign the memo.

Using an Uzi When a Fly-Swatter Will Do

In today’s Star-Ledger Bob Braun has another piece on the “mothers’ crusade known as Save Our Schools New Jersey” that aims to push legislation that would allow new charter schools to open only after a community vote.
What’s extraordinary about the movement is that it is leaderless and based less on personal face-to-face contacts than on email, Facebook and conference calls. It is suburban, white, female, and professional. The two organizers of the Millburn rally — private school teacher Jill Kimelman of Millburn and community organizer Alle Ries of Maplewood — first met face to face on the stairs of the Bauer center less than an hour before the rally.
Here's what's extraordinary about this "movement:" it aims to blanket NJ with legislation that assumes that all kids live in towns where all children are wealthy and above-average. It's Lake Wobegon legislation; no surprise that its website begins with the statement, "Our students’ performance consistently ranks first or second nationally." True enough, if you live in Princeton, or one of our other wealthy low-minority suburbs.

Not so much if you live in the "other Jersey," where many parents are unemployed and/or uneducated and kids' performance is decidedly below-average.

SOS started in posh Princeton, whose school budget bottom line is threatened by the emergence of two language-immersion schools in the area (Mandarin and Hebrew), and the continued success of Princeton Charter School.

Over in the alternate New Jersey, Camden City School District flunked its QSAC monitoring. (Translation: Quality Single Accountability Continuum, which grades districts in five areas.) According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, this poor urban not-Princeton district garnered a 13% for instruction and program, 11% in governance, 36% on personnel, 53% in operations, and 73% in fiscal management. A passing grade is 80%. The presence of a fiscal monitor may account for its high score in the last category.

Under the legislation advocated by SOS, a new charter school in Camden would require a “yes” vote from residents.

People don’t show up to vote in Camden. Only 19% of voters voted in the 2005 gubernatorial election.

That’s what’s wrong with the legislation proposed by SOS. In attempting to dampen a splinter group of charter schools – those intended for wealthy districts where parents line up for dual-language instruction (or public financing of yeshivas or its Mandarin equivalent) – SOS undermines efforts to establish functional schools in areas desperate for them.

Should residents of high-achieving districts get to vote on whether or not to fund charter schools? Maybe. Should residents of high-achieving districts get to write legislation that determines whether or not impoverished families have access to alternatives to their failing district schools?

Camden is not Princeton. What’s best for kids in one is not necessarily what’s best for kids in another. Do the SOS moms really believe that the kids in Camden are better off in Camden High than in another school? Are they willing to write off impoverished minority kids because their parents don't vote? Reality check: in Camden High School 80.7% of kids fail the language arts portion of the high school proficiency test. Everyone fails the math portion. No one takes A.P. tests. 23% of the kids drop out (and that’s the number that Camden fesses up to; it’s “self-reported.”) SAT scores average in the 300’s. 42% of the Class of 2010 actually graduated.

It's wonderful that SOS's moms are politically savvy and committed to their kids' traditional public schools. It would be great if they'd find the courage to come right out and say what everyone knows: this legislation might benefit our Princetons and Millburns and Maplewoods, but it will damage our Camdens and Trentons and Newarks.

Another thought: in some ways this legislation is an inverse of the widely-derided "Parent Trigger Bill" proposed by Republican Sen. Joseph Kyrillo. His bill is modeled after the Compton "Parent Revolution" movement, which advocates that if 51% of parents in a school district vote to close a school then majority rules. Ironically, the Compton bill is intended to give minority parents the power to close failing traditional public schools and replace them with charters, while the SOS-NJ plan is to close off competition to successful traditional schools and stymie the expansion of charters.

Correction: a reader points out (see comments) that the charter legislation supported by SOS-NJ states, "[t]he commissioner shall not approve an application for the establishment of a charter school unless the establishment of the charter school has been approved by the voters of the district at the annual school election in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type II district, or the board of school estimate in the case of a charter school to be established in a Type I district." Here's the actual legislation.

Type I districts have appointed school boards; there are 21 county districts, 8 special services districts, and 21 with mayor-appointed boards. The other 553 school boards are elected by voters.

So some proposed charter schools could bypass voter approval, but they would still need the approval of an appointed school board. Either way, an approval is an unlikely scenario. Trustees would be loathe to approve a charter school because of the fear of loss of funds and kids in Camden still have no alternatives.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fact of the Day

If New Jersey were to fully fund its pension system, each household would have to pay an additional $2,475 per year in increased taxes. That's the highest per household deficit in the country, says today's New York Times. Alternatively, our state pension fund would need to see an annual return of 17.8% per year. Historically, returns have averaged about 8.8% per year.

Sleeping With the Fishes

SONNY (standing in front of Tom, who's seated):

No; no; no! No more! Not this time, consiglieri. No more meetin's, no more discussions, no more Sollozzo tricks. You give'em one message: I want Sollozzo -- if not, it's all-out war we go to the mattresses..
Where’s Francis Ford Coppola when you need him? This week NJEA’s leadership played Sonny from "The Godfather" and went to the mattresses over a bill to increase contributions to health and pension premiums. As PolitickerNJ reports, this was a violent miscalculation that, if the Assembly lines up as anticipated tomorrow, will diminish NJEA members’ paychecks. Apparently Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assemblyman John Wisniewski met with the leadersof NJEA, CWA, and AFT last weekend as the union heads were becoming “nearly desperate.” A deal was put on the table:
The deal would have capped the salary contribution at 3 percent for the cheapest of the health care plans. Legislative and union leadership had reportedly been within striking distance of an agreement Wednesday before the talks fell apart. State Sen. President Steve Sweeney said the contribution cap was put aside once the unions demanded that the low-cost plan be set by statute as opposed to by a helath care committee with management and labor represented.

That deal would also have removed a so-called sunset provision from the legislation and included a non-imposition clause that would preclude the governor from imposing his last best contract offer on public workers. The new proposal would have partially restored cost of living increases on pension payments.

Union leadership reportedly rejected that deal.
Whether the rejection of the deal was due to hubris, defiance, or an anachronistic perception of power, teachers will now pay the price. (Perhaps NJEA President Barbara Keshishian should rethink her new slogan, "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” That’s another old movie reference, this one from “Network” released in 1976. If she’s modeling herself on Howard Beale, then the union’s really in trouble.)

Bigger question: does this public demonstration of flawed strategy and waning power have an impact on NJ’s hopes for meaningful education reform?

Actually, NJEA can regain some relevancy by a proactive stance on anathema concepts like expanded school choice, tenure reform, and more rigorous teacher evaluations. The Christie Administration is already moving forward with a pilot of value-added evaluations based on student growth. The Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, while experiencing some growing pains, is expanding. Charter school accountability if being stepped up. Recalcitrance is so yesterday. Can the union become a player again by, well, playing?

Meanwhile, NJEA is planning another march across the Delaware River tomorrow with members dressed in Revolutionary War garb Is there any better depiction of irrelevancy than that? They’ll march across the river with pitchforks and muskets in their hands. And the Assembly will pass the bill. Here’s a different plan: get the focus off money and back on education by changing the conversation to ways to improve student performance. Talk about kids.

Quote of the Day

From an email sent by George Norcross to the management at Conner Strong & Buckelew and Cooper University Hospital, obtained by Jane Roh at the Courier-Post:

By now, you may have seen the multi-million dollar smear campaign and guerilla tactics funded by the New Jersey teachers union. They’ve attacked Governor Christie, State Senator Sweeney, me and many other champions of real education reform. Since my name has appeared frequently, as has the company’s, I want to give everyone some context.

Let’s be clear: the union isn’t fighting for taxpayers, nor for quality education at a reasonable cost. The unions are hell bent on protecting their coveted status quo. They want guaranteed job security and benefits for free. You know that model won’t work.

You could say the unions have made this personal. And, as a proud public school parent, it is personal. For too long, New Jersey has had a broken system — poor performing schools, higher taxes and an unprepared workforce. As a longtime champion of Cooper Hospital, I’ve seen the harm caused by a bad system. Strong, vibrant communities can only be built on a foundation of high-quality schools.

For decades, the New Jersey teachers unions have been a bully on the playground, knocking anyone over who got in their way. Today, there are too many people to knock over – largely because good ideas have a way of surviving. There’s a long and growing list of people bringing meaningful change and best practices to public education. My name is on it, along with many respected leaders from every corner of New Jersey.

Magnet Schools Score High in NJ

Newsweek has published its “1000 Top High Schools in America” list. Thirty-six of these high-achieving public schools are in New Jersey. The variables calculated are graduation rate, college matriculation rate, AP tests taken per graduate, average SAT scores, average Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate scores, and AP courses offered. The top ten of our 36 are High Technology in Lincroft, Bergen County Academies, High School of Biotechnology in Freehold, Dr. Ronald McNair Academy in Jersey City, The Academy for Allied Health Sciences in Scotch Plains, Union County Magnet in Scotch Plains, Bergen County Technical, Livingston High School, Ridgewood High School, and Haddonfield Memorial High School.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Pension/Benefits Reform Bill Passes

A few minutes ago the State Senate passed a bill by a vote of 24-15 that requires higher pension and health benefits contributions from public employees, including NJEA members. The bill also raises the retirement age to 65, early retirement to 30 years, and eliminates a pension loophole that allowed elected officials to collect pensions while continuing to work. The bill will sunset in four years, upon which collective bargaining for benefits contributions will resume. Here's more info from PolitickerNJ.

Norcross Provision X-ed Out

Blue Jersey is reporting on an excision to the pending bill before the Assembly Budget Committee regarding changes to public employees' pension and health benefits plan. Section 76, which would have barred employees from using out-of-state hospitals, has been pulled from the bill:
Under the new legislation, the entirety of Section 76 of the pending pensions and health benefits reform legislation (S-2937/A-4133) would be repealed. It would be replaced by language that would direct the new health care boards to create insurance plans that would specifically include only in-state providers, and other plans that would include coverage for out-of-state providers. No employee would be forced to choose the in-state option.

Cliffs and Fences

Democrats are in a bind. They can’t tell the unions to go to hell, and they can’t follow them off the cliff. But the fence they’re straddling is getting awfully thin.
That’s Mike Antonucci describing the shifting political landscape that's wedged a berm between Democratic governors and public employee unions. He could just as well be describing the dynamics between NJ’s Democratic legislators and union workers, including the members of the teachers union, NJ Education Association. Except that Democratic legislators seem pretty close to telling them to go to hell.

At 10 this morning the Assembly Budget Committee will hear A4133, which “makes various changes to pension and health care benefits for public employees.” (The Star-Ledger has a precis on the bill; so does NJ Spotlight.)

One particular part of the bill – that Jersey union employees get heavily penalized for using out-of-state hospitals and practitioners --– is getting much (negative) attention. That section of the bill is now known as the Norcross Provision, because – drumroll – South Jerseyans regularly bypass Cooper University Hospital in Camden to seek health care in Philadelphia and Cooper's board chairman is George Norcross. No offense, but that codicil is pretty sleazy. Gov. Christie should refuse to sign it because it’s quintessentially un-Republican – you’re all about free market competition, right? – and the Democrats, many of whom owe their livelihood to Norcross – should find their testicles. It’s bad enough to live or work in Camden. At the very least you should be able to tend to your health matters in the fine hospitals that dot the City of Brotherly Love. Seriously. Drop the Norcross Provision.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

“Wednesday may go down as the day the unions died. The agreement reached last week among Governor Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver to reform the public pension and health benefits system may be the most historic event in New Jersey since George Washington took a boat across the Delaware River.” That's The Record's Editorial Board.

Some dispute over who's in that boat. According to the NJEA website, tomorrow's protest march against the bill to increase health and benefits contributions is the "Second Battle of Trenton." Public employees "will come to Trenton by the thousands to reclaim the Capitol City for the people of New Jersey." Um, that would make it the Third Battle of Trenton, right? The Second Battle occurred in 1776 when General Washington crossed the Delaware to slip back into Trenton and fight the King's Troop, the second time in 8 days.

The Courier-Post Editorial Board wonders, “what force has suddenly left the New Jersey Education Association, once the most powerful lobbying organization in Trenton, staggering around like a wounded tiger, growling at everyone and trying to figure out what allies it has left?”

In The Lobby parses NJEA’s strategy, wondering at the possibility of an attempt to unseat Sen. Sweeney and Assemblywoman Oliver so that NJEA (and others) can have “new leaders who the public sector unions think they can work with.” Joe Cryan, who has loudly denounced the new legislation on salary and pension benefits, is a possible candidate for elevated office.

A sticking point
on the health and pension benefits legislation winding its way through the Legislature: under the Sweeney plan public employees, including teachers, would be prohibited from getting out-of-state hospital treatment. Sweeney says it’s to save struggling Jersey hospitals. Unsolicited advice: this is not a hill to die on.

NJ Spotlight analyzes the legislation that’s causing all this fuss.

Derrell Bradford has a new gig. The Courier Post profiles Better Education For Kids (B4K), a 501(C)4 which will advocate for an education reform agenda, specifically bipartisan reform, and try to fight back against NJEA’s p.r. machine. Here's B4K's first ad.

Don’t miss Leslie Brody’s story in The Record on Public School 10 in Paterson where teachers combat impoverished and apathetic parents, administrators suffer tenure laws that ban them from getting rid of the worst teachers, and kids are so far behind that the principal says that every student in the school could legitimately be held back.

Nine NJ school districts will pilot a value-added teacher evaluation system, reports NJ Spotlight.

The Star-Ledger reports that about 300 Newark high school students, close to half of them registered at Barringer High School, have “repeatedly failed to pass the state’s traditional or alternative high school proficiency exam and will not graduate…”

“One quarter of NJ’s superintendents will retire or seek employment elsewhere at the end of this school year,” reports the Star-Ledger. Richard Bozza, director of the NJ Association of School Administrators, called the salary cap on superintendent salaries “crippling.” What about all those principals and asst. superintendents who can now apply for the vacant slots? Nope, says, Bozza. They make more money in the lower positions than they can make as superintendents. There are no salary caps in those positions that limit income.

Friday, June 17, 2011

NJEA: Betrayed, Bothered, and Bewildered

The big news today is that the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in a 9-4 vote released legislation that would increase public employee contributions to health care premiums from 1.5% to between 3.5%-35% of the premium. Higher-paid employees would contribute more and lower-paid employees would contribute less. Pension contributions would also go up by a percentage point or two, and the increases would be phased in over a few years.

The bill now goes to the Assembly Budget Committee on Monday, and then to the full Senate on Thursday.

It’s unclear whether Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver’s proposal to have the legislation sunset after four years is still a go.

Amidst the Senate deliberations yesterday, public worker unions, including NJEA, held a smaller-than-expected rally; the subsequent news reports and editorials in today’s papers largely express astonishment at the loss of power of collective bargaining units. Here’s a sampling:

Vince Giordano, NJEA Executive Director, sounded both bewildered and threatening in NJ Spotlight:
The NJEA and other unions will find it hard to back Democrats who voted to take away collective bargaining rights. Why Democrats would think it is in their advantage to try to out-Christie Christie makes no sense to me.
Bill Lavin, president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association, tried on a Dirty Harry persona with the Star-Ledger: "If this bill passes, the only thing that sunsets will be the Democratic Party. "

Charles Stile in The Record interviewed a shop steward, Bill Perry. Writes Stile,
Perry, a die-hard labor guy, was reflective and realistic. Sure, his brothers and sisters took a defiant stand and declared war on the "Christie Democrat" traitors who abandoned their cause, but in truth, the once-powerful and feared public labor unions are on the brink of a political Waterloo, Perry acknowledged.
Stile concludes,
Union leaders once strode the hallways with a polite, but cocksure manner, knowing their phone calls would be returned, their bills amended, their concerns accommodated. Now they are reeling in a rear-guard retreat, scrambling to find their footing in the rapidly changing political landscape. And worse, they can no longer turn to the legislative leadership for redress.
Tom Moran in the Star-Ledger eulogizes,
Mark this as the day that the spell was broken, the day that the public worker unions finally lost their stranglehold on the Legislature, the day that Democrats ginned up the courage to confront the most important special interest group in their coalition.

Union leaders were in a daze, like jilted lovers who couldn’t believe the breakup was actually happening.
Moran adds, "the unions didn’t seem to get it. At the rally, they sang songs about the working class and the rich, as if they were coal miners seeking out a meager wage, as if middle-class taxpayers were the greedy mine owners. "Have we dealt with this situation well?" asked Vince Giordano, the political operative for the state’s teachers union. "Yes, without question."

Charles Doblin of The Record debates the NJEA's tin-earred attack ads:
The New Jersey Education Association is desperate. It has long been able to do what it wants because it controlled public officials. It is fast becoming irrelevant. Key Democrats are no longer concerned about union support. When the moon is eclipsed, tides do strange things.
And on the passage of the pension and benefits reform bill through the Senate committee, "This was about power. And the NJEA is flat out of puppets and power."

NJEA, don't despair; the dirges are premature, and the animus towards public worker unions will fade. You still have pocketfuls of political chits to cash in and plenty of allies. But Giordano's bravado and NJEA's rapid response team (now running a "Wisconsin Comes to NJ" ad) only prolongs the union flaccidity. Choruses of "We Shall Overcome" and "There Once Was A Union Maid" don't endear the public to you. Teachers are not coal miners; they're professionals, and they deserve professional leadership.

An example: both PolitickerNJ and the Courier-Post are reporting that union executives passed up a chance to modify the bill. From Jane Roh:
A State House source with direct knowledge of negotiations that produced last night’s pension and health benefits reform deal confirmed what many of us have been hearing all day: public employee unions rejected a compromise that would have ensured no employee paid more than 3 percent of salary toward health insurance.

That ceiling would have applied to employees across the board, regardless of income, the source said.

But, “the unions wanted full control of everything.”
Savvy union executives would have grabbed such a deal, but NJEA's leaders are awash in indignation and self-righteousness. Today's headlines could have contained encomiums to the diplomacy and legislative brilliance of leaders who protected members from contributions to health premiums of up to 35% (for the highest-paid administrators). Instead the public today is reading about the CWA spokesman, Christopher Shelton, who called Gov. Christie a Nazi and Sen. Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Oliver “Adolph Christie’s generals.”

Right now the lack of union leadership and its inability to craft a compromise is more damaging than an extra percentage point in pension contributions.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

NJ Democratic Identity Crisis

The New Jersey Education Association has released an expensive ad that accuses Republican Gov. Christie and Senate President and Democrat Steve Sweeney of caring "more about paying political bosses than protecting NJ taxpayers" by collaborating on health and pension reform for public workers, including teachers. It's a risky move by the Union, driven by fear of both benefits and education reform. The ad includes multiple references to George Norcross, a powerful Democrat and supporter of charter schools and vouchers. Norcross is also a patron to both Sen. Sweeney and Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver; the Assemblywoman, after some back and forth, now seems poised to allow the pension/benefits bill to come to the floor of the Legislature.

How are Democratic leaders in NJ responding to the NJEA ad? Here's a sampling of quotes from today's papers that reveals how education reform discombobulates traditional party alliances.

George "Powerbroker" Norcross: “When we’re aware that 87 percent of public schools in Camden are considered failing by the Department of Education and eight miles away my children get a quality education, there’s something wrong with America. There’s something wrong with New Jersey. I’m embarrassed by the Democratic Party, to be frank. We should be the leaders on education reform,” he said. (Asbury Park Press.)

NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano: Democrats are making a “very, very dangerous mistake” by backing the bill. “It is a party who has seemed to lose its way in terms of middle-class values, working people values. That is the base of the Democratic Party, and when they take issues of this nature and try to out-Christie Christie on it, I think they are losing their base.” (The Record.)

Senator Steve Sweeney: “The NJEA is fiddling with our teachers’ money while Rome burns...This $1 million attack ad won’t do a thing to save the pensions of hundreds of thousands of teachers and retirees from collapse, or give property tax payers any relief from the ever-increasing weight of health benefits that hangs around their necks.’’ (The Record)

NJEA President Barbara Keshishian: [Sen. Sweeney] is "apparently more interested in protecting the interests of George Norcross than the interests of taxpayers." (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Former Gov. Jim Florio: The NJEA ads are "“the very opposite of responsible, the very opposite of constructive dialogue. We try to think of teachers – and I think the vast majority of them are – as role models. And that’s not what it is we’ve seen (in these ads)…I would hope that teachers themselves would reach out to their leaders. (PolitickerNJ)

U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-NJ): "Instead of spending its resources attacking Mr. Norcross and those who seek a better city, the state NJEA leadership should join local leaders – including local NJEA members – in a common effort to improve education for the children of Camden.” (PolitickerNJ.)

Bergen County Assembly Representatives Valerie Vainieri Huttle(D- 37), Gordon Johnson(D- 37), Joan Voss(D- 38) and Connie Wagner(D-38): "Our Democratic Party principles are to stand with the working families that unions represent. Public workers, teachers, police officers, firefighters and the many other employees who dedicate themselves to our state, deserve a seat at the bargaining table to decide their own fate. These people are New Jersey. We must continue to preserve their fundamental right to collectively bargain." (Press Release)

Rev. Reginald Jackson, Director of the NJ Black Ministers Council: “I salute George Norcross, I salute Steve Sweeney, in fact, I applaud Gov. Christie…Our fight is not with the NJEA, but our fight is on behalf of our children.” (PolitickerNJ)

Newark Mayor Cory Booker: “"Let’s raise a level of dialogue. We cannot keep blaming each other when our children, at the end, fail and falter.” (PolitickerNJ)

The debate about school reform is “unfortunately degenerating into shallow name calling, mistruths and really undermining what should be a robust and dialogue. It’s unfortunate we’ve seen really a shallow attempt to vilify individual actors who have a record established on serving the educational interest of not just all of New Jersey’s kids, but particularly New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.” The NJEA ad is “a departure from the sensible, was painful and poisonous, and not in any way adding to what is going to be necessary to move us forward.” (The Star-Ledger)

Assembly Speaker Joe Cryan: “For those of us who haven’t sold out our party, we decline to accept. And for those of us who work for a living, we decline to agree,” Cryan said in a telephone interview. “The speaker [Oliver] doesn’t have the majority of her own caucus, and as the majority leader, I say she shouldn’t put it up [for a vote]. And as for the rest of us, we all want health care. We all believe in a better life for us and our children. And how terrible it is that the Democratic Party today chose to take a different path.” (The Record)

Hetty Rosenstein, CWA New Jersey state director: “We expected this from Gov. Christie, but we did not expect so-called Democratic leaders to abandon working families. Make no mistake: More than one million unionized New Jerseyans are passionate, engaged and outraged — and the soul of the Democratic Party is at stake,” she said. (Asbury Park Press.)

Former NJEA senior executive Jeannine LaRue: "I can’t recall the union going after a citizen... They really wanted to go after him for the education reform...Competition is healthy. I believe that even the public schools will perform better.” (PolitickerNJ)

Professor Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University: "The reality is, it takes a lot to slay these dragons." If NJEA leaders "essentially declare war on what heretofore have been political allies, they really risk this protracted situation where they lose their political clout and ability to work with legislators in the future." (Philadelphia Inquirer)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Trenton Community Charter vs. Grace Dunn

The NJ Department of Education is closing Trenton Community Charter School, reports the Trenton Times. The pre-k – 8, founded in 1997, has 540 kids who will now return to traditional district schools.

The charter school is closing because it is “plagued by low test scores.” That’s a good reason for closure; in fact, according to the 2010 DOE database, 55.6% of 8th graders at Trenton Community Charter failed the standardized test in language arts, 72.7% of them failed the math portion, and 40% of them failed the state science test.

So now those kids will most likely attend Grace Dunn Middle School, where 60.2% of 8th graders failed the language arts portion of the standardized test, 71.9% failed the math portion, and 58.7% failed the state science test.

There’s much discussion about the lack of accountability of charter schools. (Here’s a piece from NEA that enjoins states to increase oversight.) But what happens when a traditional public schools fails despite increased funding and attention? Can't close it down, but the odds of ramping up performance seems illusory at best. Grace Dunn Middle School, the depository for those kids at the Trenton charter school, for example, is in its 8th year as a School In Need of Improvement. But no one can close it down, and middle schoolers in Trenton now have no alternative placement.

Quote of the Day

A source told tonight that the NJEA will go "nuclear" tomorrow with a huge anti-Sweeney-Christie-Norcross ad.

Described as hard-hitting, the ad will combine with a Thursday public workers rally at the Statehouse, said the source.

"Saving the NJEA from Itself"

Check out my column in today's NJ Spotlight, which includes suggestions to the union leadership on a strategy makeover.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Christie as Henry V

Over at Jay P. Greene's blog Matthew Ladner finds the poetry within NJ's education reform travails:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A state for a stage, governors to act
And lobbyists to behold the swelling scene!

Then should the warlike Christie, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should vouchers, sword and outsourcing
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty gardens of New Jersey? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very debates
That did affright the air at Trenton?

Pension and Benefits Reform Update

A compromise bill is rolling through the Legislature with a provision that the whole megilla sunset in four year and contribution rates return to the provenance of the negotiating table. The Asbury Park Press reports on some features of the Christie/Sweeney/Oliver bill:
  • The 9% increase in pensions, which dates back to 2001, would not be overturned, as was Gov. Christie’s wont.
  • No change in retirement age for current employees.
  • No increase in the number of final years used to compute pensions.
  • All public workers (including teachers) would contribute 6.5% of their salaries towards pensions. Current contribution is 5.5%.
  • All employees would make higher contributions to health insurance premiums based on a sliding scale, topping out at 35% of premium costs.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver has proposed a compromise plan that would allow the Legislature to set the amount that public employees contribute to health and pension premiums, but the bill would sunset after three years, allowing benefits contributions to return to the district bargaining table. The Star-Ledger Editorial Board applauds Oliver's craft. The less enthusiastic Courier-Post advises Oliver to “quit swallowing union leaders' hyperbole, which apparently tastes good when it comes with huge plates of campaign contributions.”

And the Gloucester County Times Editorial Board urges the Legislature to pass the benefits reform bill proposed by Sen. Sweeney, in part to alleviate the slew of impasses at the school district level: “If troublesome issues like the parameters of public-employee health benefits could be resolved at the state level, local school boards and the unions would be less hesitant to settle remaining contract issues.”

The Record reviews the DOE’s new formula for computing total cost per pupil, which now includes costs for transportation, debt service, federal funds, and the costs of tuition for students sent out of district.

NJ Spotlight reports on a new appeals process for students who take NJ’s alternative high school proficiency test, the AHSA. The AHSA is offered after a student fails the traditional assessment, the HSPA, three times.

The Star-Ledger’s “Truth-O-Meter” did some due diligence on Gov. Christie’s comment that over the last 10 years 17 teachers out of 150,000 have been dismissed for incompetence. Conclusion: “mostly true.”

Gov. Christie announced legislation that will create a pilot program of public-private partnerships for five schools in chronically failing districts. Local school boards have to sign on and for-profit companies are eligible. NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said, "It is part of his ongoing effort to privatize public education in New Jersey. Under the guise of helping students, he is attempting to create a system that would funnel taxpayer dollars to private companies." Hey: it’s working in Philadelphia.

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board praises NJ’s high school graduation rate.

From the Asbury Park Press: "Toms River Regional’s former insurance broker received an unknown amount in excessive payments from the school district under a system so convoluted that it represented “either exceptionally poor management or intentional mismanagement,” a detailed fiscal review found."

Asbury Park Schools Update: the Board there voted 5-4 to go to court over State Fiscal Monitor’s decision to overturn the Board’s vote on whether or not to retain the current Business Administrator. The Board wanted to fire her, in spite of the fact that she was “credited with cleaning up a number of financial irregularities since being hired in 2008.” Your tax dollars at work.

The Trentonian has video on the “abomination” of a superintendent search in Hamilton Township. Trenton Times coverage here.

The New York Times reports today that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will use his executive authority to give states a pass on the NCLB requirement that all children attain proficiency by 2014.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Oops Redux

Hey, I know it's been a hot week and all, but the error cited in the OLS letter (see post below) regarding the amount of money needed to fully fund the Abbott districts is not 1.2% but 12%. Any math majors out there in OLS-land?


NJ Spotlight is reporting that there was a little mix-up by the Office of Legislative Services: turns out that the OLS’s original estimate of how much money it would take to fully fund our 31 needy Abbott districts was off by about $52 million. It will take $447 million, not the $500 million originally estimated and, ergo, ordered by the State Supreme Court. From the OLS letter dated yesterday:
We have been reviewing the assumptions and formulaic operations of our simulation. It appears that the original simulation had an error in the part of the formula that calculated the at-risk weights for certain districts. The effect of this error was to overstate the full cost of SFRA for the former Abbott districts in FY2012 by $52 million or 1.2%. As a consequence, it is our belief that complying with the term of the court decision will require the appropriation of $447 million above the level required in the Governor’s Budget Message.

Sheila Oliver: Bring the Bill to the Assembly Floor

Should local schools be responsible for negotiating employee contributions to premiums for health care or should such contributions be legislated? That’s the question before the Senate and Assembly as Speaker Sheila Oliver wonders whether to bring to the floor a bill that would cut school boards and local NJEA units out of the loop.

With all due deference to the 4,800 devoted volunteer school board members who oversee our 591 school districts, any meaningful reform must come from the top down.

Every three years (typically) your local school board sits with its attorney at a table across from members of the district's local bargaining unit, or NJEA local. The union side is represented by a negotiator from an organization called Uniserv whose members are trained by NEA, NJEA’s parent association. (There are more Uniserv political organizers available to NEA locals than the all those employed by both the Republican and Democratic National Committees.) The list of potential proposals from both sides, school board and local union, can be lengthy and, of course, employee contributions to health care premiums are up for discussion.

Districts can make inroads in some areas, but employee contributions and other compensation-related items? Not so much. That’s in large part because we have so many school districts and the dynamics of negotiating are tightly constrained by contracts in neighboring areas. If a district around the corner has a contract that stipulates that employees don’t contribute anything, it’s unlikely that the school board negotiating team will successfully negotiate a contribution. Have to stay competitive, right? And if the school board digs its heels in and impasse is declared, then the State appoints a mediator who makes a recommendation based on comparisons to other surrounding districts. And so it goes.

It’s an endless loop, a sort of tautological dance. Now, that’s not to say that some local boards and unions don’t come to agreement on important issues. They do. But not on third rails like employee benefits contributions.

In fact, until the Legislature mandated last year that employees contribute 1.5% of base pay, most NJEA members didn’t contribute anything. And until the 2% cap on district budgets was enacted, most school boards toed the line on annual salary increases of more than 4%.

Of course NJEA’s front office is lobbying heavily against the Christie/Sweeney legislation. Said President Barbara Keshishian, “This proposal totally circumvents the collective bargaining process, and would cost the average teacher thousands of dollars in take-home pay for diminished pensions and health benefits.”

But the point is that the collective bargaining process precludes meaningful change on financial items, including employee contributions. Without help from the Legislature school boards will continue to be stymied by the ponderous status quo. If indeed it is time for public employees to make higher contributions to health and pension benefits, then it will take an edict from up high, not movement down below.

Pension/Benefits Reform Politics

Here’s the latest: Senator Steve Sweeney is determined to bring a full package before the Senate on Thursday, but Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver is still stalling. PolitickerNJ notes that the split among the Democrats in the Assembly is largely geographic: South Jersey legislators are ready to pass a full bill that increases public workers’ contributions to health benefits and pension premiums, but North Jersey legislators are only sold on the pension part. Gov. Christie says he won’t sign a bill that separates pension reforms from benefits, and Sen. Sweeney isn’t willing to bring such a bill to the floor of the Senate.

Assemblywoman Oliver is between a rock and a hard place. Her leadership is threatened by her inability to herd Assembly Democrats, but if she can’t get the bill through then she risks the wrath of voters.

Oliver’s predicament is emblematic of the shifting political winds regarding the power of unions. She’s relied heavily in the past on the ability of NJEA, for example, to swing voters. On the other hand, she owes her seat to George Norcross, who is now an ardent supporter of both the Opportunity Scholarship Act (the voucher bill) and the expansion of charter schools. (See today's NJ Spotlight for more on Norcross.)

Best guess is that Speaker Oliver will bring the bill to the Assembly after a little more more gnashing of teeth. She's no fool. The rift between North Jersey and South Jersey lawmakers on the need for higher employee contributions remains significant, but there's far less division among voters throughout the State.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Education Law Center Merger Talks

The New York Times
is reporting today that NJ’s Education Law Center, primary advocates for poor urban districts known as Abbotts, may merge with New York City’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The NYC operation is out of money and down to one employee.

While NJ’s Supreme Court has maintained its power in allocating money to Abbott districts, NY’s court system has “largely left it to the Legislature to decide how much additional money should flow to poor districts” after Campaign for Fiscal Equity won its case thirteen years ago. Said ELC’s Executive Director David Sciarra, “We’ve been asked to explore how the center can continue the C.F.E. legal effort to secure adequate funding for New York’s school children.”

Bret Schundler Winging It To Sunnier Climes?

The Star-Ledger is reporting that NJ's erstwhile Commissioner of Education, Bret Schundler, is one of nine candidates under review by Florida Governor Rick Scott. Schundler was fired by Gov. Christie after becoming enmeshed in the union politics of Race To The Top while trying to salvage our application for the federal education competition. Who says you get any thanks for trying to be a hero? Anyway, it can't be any hotter down there than it is here.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Quote of the Day

From NY1:
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People says some charter students get more resources than the public school students. They're now suing the city to keep 17 charters from expanding. But charter school parents say charters offer a better education and give black and Hispanic families the power of school choice.

"I don't really understand why the NAACP would be supporting a lawsuit that is threatening to take away educational opportunities for children of color," said one charter school parent."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


It's like a new reality show: NJ's strangest alliances. Yesterday NJ Spotlight profiled the partnership between Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic “power broker” George Norcross as they joined hands in Camden to promote the Opportunity Scholarship Act, which would provide state-funded vouchers for poor kids to attend private or parochial schools. And here’s a piece from today’s Wall Street Journal on another counter-intuitive dynamic: the NAACP (along with the New York City’s teachers’ union UFT) is suing New York City in an attempt to keep NYDOE officials from closing two dozen of its worst schools. From the Journal:
The truth is that the decision is not in the least mystifying. For those who understand that our big city public school systems have become jobs programs for teachers and administrators, the NAACP's response makes perfect sense. That's because there are many African-American teachers in these systems, many of whom presumably belong to the NAACP.

Yes, there are political and ideological affinities between the organizations. The NAACP has long been a key part of the same Democratic coalition of which the teachers unions are the most powerful component. Yes, on the 990 Forms filed by, say, the National Education Association you will find the occasional contribution to the NAACP. The NAACP, however, does not have to be bribed.

The reason is simple: The NAACP is doing in New York what the United Federation of Teachers is doing, and for the same reason: protecting the interests of its members.

NJEA Needs a Primer on Political Strategy

Case in point is the union’s endorsement of NJ Senate-hopeful Jerome Dunn (Union), running in the primary today as part of a slate called Democrats for Change against incumbent Ray Lesniak. Yeah, we get the antipathy towards the Opportunity Scholarship Act, otherwise known as the “voucher bill.” Senator Lesniak is a primary sponsor of the bill, but he’s also been a favorite of NJEA for decades and the odds of him losing to Dunn, Assistant Superintendent of the Elizabeth public schools, are slim to none. Yet NJEA is pulling out all the stops in supporting Dunn and, in doing so, allying themselves with the political cesspool that is the Elizabeth Board of Education.

From RealClearPolitics: "The state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, has endorsed Dunn. Though Lesniak has been a longtime friend of labor and the NJEA has a running feud with Christie, the veteran lawmaker supports school vouchers and the union does not."

For a bit of the back story check out Bob Braun’s column in the Star-Ledger and John Mooney in NJ Spotlight.

Just how political is the Elizabeth School Board? The school district website features a rebuttal from Board President Marie Munn in response to a recent expose in the Star-Ledger that concludes that the district is rife with nepotism (at least 20 relatives of Board members are employed by the School Board); that the former Board president has six relatives employed there, including a sister who is paid more than $50K a year as truant officer for preschoolers despite the fact that preschoolers are not obliged to attend school; that administrators and board members pressure employers to make campaign contributions. Braun also points out that the district has a history of appointing union leaders to administrative posts, including the brother of NJEA Executive Director Vince Giordano. It’s pretty grim.

(In response the Elizabeth Education Association has a letter out to members that agrees that support for NJEA-endorsed candidates is voluntary yet urges them to support Dunn and the rest his slate.)

Bob Braun queries Sen. Lesniak on why NJEA would insert themselves into this rathole. Lesniak replies that NJEA doesn’t want to “alienate on of its biggest locals:”
"The union and the school board are virtually one entity,’’ says Lesniak. And the school board represents the last vestiges of the old political machine of the late Thomas Dunn, the former, longtime Democratic mayor — who also didn’t mind endorsing Republicans. But Dunn didn’t like the local union and fought against making the board an elected body because, he warned, it would be taken over by the union.
The Star-Ledger story makes note of emails send by Elizabeth board member Paul Perreira to employees asking for a donation of $240 to support a group called For the People of Union County. The money is used to put out a weekly newsletter called The Union County Reporter, which is essentially campaign literature, much of it featuring Dunn.

So why would NJEA insert itself into this mess? Beats me. If Dunn loses, the union has a statewide demonstration of its impotence. If Dunn wins (which seems unlikely) then they’ve ousted a powerful education supporter who just happened to fail the litmus test on vouchers.

Update: the Democrats for Change slate -- led by Jerome Dunn and endorsed by the Elizabeth teachers' union -- won in Elizabeth lost night but lost everywhere else. Here's PolitickerNJ's story, which reports that Sen. Lesniak's slate "thrashed" its challengers.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Quote of the Day

Jonathan Alter praises education reform and disparages eminent historian Diane Ravitch, whom he describes as "the education world’s very own Whittaker Chambers, the famous communist turned strident anti-communist of the 1940s. Ravitch moved the other way, from right to left, where she now uses phony empiricism to rationalize almost every tired argument offered by teachers unions." Boy, is Dr. Ravitch pissed.

Anyway, more from Alter's essay:
America’s education-reform movement - - the most significant social movement of our time -- is just completing another productive school year, with hundreds of districts beefing up accountability and standards.

Amid grim news about budget cuts, the year brought new awareness that relying on seniority alone in determining teacher layoffs is mindless. It’s like saying that if the Chicago Bulls wanted to cut costs, they should start by releasing Derrick Rose, the NBA’s MVP, because he has only been in the league for three years.

Sunday Leftovers

The Asbury Park Press Editorial Board praises Assembly Speaker Sheila Olivier for her willingness to accept a legislative solution to the public employee health and benefits problem, noting that her position "shows real political courage. It does, after all, move her closer to Gov. Chris Christie’s overall position and amounts to a rejection of a position closely held by the state’s unions, and even leaders within her own party, who want to keep health benefits a matter solely for collective bargaining."

Warning to you malfeasant school board members: Assembly Bill 444, signed by Gov. Christie this week, requires you to submit to criminal background checks at your expense. Here's the Assembly Democrats press release. CentralJersey profiles a hard-working school board member with a checkered past (43 years ago) who will likely loose his seat.

Many more districts (except for impoverished ones) are charging fees for sports and other extra-curricular activities, says the Press of Atlantic City.

NJ Spotlight looks at the new Common Core State Standards and its attendant assessments, which will tweak New Jersey’s current Core Curriculum Content Standards. Full roll-out will be in September 2014.

James Ahearn of The Record unpacks how the seven-member State Supreme Court whittled itself down to a 3-2 ruling on the most recent Abbott v. Burke school funding case.

The College Board has named West New York School District in Hudson County the “top small school district in the nation for advancing student readiness for college.”

Good piece in the Huffington Post on whether magnet schools perpetuate segregation. Here's Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division:
It is intolerable for school districts to continue operating schools that retain their racial identity from the Jim Crow era. If school districts are not willing to work collaboratively to eradicate the vestiges of de jure segregated schools, we will ask the courts to take the steps necessary to ensure that students of all racial backgrounds have the opportunity to attend diverse, inclusive schools.
Don't miss Louis Menand's New Yorker article where he debates the value of college in America.

The Thomas Fordham Foundation has a new report out called "Shifting Trends in Special Education" that examines data showing, for example, lower percentages of kids diagnosed with specific learning disabilities and mental retardation, but big upswings in the categories of autism and "other-health-impaired."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Quote of the Day

Each year the [U.S. Census] Bureau publishes a comprehensive report on public school revenues and expenditures. Coupled with education staffing statistics from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data, it gives us a fundamental picture of the finances and labor costs of the American public school system. The latest Census Bureau report provides details of the 2008-09 school year, as the nation was in the midst of the recession. That year, 48,238,962 students were enrolled in the U.S. K-12 public education system. That was a decline of 157,114 students from the previous year. They were taught by 3,231,487 teachers (full-time equivalent). That was an increase of 81,426 teachers from the previous year. This is not new information. We knew last October that the entire public education workforce—teachers, principals, administrators and support workers—grew by more than 137,000 employees during the recession. What the Census Bureau numbers add to that information is that we almost replaced every lost student with a new employee. Twenty-seven states had fewer students in 2009 than in 2008, but 16 of them hired more teachers. . . . It's an odd enterprise that reacts to fewer clients by hiring more employees.
Education journalist Mike Antonucci (hat tip Wall St. Journal)

Statehouse Update

Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver appears ready to move forward with legislation to reform health and pension benefits for public employees. Earlier in the week she dismissed the plans of Senator Sweeney to get by with a small cadre of Democrats and the bulk of Republicans. The Star-Ledger quoted Assemblywoman Linda Spender, who said that health care contributions should be negotiated at the bargaining table. (School boards across NJ swooned in horror.) But after a series of meetings with Gov. Christie and Sen. Sweeney, the Courier-Post reports today that Speaker Oliver said, “I may have a product.”

Apparently Gov. Christie has wiggled on his proposed 30% premium contributions regardless of employee income and “this has led to a breakthrough in the talks.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Abbott Rumor of the Day

During Judge Anne Patterson's confirmation hearing yesterday, according to NJ Spotlight, Senator Nia Gill mentioned that “there was talk that the Christie administration may bring a motion for reconsideration before the court, based on that argument [that the Court should not have rendered the recent Abbott decision with only three judges in the majority]." It would have to happen soon, with any such motion needing to be filed within 10 days of the decision, although that can be extended for "good cause."

In other words, the State may challenge the Abbott XXI ruling, which directs an additional $500 million in school funding to our 31 Abbott districts, on the grounds that only 5 Justices heard the case and only 3 reached consensus.

Quote of the Day

Princeton University President Shirley M. Tilghman in today's Trenton Times:
"I find it deeply paradoxical that the United States has, without question, the finest colleges and universities in the world but a K-12 education system that is leaving vast numbers of students behind” she said, noting that one in four students drops out of high school or fails to complete school on time in the U.S., a rate above the average of many other developed countries.

“What is worrisome about these data, which have been replicated in study after study, is that the relative performance of U.S. students has been steadily declining over the past quarter century,” Tilghman said. “What is downright distressing is the fact that a student’s chances of being in the bottom quartile and never finishing high school are almost entirely determined by his or her family circumstances. Just consider the fact that the best predictor of SAT score is family income.”

NJ's School Funding Enigma

The Associated Press has obtained an email memo written by Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. to NJ’s Republican legislators. In the memo Sen. Kean urges his fellow lawmakers to unify around a three-part plan that would eliminate the State Supreme Court from its leading role in determining the State’s annual financial obligation to (depending upon whom you ask) districts or schoolchildren.

NJ’s struggle over the power of the Judiciary to dictate State education spending is most recently represented in last week’s Abbott ruling, which requires the State to send an additional $500 million to our 31 poor urban districts. The memo from Sen. Kean includes, according to the A.P., "supporting a constitutional amendment ending judicial interference in school funding decisions and giving the state wiggle room to reduce education funding in lean budget years. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Steven Oroho of Sparta and co-sponsored by the other 15 members of the GOP caucus, was introduced in January but hasn't gained traction. It would require voter approval.”

Sen. Kean isn’t commenting. Regardless, it’s unclear how much support the NJ GOP could muster for removing the “thorough and efficient system of education” clause from the Constitution. Do we really want to leave funding for public education in the hands of legislators in the Soprano State? Not sure how that would fly with cynical voters.

In fact, there’s a whole lot to embitter the populace, at least those who dwell outside of our poor cities, over the State Supreme Court’s latest Abbott v. Burke ruling. Sure, the three judges who signed the 3-2 decision reiterate the reasons why they are forced to ignore the bulk of poor, needy kids who live outside of Abbott boundaries. But, surely, justice isn’t that blind.

I think it’s fair to say that it is a generally-recognized truth that it takes more money to educate needy children than it takes to educate kids who are unburdened by poverty, disability, lack of English fluency. To paraphrase Robert Copeland, Superintendent of Parsippany, who testified in the special hearing that preceded the Court ruling, some kids are born on third base and other kids can’t get out of the dugout.

The problem with the Abbott XXI is that it ignores that truth. Sure, we can retread the legalistic limitations of the Court’s remand, but either the Court controls school funding or it doesn’t. This latest and strangest circumscribed ruling tries to plow out some path to educational equity by allotting extra money to a small fraction of kids who need it, mostly in cities where decades of extra money has failed to achieve educational equity. But it just creates a whole new kind of inequity. If your folks are really poor and you live in an Abbott district then you get lots of resources. If your folks are really poor and you live in a non-Abbott district then you don’t get those resources. (Maybe this is a secret plan to repopulate Trenton and Camden.)

On a side note, when Education Law Center first started litigating Abbott back in the 1970’s, it fought for – and eventually won—an admission from the Court that poor kids should be funded at a level equal to rich kids so that they can access our thorough and efficient education system. But here’s the other side of the equation that we’ve left out: wealthier students need fewer resources.

That’s one of the politically unpalatable items that won’t appear on any legislator’s email memo. We may or may not spend too much on our really poor kids. But do we spend too much money on our rich and non-disabled kids, the ones born on third base?

The cost per pupil in plush Moorestown is $17,344. In Franklin Lakes (isn’t that near the homes of Housewives of NJ?) the budgeted cost per pupil is $17,086? It's $18,497 in South Orange-Maplewood. That’s home rule for you: the community is willing to pay close to what it would cost for private school tuition. So Abbott v. Burke brings us to a place where equity is measured by what the wealthiest of NJ's voters deem important, including a plethora of extra curricular activities like the Stock Brokers' Club offered in South Orange, or ski and snow-boarding lessons in Bedminster.

At Grace Dunn Middle School in Trenton the clubs are Newspaper, Yearbook, and Student Government. The link to "Special Events" is empty. The Trenton Public Schools website handily gives tips for avoiding bed bugs and headlice. Are we there yet? More pointedly, if equalizing money doesn't equalize educational opportunity -- and, three members of the State Supreme Court aside, most of us know that it doesn't -- what's a better metric?

I think there isn't one. The desideratum of the Court, Education Law Center, and anyone with a heart and a brain is indeed inscribed in our Constitution: access to a thorough and efficient education system. Abbott XXI doesn't get us there any more than Abbott I did. As long as we segregate our kids we segregate educational opportunity. All the money in the world won't change that.