Saturday, December 24, 2011

Out-Of-District Placements in Trenton

This morning’s Trenton Times highlights a new initiative from Trenton Public Schools to try to lessen the expense of educating children with disabilities. Currently Trenton sends 750 kids out-of-district (out of a total enrollment of 11,564 kids) to either private or county special ed placements. The total bill from out-of-district placements for those kids came to $38.8 million last year. After efforts from Interim Superintendent Raymond Broach and State Fiscal Monitor Mark Cowell, out-of-district placements dropped to 620 kids this year, at a projected cost of $37.3 million, or about $60,000 per child per year. (It’s not apparent from the article whether that figure includes transportation, which can add another $5-$10K per year.)

To try to control costs Trenton will reopen a shuttered school (Luiz Munoz-Rivera School) and create an in-district program for kids with behavioral problems. It’s a great idea, and the board and administration (not to mention the Fiscal Monitor) deserve props for proactivity. But it’s not just about money. Think about it: are 6% of Trenton’s students so significantly disabled that they need to be placed in segregated and restrictive placements?

There’s lots of factors that contribute to NJ’s high rate of out-of-district special ed placements. We classify a large number of kids as eligible for special education service (about 15% in NJ; the national average is between 9% and 10%). We have a plethora of small districts (591) and that makes it particularly difficult to assemble cohorts of kids with similar disabilities in order to comprise a classroom. There’s a sentiment among some parents that private school placements offer superior programming and therapists. Certainly in districts like Trenton an out-of-district placement is a ticket out of the generally bleak public school system.

Most significantly, we overclassify minority kids. A Harvard study published in 2007 notes that “school districts nationwide continue to improperly and disproportionately place minority students in special education classes.” In New Jersey in particular (as well as Florida, Alabama, Delaware, and Colorado) “the number of African-American students identified as mentally retarded was more than three times that of white students.”

Also check out this study from the NJ Center of Developmental Disabilities: "Where are We Now? Still Segregated in NJ."

Friday, December 23, 2011

How Peaceful is Camden?

The Courier-Post is all over Camden Public Schools’ failure to accurately report incidents of violence and vandalism. (See earlier story here.) Each year, per state mandate, districts file reports with the State DOE listing rates of violence and then the State reports out to the Legislature. While there has been a 6.4% increase in violent incidents (some of this, no doubt, attributable to the new Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying legislation), Camden Public Schools appears to be a land of milk and honey: there were only 29 incidents all of last year and only 35 for 2010-2011.

Among other districts in the area “almost 30 districts reported more violent incidents than Camden – including Audobon, Cherry Hill, Cinnaminson, and Washington Township.”

So how does Camden’s reported serenity – just 35 incidents all year -- align with reality? In 2010-2011 “Camden police officers responded to 308 such incidents involving students, according to police records obtained Wednesday. That’s 273 more cases than Young’s administration cared to report and perhaps several hundred more than actually happened because police don’t respond to every incident.”

Due to the discrepancy the State will now launch an investigation.

The responsibility for the fictional tranquility in the Camden Public Schools is on its Superintendent, Bessie LeFra Young, who is out on medical leave and not returning phone calls from either reporters or School Board members.

Under-reporting of violence and vandalism isn’t all that’s wrong with Camden. At Camden High, for example, only 21% of its students graduate by passing the state assessment, an 8th-grade level test. Average SAT’s are 330 in math and 340 in verbal. Not a single kid took an Advanced Placement course in 2009. 71% of its 9th-graders actually show up for school. According to state data, 23% of Camden High’s kids drop out – and that information is self-reported and may be as misreported as its violence and vandalism rates.

The Courier-Post’s Jeremy Rosen predicts that Camden Public Schools may be taken over by the State based on its failure to meet benchmarks on QSAC, which rates districts on instruction, personnel, operations, fiscal management and governance. A reliable source (well, editor of the paper and former Camden school board member) told Rosen that the Camden’s QSAC report was leaked and predicted that it will score less than 50% on instruction, personnel, operations and governance. Districts are required to score 80% on each section.

Will a state takeover help Camden’s school kids? Who knows. Doesn’t seem like it can get much worse.

Five NJ Education Winners Among Top 100

PolitickerNJ Powerlist of 2011, which recognizes the 100 most powerful people in New Jersey politics, is hot off the press. Here’s the education-related winners:

#3: George Norcross, Democratic “power broker” and champion of the Opportunity Scholarship Act and expansion of charter schools, particularly in Camden. Also recognized as “Winner of the Year” because “his entire South Jersey stable of politicians won their races” on Election Day.”

#28: David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, lauded for his take-down of Gov. Christie’s education funding cuts in Court this year.

#33: Chris Cerf, still “Acting” Commissioner of Education because of Sen. Ron Rice’s recalcitrance but undaunted, particularly in light of today’s announcement that NJ has (finally!) won $37.9 million in the federal competition Race To The Top to improve teacher and principal evaluation systems. (See Star-Ledger, Courier-Post, NY Times.)

#69: Reverend Reginald Jackson, head of NJ’s Black Ministers Council and supporter of public school choice and OSA. (Here’s a recent piece he wrote for NJ Spotlight.)

#92: Barbara Keshishian, President of NJ Education Association: “It was obviously another tough year for Keshishian and the NJEA, as members watched Christie and Senate President Sweeney tag-team to undermine NJEA and other union leadership and secure greater contributions for public-sector workers to their pension and healthcare benefits. But with nearly 200,000 members it’s still one of the biggest unions in the state.”

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NJ Legislature Not Expected to Pass Ed Reform Bills

WHYY is reporting that "New Jersey lawmakers are not expected to enact education reform proposals at next month's final meeting of the current legislative session." Bills that sought to reform teacher tenure and install merit pay are apparently off the table. There's no word (that I've heard) on bill that change charter school laws or give school districts the option of moving elections to November.

Abbott Preschools in Plainfield; the Straw Horse of Private vs. Public

I’d like to revisit a post from last week. In that post, “OSA [Opportunity Scholarship Act]: The False Dichotomy of Public and Private Schools,” I examined a statement by Julia Sass Rubin, spokesperson for Save Our Schools-NJ, which is lobbying against OSA and for public votes on new charters. In the statement Ms. Rubin said that OSA “would be funded directly from public school budgets. So it would absolutely take money out of the public school system to transfer to private and religious schools."

In that post I looked at her statement in the context of the full-day preschool programs offered in Abbott districts, where traditional public districts pay private and religious preschools to run early childhood education programs for 3-5 year-olds. I concluded that there wasn't that much difference between the proposal embedded in OSA and the NJ’s highly-regarded system of out-sourcing preschools for kids in Abbott districts.

In response to the post, Ms. Rubin commented,
As the Education Law Center has pointed out to you on numerous prior occasions, the publicly-funded pre-school program is tightly regulated and functionally run by the public school system. The private schools that would be the recipients of diverted public school dollars under the voucher scheme are completely unregulated -- lacking in standards and prone to abuse, exploitation and discrimination.
Okay. That’s fair. Our Abbott preschools are not “voucher schemes” but “tightly regulated and functionally run.” (Not sure how to square Ms. Rubin’s disdain for the NJ DOE’s ability to regulate charter schools and their deft touch with regulating preschools, but whatever.) Let’s look at these laudatory preschool programs in Plainfield, one of NJ's 31 improverished Abbott district.

In 2011 Plainfield Public Schools sent 1,433 children to 16 preschools. The total preschool budget is about $19.8 million, or about $13,840 per child per year. Recently the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance completed a fiscal review of four of these 16 preschools. Note that the reviews have no bearing on the curriculum of what may be stellar early childhood education programs.

The four preschools reviewed were Faheemah’s Child Care Center, Precious Steps Child and Development Center, King’s Daughters Day School, and B’s Nurturing Neighborhood. Fiscal irregularities were found at all four.

At Faheemah’s Child Care Center, described as “a non-profit organization owned by Faheemah El-Amin who serves as owner and full-time director,” Ms. El-Amin did not receive a salary for three quarters but instead paid her son the Director’s Salary. Rent for facilities wasn’t paid on time. Also, expenditure variances revealed that “the provider has not utilized current, accurate, complete, and reliable information. The use of inaccurate information impacts the fiscal component of the preschool education program.”

At Precious Steps Child and Development Center “DOE employees were compensated incorrectly,” teaching assistants were required to work a 50-hour work week (they’re supposed to follow the same contract provisions as Plainfield Public Schools), and a custodian received “unauthorized vendor payments.” According to the report,
The provider lacked the internal controls necessary to maintain accurate financial reporting of the DOE funded transactions.
At King’s Daughters Day School “the provider’s 2009-2010 budget planning worksheet and comparison to the actual expenses revealed an expenditure variance of $20,274.00” and “the provider appears to be non-compliant with contractual staffing standards…”

At B’s Nurturing Neighborhood, run by Beatrice Martin and her son William, there were two general ledgers that didn’t reconcile with each other. Ms. Martin holds two mortgages which expired in June 2008, and the payment invoice submitted to the district “did not reconcile to any other supporting mortgage loan agreement.” Also, “the district expressed serious concern related to the documentation to support the teachers’ and the teacher assistants’ health coverage.”

What does this all mean? Simply that the distinction drawn by Ms. Rubin and Education Law Center between the use of private/parochial preschools for young children in Abbott districts -- "functional" and "tightly regulated" -- and the use of private/parochial schools for older kids -- "a voucher scheme" -- is not so meaningful. Or at least not in Plainfield.

That’s not an argument for or against OSA, but merely a recognition that NJ's public education system already draws on a mix of private and public resources to educate children and some are more functional than others. The distinction betwen private and public institutions to educate children in NJ is not meaningful, merely a straw horse straddled by foes of school choice. Our energies could be put to better use by accepting the complexities of a spectrum of options potentially available to poor children in districts like Plainfield.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Quote of the Day

"In some ways, the story behind why [Christopher Cerf] is still only 'acting' makes him sound like a bad-ass," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York City. "For a guy who wants to break china and get things done, that's not a terrible problem to have."
From today's NJ Spotlight, on why Cerf, a full year after his appointment by Gov. Christie for the top NJ DOE slot, has yet to be confirmed by the State Senate because Sen. Ronald Rice is exercising his "senatorial courtesy." Reminiscent of recess in elementary school yards, the sort of "you've got the cooties" antics, no? Maybe Cerf can slap Rice with a Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying charge while Sen. Rice holds his breath until his face turns blue and make the whole Senate look infantile. No wonder people are fed up with government.

Charter School Bill "Thoroughly Misguided"

Neil Brown, Chief Academic Officer for RISE, which is designing a charter school for homeless kids and children of incarcerated parents, has a measured editorial in the Star-Ledger that explains why Assembly Bill 3582 is a mistake. The bill would require voter approval in order for a proposed charter school to get a green light by the DOE. This bill, Brown argues, is “ thoroughly misguided and symptomatic of a disappointing trend in how we view charter schools and the role they play in addressing the horrible inequities in our state.”

The original intent of charter schools, Brown reminds us, is not to compete with traditional public schools but to have the freedom to experiment with non-traditional ways of educating kids. Certainly, oversight must be “more scrupulous and rigorous,” but requiring a public vote is “absolutely the wrong way to go.”

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sunday Leftovers

There’s a bleak report out from Advocates for Children of NJ, which shows a 32% increase in the poverty rate among children of Newark. Regarding Newark's public education system, the Star Ledger reports that "an analysis of third graders’ performance on state reading tests from the 2009-2010 school year shows only 42 percent of traditional public school students and 46 percent of charter school students are proficient."

(There's quite a lot of variation between schools: "At Branch Brook Elementary School... 85 percent of third graders are proficient. At Camden Street Elementary School, just 10 percent of third graders can read at grade level.")

From the Courier-Post: 50 protesters "occupied" the NJ DOE on Friday to lobby legislators to pass a charter school bill that would subject all charters to a public vote.

Protesters got as far as the lobby, where they chanted “Charter reform now!” and milled around for about 10 minutes before being kicked out...Protesters marched and chanted things such as “Local control, that’s how we roll” and “We want a say in what we pay.” Some signs endorsed legislation, which has been approved by the Assembly but not in the Senate, that would require voter approval before the establishment of a charter school.

The State released the Violence and Vandalism report for years 2009-2011. According to the report (here) bullying and fighting, weapons offenses, and drug and alcohol use increased. Press release here.

NJ lost out on the most recent round of Race To The Top, which focused on grants for pre-school. From the Star-Ledger: "New Jersey lost the most points this time around for not having a system that tracks student achievement for kids younger than five and for failing to prove the state can teach all pre-schoolers living in poverty, many of whom have limited English proficiency." Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf says we're applying for the next round of up to $38 million. See The Record for more detail.

The lame duck session of the Legislature is winding down with minimal movement on education reform bills. Best bet is the bill that would give municipalities, school boards, and residents the option of moving school elections to November and bypassing budget votes for budgets that come in under the 2% cap.

NJ Spotlight points out that the public has no say in 65 local school budgets anyway because they’re already at the minimum tax levy specified in the School Funding Reform Act. Also in Spotlight: an update on the State’s new College and Career Readiness Task Force, which is set to deliver its report to Gov. Christie by the end of the month.

Geoffrey Canada, founder of Harlem Children’s Zone, discusses innovating entrenched systems (like public schools) in today’s NY Times.