Friday, March 30, 2012

Are There Qualified Teachers in Camden's Classrooms?

Today’s NJ Spotlight reports on the Senate Budget Committee’s “polite questioning” of Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, specifically regarding whether Gov. Christie’s budget shortchanged local districts through adjustments to the School Funding Reform Act (see Education Law Center's views in the post below) and the inevitable loss of federal stimulus money. From Spotlight:
Cerf defended the changes as mostly minor, but was also adamant that additional funding for some of the state’s most troubled districts is no longer the answer. He cited Camden schools, which spend more than $50 million above what the formula deems as adequate but still has many of the lowest performing schools in the state.
Instead of the money, Cerf said, “have we done everything in our power to ensure a qualified teacher in the classroom? I seriously doubt that.”
Okay, let’s look at Camden City. Camden High is too wretched to play the part in any non-histrionic discussion, so we’ll move over to East Camden Middle School, which serves 392 kids in 6th-8th grade. For a little context, Camden City Public Schools has a total enrollment of 13,000 kids, 32 schools, and a total operating budget of $303,635,179. (These are 2011 numbers from the DOE database.)

Is it possible to determine whether or not there’s “a qualified teacher in every classroom?” Let’s try, using data available from the DOE.

The kids who attend East Camden Middle School are mostly black and Hispanic, and just about everyone is economically-disadvantaged. For example, among the 115 7th graders who took the state assessment in language arts, 62 are black and 95 are Hispanic (some are both). Every single child is classified as economically-disadvantaged.

How’d they do on the standardized test? 68.8% of them failed the ASK7 in language arts, 30% were deemed “proficient,” and none were “advanced proficient.” Math scores were worse, except that 3% of kids were rated “advanced proficient.”

The children perform poorly. But what can we glean about teacher proficiency? One indicator could be faculty mobility: how many teachers quit each year, increasing the odds that students will be instructed by long-term or short-term substitutes? At East Camden Middle, 17% of the faculty entered or left the school during the 2009-2010 school year. The state average is 4%. There’s a challenge right there.

Another factor in quality instruction is daily consistency. One aspect of this is faculty attendance and at Camden Middle the rate was about 2.5% below state levels: 93.4% of East Camden teachers are present on each day.

The degrees attained by faculty – whether they have bachelors’, masters’, or beyond – are comparable to other districts.

Here’s what’s not comparable: salaries. The staff in Camden teach children with great needs, extending from impoverished backgrounds, widespread learning disabilities (21.7% of the kids who attend East Camden Middle School – more than one in five – are classified as eligible for special education services), and an unstable home life (the student mobility rate for the 2009-2010 school year was 34.7%). Yet the average annual compensation for teachers has dropped over the past few years, from $62,231 in 2008 to $60,373 in 2010. State averages for 2008 were $57,242 and $61,840 for 2010. So, while salaries in Camden were competitive in 2008– even on the high side, as they should be, -- by 2010 the average teacher in Camden is got paid less than a teacher working in far less stressful circumstances.

New Jersey does have a metric to rate teachers as “highly-qualified” or not, an NCLB requirement. But that’s all input, not output: teachers get designated as highly-qualified if they took the right courses and passed the praxis test. It has nothing to do with actual teaching. Most of NJ public schools list 100% of their staff “highly-qualified.” At East Camden Middle School it’s also 100%, which may tell us more about the low bar for a teacher to achieve “highly-qualified” status than anything else.

Here’s what we do know: the faculty mobility rate is very high and the salaries are relatively low. On the other hand, Camden Public Schools’ annual budget lists its total comparative cost per pupil at $19,549. Should more of that budget go to teacher salaries? Combat pay, anyone? Signing bonuses? NJEA has reiterated its opposition to differentiated salaries. But in what other profession do employees get paid less for taking on more challenging work?

Education Law Center: Christie is Doing "End Run" Around Legislature Re: School Funding

Education Law Center has released a statement and accompanying powerpoint that asserts the following:
As outlined in the [Ed. Comm.] Cerf [Education Funding] Report, the Governors proposed FY13 Budget, if adopted by the Legislature, would implement major changes in NJs school funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – that will trigger substantial cuts in funding for districts across the state in 2012-13. The Governor has made clear that he intends to impose these changes to the SFRA formula not just next year, but for the following four years. Put simply, the Governor intends to use the annual budget bill to make these changes permanent, bypassing the legislative process of amending the SFRA formula law.

What is also clear is that the changes proposed by the Governor would radically alter the SFRA formula from what the Legislature adopted in 2008 with bipartisan support. These changes include substantial reductions in funding for low income (at-risk) students, high poverty districts and charter schools, and English language learners (ELL). In addition, the Governor is proposing to change the method of counting students for school aid from the current enrollment method to average daily attendance, a widely discredited methodology that would cut funding to the states high need districts and charter schools.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Today's NewsWorks Post:: Tenure Reform

Check out my new post at WHYY's Newsworks, which deals with the politics of tenure reform, particularly the recent hedging of the NJ Senate Education Committee over the LIFO ("last in, first out") seniority provision after intense opposition by NJEA.

Indeed, at that Senate Education Committee hearing three weeks ago, Sen. Ruiz announced – to the shock of reform advocates in the room - a spanking-new emendation to the bill which would eliminate LIFO only for newly-hired staff members. Everyone else? Old rules apply.

The decision to gut the bill so that LIFO is eliminated only for new hires is like that scene from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" where the Thuggee cult leader rips the beating heart out of a sacrificial victim. All that's left is a dead body.

Politics demands compromise. But when does a concession become an evisceration?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Lakewood Parents' Group Speaks to Cerf

A new group called Lakewood UNITE, which represents minority children who attend Lakewood Public Schools, met with Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf yesterday to ask for help from the NJ DOE because, said Pastor Earl Jackson, “The money is coming in (to the district) but it is not going to the public school.”

How does that work? According to an article in today’s Asbury Park Press, there are about 20,000+ school-age children in Lakewood, but only 4,447 go to Lakewood Public Schools. The rest of the children, about 15,000 – 18,000 (depending upon whom you ask) go to Orthodox Jewish yeshiva, and the district provides busing, supplies, special education services for classified students, and even pays rent for afterschool activities for eligible children. That’s 400 private bus routes per day (boys and girls ride in separate buses).

In fact, Lakewood Public Schools allocates about $20 million per year out of a $100 million budget to transportation. In addition, as the New York Times has reported, many of the Jewish students who are enrolled in Lakewood Public Schools are classified as eligible for special education services, and Lakewood sends most of them to a school called The School For Hidden Intelligence, which “is known locally as a school for Orthodox families.” Annual tuition is about $100,000.

The impact on the regular enrollment – 80% Hispanic – is enormous. The graduation rate is 37%. On the high school assessment test in math, 67% of kids fail. The superintendent, the seventh in four years, just quit. This year alone the district has gone through three business administrators. Ten percent of the faculty leave each year. The Board is almost entirely manned by representatives of the Orthodox Jewish community.

According to DOE data the average cost per pupil is $12,320. But the comparative cost per pupil is $19,652. That huge discrepancy reflects the amount of resources that are devoted to non-public school students.

Hey – their parents pay taxes too, right? And kids with disabilities are eligible for suitable placements. Meanwhile, though, the kids who aren’t represented by the partisan Board get a raw deal.

Comm. Cerf plans to meet with the Board as a first step in addressing Lakewood's woes.

Poll of the Day: Teacher Tenure

A survey just released by Scholastic Education and the Gates Foundation (hold your fire!) interviewed 10,000 pre-K through 12th grade public school teachers about, among other things, their views on school policies. 90% of teachers surveyed said that tenure "should reflect evaluations of teacher effectiveness," and that tenure should "not protect ineffective teachers."

Here’s the survey. Here’s a report from the Huffington Post, which notes,
Teachers also called for more frequent and rigorous evaluations, echoing the education-reform movement. Eighty-five percent of teachers surveyed signaled that they support the use of student achievement data in their evaluations, but only 26 percent said they saw standardized test scores as a reflection of student learning.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lakewood Update

What happens to negotiated pay increases when a local education association and a school district is at impasse during contract talks? In all other districts in New Jersey, staff receives retroactive pay once the two sides agree on terms. Everywhere, that is, except Lakewood Public Schools.

According to the Lakewood Scoop, at last Thursday’s Board of Education meeting the Board finalized a 2012-2013 budget that deprives teachers of retroactive pay for the last two years.

From The Scoop:
The BOE voted late Thursday night on a final budget that included a $500,000 dollar increase in the tax levy, down from a proposed $3.3 million dollar increase. But board members say the reduction came out of the hard work of one man. ”Chesky Seitler, named as Budget Committee chairman only three weeks ago, worked tirelessly to understand the budget and to determine exactly why such a large increase was needed”, a board member said.

At a meeting last week, the Lakewood School Board Budget Committee Chair ‘Chesky Seitler had an inspiration:

Seitler determined that the budget called for $2.8 million dollars in raises for the Union teachers, that would pay for the past two years of raises. What Seitler proposed, was that the Union contract be negotiated starting now, and the years past be considered a zero raise.

“The idea of forcing the taxpayers to pay all 3 years worth of raises in one year was too much to bear”, Seitler says.
In what is clearly a violation of the Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) the Board unilaterally approved a withholding of salary increases.‘Chesky Seitler explained, “The union has not accepted the Board’s position, however the budget now does not have the funds needed for their demands. Their choice is either to accept the new terms, or continue without a contract.”

No word on counsel offered by the Board Attorney, Michael Inzebuch, who also serves as District Special Education Advocate, Board Parliamentarian, and Title 1 Overseer.

Meanwhile, Lakewood is gearing up for board member elections, with six candidates running for three slots. One is an incumbent, Yoni Silver, who describes his platform:
This year our new members along with the other 2 incumbents running for reelection have proposed a 5.2 % budget increase costing the average property tax payer $300.00. While I originally felt that Lakewood had decided to take a different route, I contemplated not running again. I was encouraged however by many in our Kehilla [community] that last year was a mistake and now is not the time to step aside. The work I started 3 years ago must continue and it was this encouragement by many legitimate Askonim [politicians, functionaries] and Mosdos [yeshivas, or Jewish day schools] that pushed me back into the race.
Another candidate is 18-year-old Aasim Johnson, a Lakewood High School student, who explains that he wants “to offer an education experience for all religious and non-religious students.” He adds, “[o]ut of my four years in the High School, I’ve been through 2 Superintendents, 3 Principals, and 7 Vice Principals, and that tells you a scary thing about Lakewood.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

Quote of the Day

From the Philadelphia Inquirer’s article on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote (split right down party lines) to not confirm Philip Kwon for State Supreme Court:
Christie theorized that Democrats needed to make amends with the unions that comprise their political base after party members voted last year for Christie's law to revamp the public employee health insurance and pension benefits. The unions opposed the changes, and some also opposed Kwon's nomination.

"Phil Kwon was sacrificed on the altar of payback to the NJEA [New Jersey Education Association], the CWA [Communications Workers of America] and the AFL-CIO," Christie said. "They all followed the union line like lemmings."

New Version of OSA Hits Statehouse

Statehouse sponsors of the long-simmering Opportunity Scholarship Act have filed a new version of the legislation and hope to start ushering it through committee in May. The new language represents some substantive changes from earlier versions, but is still intended to serve as an expansion of school choice for low-income children who attend a chronically failing public school.

Here’s the changes:
  • The number of districts eligible for corporate-sponsored scholarships is down to seven: Asbury Park, Camden, Elizabeth, Lakewood, Newark, Orange, and Passaic. The last version had 13.
  • There are fewer scholarships available: the pilot cost, once projected at $360 million, is down to a maximum of $138 million.
  • Originally, 25% of the scholarships were set aside for students who already attended non-public schools, as long as their parents didn’t earn more than 250% of the poverty level. Now none of the scholarships are set aside for students who already attend non-public school and income eligibility is set at 185% of the poverty level.
This new version of OSA is, in my eyes, much improved. Some of the criticism directed at OSA was the large number of scholarships to be awarded to kids already in private/parochial school, plus the relatively high cut-off for income eligibility. This new version corrects those benchmarks.

This is especially relevant, given the continued inclusion of Lakewood, where the vast majority of the kids attend Orthodox yeshivas. (The public school kids – 80% Latino and 20% African-American – pay a steep educational and governance cost because so much money and political will goes towards non-public transportation and out-of-district support services, including, for instance, separate buses for girls and boys.)

Here's my description of the problems in Lakewood.

Back to OSA. Last week Bruce Baker over at SchoolFinance101 (and Rutgers) posted “Revisiting NJ OSA and the Lakewood Effect.”

Dr. Baker writes,
In other words, all of the other locations [eligible for scholarships] combined do not have the sum total of low income private school enrolled children that Lakewood has. Lakewood would likely be the epicenter of NJOSA scholarship distribution. I noted in my first post on this topic that if the average scholarship amounts were as proposed, the Lakewood yeshiva schools would stand to take in as much as $67 million per year in these indirect taxpayer subsidies.
Here’s Dr. Baker’s map of the Lakewood private school marketplace & current enrollments.

Dr. Baker’s analysis is based on earlier versions of the bill, and doesn’t include important changes like the lowering of income eligibility and the decision to not award 25% of the scholarships to kids already in private/parochial school. These changes should allay some of those concerns. But that raises the question of why sponsors of the legislation would tarnish the bill’s noble intentions with the inclusion of a district with a sullied reputation.

(By the way, Gordon Macinnes's editorial today in NJ Spotlight against OSA is based on the old version.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Sunday Leftovers

Important story here from NJ Spotlight on the new formula for allotting preschool funding in NJ’s poorest cities, a mandate from State Supreme Court via the Abbott decisions. Income qualifications for free preschools (mostly private providers) were altered during Jon Corzine’s administration and the result is a concern that fewer students are being served.

Separately, Gov. Chris Christie also has proposed a $14.5 million increase in preschool funds for next year to address rising enrollments and inflation, bringing the total to $633.7 million next year for 45,000 students. But officials acknowledge it remains far short of making up the money lost with DHS's eligibility changes.

"All this should at least allow them to spread the money around a little better, but unless someone has a plan for creating new money, it is going to be hard to get everyone where they want," acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday.

The Star-Ledger’s Politifact does its due diligence on two education-related claims. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver said, at speech at Rider University, that New Jerseyans are the “most educated” in the nation. Politifact says that claim is “mostly true”:

In 2009, 34.5 percent of New Jerseyans, 25 years old and over, had at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the census bureau. In 2010, 35.4 percent of state residents fit the same criteria, according to the census bureau.

In both years, New Jersey was in fifth place behind Massachusetts, Colorado, Maryland and Connecticut. Even after accounting for the margins of error attached to those statistics, New Jersey doesn’t place first.
And Montclair State’s President Susan Cole said in an interview that New Jersey loses 30,000 “of our best prepared, most educated students” who “leave the state for other states." Politifact says this claim is true.

Victory for Save Our Schools-New Jersey: via the Patch, the South Brunswick Zoning Board rejected plans for a proposed charter school, Princeton International Academy Charter School, by a one-vote margin.

Emily Fisher Charter School in Trenton is appealing the NJ DOE’s decision to not renew its charter.

Four out of five school referenda failed this week at the polls. The Press of Atlantic City looks at two: Galloway and Absecom.

The Asbury Park Press looks at the impact of the anti-bullying law in Monmouth and Ocean County, and finds that administrators and school boards support the “intent of the legislation” but “it is not that easy to carry out.” NJ Spotlight offers a podcast on the future of the newly-funded legislation. Also see my opinion piece this week at WHYY’s Newsworks.

Alicia Brzycki discusses a report from ASAH, the association of NJ private special education schools, which found that out-of-district private placements were cheaper for schools that in-district placements. She charges,

As the ASAH study figures show, private schools are a relative bargain. So why do school administrators keep kids in-district when it would be cheaper just to do the right thing and provide the legally mandated continuum of placements? Because of their own self-interest, engaging as they do in what Manhattan Institute policy scholar Jay Greene likes to call the special education two-step: first provide colorful anecdotes of unreasonably expensive-sounding private placement, and then warn about how general education may suffer.
The Star-Ledger Editorial Board praises Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson’s new turn-around plan:
This was the moment that reformers had been waiting for, a decisive political boost that gives Anderson’s effort the oxygen it will need to survive the inevitable push back from the status quo.

Anderson’s plan is full of good, common sense. She has pushed the debate beyond the stale fight about money, which is no longer the central issue in Newark, and turned a spotlight instead on student performance.
OT: Former New Jersey Governor and MF Global CEO Jon Corzine gave "direct instructions" to transfer $200 million from a customer fund account to JPMorgan, according to an internal email, Bloomberg reports:

Edith O’Brien, a treasurer for the firm, said in an e-mail sent the afternoon of Oct. 28, three days before the company collapsed, that the transfer of the funds was “Per JC’s direct instructions,” according to a copy of a memo drafted by congressional investigators and obtained by Bloomberg News.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Lakewood Principal Speaks Out

Sheldon Boxer, who retired last year as a principal in Lakewood Public Schools, responds to an editorial in the Asbury Park Press that called for state intervention in the troubled school district.
You are absolutely right that the Lakewood district needs state intervention. I can assure you that even if the state came in to Lakewood, it wouldn’t change anything because of the tremendous clout of the Orthodox voting bloc.

The rabbis tell the 40,000 Orthodox voters who follow blindly whom to vote for. They can elect or defeat any candidate at the local, state or national level…

When I retired last year after 38 years as a principal in Lakewood, it was because I could not take the meanness of the board attorney and the superintendent. I could not take being a party to letting good people be harassed, embarrassed and intimidated. And, finally, I could not go along with services being denied the minority and special-needs students…

The children of Lakewood will never get the help they need as long as their fate is controlled by a group whose only objective is to take care of their private schools.
Read the whole letter here.

Prognosis on Charter School Bill Requiring Local Referendum

John Mooney at NJ Spotlight gives a prognosis on the prospects of A-1877 proceeding to Senate approval after the Assembly approved the bill last week. A-1877 would require a local referendum before authorization of any new charter school. Here’s his take: It is not “[l]ikely to pass and be signed into law anytime soon. A companion bill in the Senate is not even posted for a hearing, and there is little enthusiasm so far from the Democratic leadership in that chamber.

Sen. Barbara Buono, a chief sponsor of the bill, said, “at this point, the chances are slim, but I won’t give up.” Here’s my most recent coverage.

BlogTalk Radio on Tenure and Teacher Evaluation Reform

Tomorrow morning at 11 I'll be discussing tenure reform and teacher evaluations with Joseph Cheff, President of the Passaic County Education Association and NJSBA host, Ray Pinney. To listen in and/or participate, go here.

NJ's Anti-Bullying Law: Politics as Usual or Meaningful Reform?

Check out my new post at NewsWorks on the impact/burden on NJ's Anti-Bullying legislation:
On January 5th, 2011, Gov. Christie signed The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (A-3466), a piece of legislation that intends to curtail New Jersey's high incidences of bullying, intimidation and harassment.

The bill went into effect on the first day of the 2011-2012 school year and was triggered by the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after several incidences of cyber-bullying.

So, how's the new legislation faring? Does it genuinely reduce bullying, harassment, and intimidation in NJ's public schools? Is it a political sleight of hand, using the Clementi tragedy as ignition for a popular piece of legislation? Is it a well-crafted bill that proactively stems the scourge of bias? Is it an example of bureaucratic overkill? As usual, it depends upon whom you ask.
Read the rest here.

Also, NJ School Boards Association just released a the results of a survey of "local school administrators to gauge the impact of the new law on school districts. See here for results.