Wednesday, January 30, 2013

NJSBA's Take on New U.S. DOE Guidelines re: Athletes with Disabilities

Last week the U.S. Department of Education issued a 13-page set of guidelines regarding school districts' obligations to provide equitable athletic and extra-curricular opportunities to kids with disabilities. (See earlier coverage here.) The guidelines are in response to a series of complaints filed with the Civil Rights Commission.

New Jersey School Boards Association has just released a memo on the subject, summed up here:
While New Jersey has made strides toward providing equal opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in school athletic programs, this latest guidance from the federal government would appear to be broader in scope than the existing New Jersey legislation.

The OCR guidance is reminiscent of the Title IX expansion of athletic opportunities for girls and women some four decades ago, and it will have significant implications for school districts in the areas of student participation, program staffing, facilities needs, transportation, and overall extracurricular costs.
For other views, see Mike Petrelli at Fordham's Flypaper and Andy Rotherham in Time Magazine.

Grading NJ's Teacher Preparation Programs

The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ) has released its State Teacher Policy Yearbook, which rates individual states on teaching preparation programs; elementary, middle, and high school teaching requirements; special ed teaching preparation; student teaching; and accountability.

New Jersey did okay: a bump up from last year’s D+ to a C-, which puts us 18th among all states in the country. According to NCTQ, these should be our top priorities:
Admission into Preparation Programs: require that preparation programs screen candidates prior to admission by using a common test normed to the general college-bound population and limit acceptance to those candidates demonstrating academic ability in the top 50th percentile.
Elementary Teacher Preparation: Ensure new content test sufficiently measures knowledge of all subjects. Require a rigorous assessment in the science of reading instruction. Require preparation programs to provide mathematics content specifically geared to the needs of elementary teachers. Require a content specialization in an academic subject area.

Student Teaching:
Ensure that cooperating teachers have demonstrated evidence of effectiveness as measured by student learning.
Teacher Preparation Program Accountability: Collect performance data to monitor programs. Set minimum standards for program performance with consequences for failure to meet those standards. Publicly report performance data.

New WHYY Post: Do Private/Parochial School Students Get Full Access to Special Education Services?

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks begins here:
Last week a U.S. Court of Appeals issued a ruling in D.L. v. Baltimore City Board of School Commoners that curtails the access of special education services for children who attend private and parochial schools. In much of the country, including New Jersey, special needs kids are eligible for services like speech, occupational, and physical therapy at the expense of their local school districts, regardless of where they attend school.
This ruling is limited to the 4th District Court, which includes Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia. Nonetheless, it has precedential implications for New Jersey, both in districts where parents opt to send their kids to religious and private schools, and for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a controversial bill currently moribund in the NJ State Legislature.

Read the rest here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New Special Ed Task Force Proposed to Study Cost and Program Effectiveness and

NJ Senators Jennifer Beck and Teresa Ruiz are filing a bill that creates a task force to study the state’s problems in providing special education services to NJ’s 215,000 kids who meet eligibility requirements. From Bill S 600:
 Despite the ever-increasing allocation of State and local dollars to fund special education services each year, many public schools in the State are ill-equipped to provide effective special education and related services for their students within the district and must send students to out-of-district public schools or private schools in order to meet their needs, which increases the overall cost of providing special education and creates additional hardships for the students and their parents.

 A series of recent newspaper articles alleged that millions of dollars are squandered on special education programs each year due to fraud, a lack of oversight, a failure to document the effectiveness of programs, the need to send students to out-of-district public or private schools, and a lack of uniform standards for educating students with certain disabilities such as autism.

 Many parents and guardians of students requiring special education feel that the programs and services do not adequately meet the needs of their children, and that the current system is too inflexible to allow for necessary programmatic changes; and It is therefore in the public interest of special education students and the parents or guardians of those students to establish a task force to study various issues related to improving service delivery and providing appropriate and cost-effective special education programs and services for public school students.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Inside Scoop on NJ's School Choice Week

Yesterday was the first day of National School Choice Week, and New Jersey kicked off the aspirational agenda with a series of panel discussions at the Holiday Inn in East Windsor The event was hosted by Bob Bowden of “Cartel” fame, a movie widely panned by the status quo edugensia. (He has a new site, Choice Media, which is a news clipping service/video archive/gift shop of all things ed reform.)

There were three parts of this conference: two panel discussions and an address by Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf. The first panel included Senator Mike Doherty and Assembly members Tony Bucco, Gabriela Mosquera, and Gary Schaer.

The second panel included Keith Benson of the Allied Clergy of NJ;  Derrell Bradford of Better Education for Kids;  Bob Garguilo, Chair of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Association; Kevin Jenkins of E3; Carlos Perez of the NJ Charter School Association; Rabbi Israel Teitelbaum of the Alliance for Free Choice in Education; and Victoria Jakelsky, who links school choice with arbitrary distractions like battling childhood innoculations. (One audience member: "she's SO off the reservation.")

Here’s a few themes that popped up during presentations and discussions:
  • The NJ Legislature is "dysfunctional" and "weak." Its paralysis is compounded by pending November elections. Expect nothing to get done this year.
  • There are currently 30,000 kids in NJ  enrolled in charter schools and another 20,000 on waiting lists.
  • There’s lots of bipartisan support for the Opportunity Scholarship Act, specifically for the pared-down Assembly version, but Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver won’t assign the bill to a committee, thus preventing a vote. (OSA proposes to offer scholarships to kids in NJ's poorest cities, underwritten by corporate contributions.)
  • NJ’s charter school law, decades-old now, should be revised so that there’s more than one authorizer, better accountability, and funding and facilities equity with traditional public schools.
More generally, the panelists seemed riven by two non-complementary agendas. Legislators Bucco and Doherty, along with Rabbi Teitlebaum (who seems to play the role of Bucco's Svengali),  spent much of their time in the limelight touting a new bill, “New Jersey Parental Rights Program Act,” (S 504). (Bucco is the prime sponsor and Doherty is a co-sponsor.) This bill takes the worst parts of OSA and froths it up with an infusion of  Tea Party fervor. Elements include forcing public school districts to offer “scholarships” to any kids who want to go to parochial schools, with the per pupil amount tied to in-district spending and no academic accountability. From S 504:
[T]he department may not regulate the educational programs of a participating nonpublic school.  The establishment of the program and the participation of nonpublic schools in the program shall not be construed to impose additional regulatory requirements on nonpublic schools beyond those reasonably necessary to enforce the provisions of this act.  A participating nonpublic school shall be provided with maximum flexibility in providing for the educational needs of participating students.
The bill neglects a key element of OSA,  needs-testing, opening the program up to all kids regardless of socio-economic level.

There’s a whole anti-Abbott vibe here, especially with Senator Doherty touting his wacky “Fair Funding Act" (which ignores the educational needs of impoverished kids) and shrieking, “20% of the kids are getting 80% of the money!”

This narrow, unabashedly religious agenda (new drinking game: chug when Victoria Jakelsky says "God-given") undermines the intent of the real reformers – Cerf, Bradford, Perez, Garguilo,  and Schaer  (who specifically rebutted Doherty in his opening comments). The latter group appears fully committed to improving NJ’s system of public schools and providing equitable access for all kids.

Here’s an unsolicited word of advice: the NJ school choice movement needs to disentangle itself  the from the teacher union-bashing, Palin-esque special interest groups that impair a truly focused and effective approach to education reform.

More Details on Rights of Special Needs Kids to Participate in Athletics and Extra-Curriculars

Here’s the “letter to colleague" from the U.S. DOE's Office of Civil Rights in regards to the new rules that require school districts to offer students with disabilities access to athletic teams and other extra-curricular activities. (See here for earlier coverage.)

The letter iterates that students with disabilities benefit socially and physically from participation, and that schools must make modifications to programs without giving an unfair advantage to the kids with special needs.

That can be a fine line. From the letter:
Of course, simply because a student is a “qualified” student with a disability does not mean that the student must be allowed to participate in any selective or competitive program offered by a school district; school districts may require a level of skill or ability of a student in order for that student to participate in a selective or competitive program or activity, so long as the selection or competition criteria are not discriminatory.

The letter gives a number of examples: a deaf track runner who requires a visual signal as a start time; a one-handed swimmer who can’t touch the edge of the pool with both hands; a student with learning disabilities who is barred from a team because the coach, feeling knowledgeable about this particular disability, has generalized that all similar students are inappropriate team members.

Here’s the part of the letter that got Michael Petrilli so bent out of shape: according to the OCR, schools are required to offer comparable athletic activities to kids who, by nature of their particular disability, don’t qualify for mainstream athletic teams.
In those circumstances, a school district should offer students with disabilities opportunities for athletic activities that are separate or different from those offered to students without disabilities. These athletic opportunities provided by school districts should be supported equally, as with a school district’s other athletic activities. School districts must be flexible as they develop programs that consider the unmet interests of students with disabilities. For example, an ever-increasing number of school districts across the country are creating disability-specific teams for sports such as wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball. When the number of students with disabilities at an individual school is insufficient to field a team, school districts can also: (1) develop district-wide or regional teams for students with disabilities as opposed to a school-based team in order to provide competitive experiences; (2) mix male and female students with disabilities on teams together; or (3) offer “allied” or “unified” sports teams on which students with disabilities participate with students without disabilities.
Not unreasonable, right? I guess that depends upon who’s creating these new sports teams or training aides to shadow athletically talented kids who happen to be disabled. Still lots of unanswered questions: can a district outsource this new responsibility to Special Olympics or another third party? Can school use volunteers as coaches if the school also uses volunteers as coaches for typical kids?  How Title IX-ish is this? If a school offers a Model UN program to its typical kids, must it create a Model UN program for kids with disabilities? Does budgeting also have to be equal?

Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

School board across the country are atwitter with the U.S. Department of Education's Office on Civil Rights' announcement that kids with disabilities have the same rights to participate in athletic teams and after school activities as kids without disabilities. (Earlier coverage here. Also see Mike Petrelli's analysis/rant.) Everyone take a deep breath, please: no one knows exactly how this will work, and NJ exhibits special challenges, what with our plethora of tiny schools that would have trouble fielding a basketball team under any circumstances.

At the very least, the fed's ruling will prompt useful conversations: what's the purpose of a high school football team? Does it exist to win games or to encourage leadership and collaboration? Are those two goals mutually exclusive? What does it look like to incorporate fiercely interested but cognitively/physically/emotionally disabled school mates to have some sort of a role? What's the liability if a school prefers to ignore the fed ruling? Who funds the extra equipment and aides (duh)?

The Star-Ledger reports that, according to the US Department of Education, almost nine out of 10 New Jersey students get their high school diplomas on time and that we have one the nation’s lowest drop-out rates. 

Fort Lee School District, dismayed by its plunge from 72nd to 97th in New Jersey Monthly’s high school ratings, is reversing a policy that encouraged all children to participate in A.P. courses and returning to a selective enrollment policy.  (The Record)  

Here’s an excellent (both heartening and heart-breaking)  Star-Ledger piece that examines performance at Newark’s elementary and middle schools, particularly those that serve the neediest kids. Miller Street Elementary and Fourteenth St. School serve kids from the toughest neighborhoods yet “earned higher math and language arts test scores and increased those scores during the 2010-11 academic year at a higher rate than any other district school in the city serving students with similar needs.” Other standouts include “Lady Liberty Academy and New Horizons Community charter schools are also helping the most challenged students improve their scores on state exams, while TEAM Academy and Gray charter schools are succeeding with slightly less needier students. “

Regarding TEAM, also a charter schools, there’s this item:
High expectations also contribute to the success at TEAM Academy’s five school campuses, said Ryan Hill, the academy’s executive director. In many district and charter schools that fail with the most needy students, that spirit is absent, he said.
TEAM also targets its special education students, whom the charter school has developed a reputation for serving well. About 12 percent of TEAM’s students receive special education services.
Nearly every class has two teachers — one general education instructor and one special education instructor who can work with students one-on-one, mid-lesson, Hill said. The school also has a full fleet of social workers, psychologists and counselors to help students work through behavioral and emotional problems.
NJBIZ reports, "The tax-exempt status of a Camden charter school was revoked by the Internal Revenue Service following the school's failure to file proper nonprofit financial statements for three years, putting $8.5 million of bonds at risk of losing their tax exemption."

NJ Spotlight reports that the Christie Administration is proposing tougher tenure laws for charter school teachers than for their counterparts in non-charter schools in order to retain a charter’s flexibility. The NJEA says this would make charter teachers “second class citizens.” 

The University of Pennsylvania Law School is hosting a conference called “The Debate for America’s Future: Assessing the Viability of Public Education Solutions. Keynoters include Kahlil Byrd, President of Students First and William Hite, Philadelphia School Superintendent. The date is Feb. 23d. Here’s the link.

Gina Genovese, Executive Director of Courage to Connect New Jersey, urges municipalities to resist the siren call of home rule and “get serious about addressing high property taxes” by consolidating towns.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Feds: Include Kids with Disabilities on School Athletic Teams

Today the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights is sending all school districts a 13-page manual that specifies the rights of students with disabilities to participate in extra-curricular athletic programs, including competitive teams.

See the Huffington Post, the Star-Ledger, and The Record for national and local coverage.

The federal directive (which, alas, contains no time lines) is considered by some to be comparable to Title IX, which greatly expanded the rights of girls to participate in sports. The new guidelines on inclusion for kids with disabilities was instigated by 84 complaints from parents to the Civil Rights Office over the last few years. 

Currently in NJ, opportunities for students with disabilities to participate in athletics vary widely from district to district. The specificity of  these new requirements will affect sports teams, budgets, and equity. Schools will need to widen their perspectives on the mission of athletics programs, hire extra aides and coaches, and create more inclusive environments.

The Huffington Post has this:
The guidance document outlines five principles with specific examples for enforcement of the law, according to Seth Galanter, acting assistant secretary for the Education Department Office of Civil Rights. Schools can't rely on generalizations of a student's disabilities when crafting their sports offerings. They must consider each student and provide "reasonable modifications" to games, but not "fundamental alterations" that would significantly change the game or give students with disabilities an advantage. It requires that sports programs be safe.  
School districts also have to provide qualified students with required aides -- during school and after school. For example, a student with diabetes who has a school aide monitor his blood sugar and insulin during the school day is entitled to that aide during extracurricular gymnastics.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Quote of the Day

 Last spring I completed a study of American high schools; I looked at five schools serving very different economic and social communities. Here is the headline: If a student is not lucky enough to attend a high school located in an upper-middle or middle-class neighborhood, he or she is likely to get a watered-down, uninspiring, and inadequate set of academic choices—often taught in a hit-or-miss manner. If a student attends a school in an area of concentrated poverty, his or her course of study often consists of worksheets, out-of-date textbooks, and more worksheets. While the implementation of the Common Core State Standards in 2014-15 will not solve the problem of providing equality of educational opportunities to all students, it is part of the solution.
Peter Cookson Jr. at the Quick and the Ed (hat tip: Rishawn Biddle)

Special Education "Extraordinary Aid": New Thresholds

NJ Spotlight features today an analysis of Ed. Comm. Cerf’s new proposal, contained in the state’s Education Adequacy Report, of the amounts that the State wants to kick in for special education costs during school year 2013-2014.. While the basic dollar amount would go up by $400 per kid, the proposal   raises the threshold at which local districts receive extra state aid to cover the costs of special needs kids with severe disabilities.

This aid, listed in every district’s budget, is referred to as “extraordinary aid,” and is intended to cushion the costs of supplying mandated special education services that may cost as much as (in rare cases, more than) $100,000 per year.

In the past, the state has kicked in aid when educational costs for a child educated within his or her local school district exceeds $40K per year. Comm. Cerf proposes to raise this to $45K. For kids in out-of-district placements – private or county special education schools – the threshold would be bumped from $55K to $60K per year.

From Spotlight:
But the Education Adequacy Report from Cerf that includes these changes has drawn a quick rebuke from various quarters. Some legislative committees last week said that it is one of several provisions in the proposal that must be revised. And special ed advocates this week contended that it only adds more problems to a flawed and underfunded program.  
“There really isn’t good data to support what they are trying to do,” said Brenda Considine, a leader of the state coalition of special education advocacy groups. “Absent any good data, it looks like they are just trying to back into a budget number and reduce the number of districts that would qualify.”
The article links to a spreadsheet that lists the extraordinary aid allotted to each  district for school years 2009-2010, 2010-2011, and 2011-2012. The numbers are largely proportional to district size, although there are a few outliers. In Ocean County, for example, Ocean Gate Boro, a tiny district with a total enrollment of 149 kids, received $1,215 in extraordinary aid for 2011-2012. Toms River, with an enrollment of about 14,500 kids, received $ 679,102. But Lakewood Public Schools received $3,668,596. While Lakewood's total enrollment is about 4,600 kids, the district supplies special education services for many children who are enrolled elsewhere – mainly in Jewish day schools – but are still eligible for special education services.

Lakewood also relies on out-of-district placements far more than other districts. For example, Toms River, with a much higher enrollment, has 66 children placed in private out-of-district placements. Lakewood sends 178 kids out to private schools, which tend to have higher tuition and, thus, qualify for more extraordinary aid.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Encounters Transporation Problem

New Jersey’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows kids to cross district boundaries to attend public schools outside of their residential area, has a new umbrella group: the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Association.

This association intends to address some “confusion and controversy about issues either not specified in the Program Act, or unforeseen by the legislative process.” One of those issues is that  the bill's  language  requires sending districts (the child’s home district) to provide transportation to the receiving district (the choice school) if that school’s within 20 miles or, alternatively, provide “aide in lieu of transportation,” about $800 per year. Districts are obligated to go with the cheaper alternative, almost always the latter. So some parents decline to participate in the interdistrict program because $800 doesn't begin to cover the costs of getting their kid back and forth to a non-district school.

From the website:
In the original choice pilot program, the choice district was responsible for transportation from the resident district. When the program was signed into law in 2010, a new provision was added to make busing the responsibility of the resident district. The idea was to make choice busing and charter school busing similar. 
As we have learned since then, this change has caused many problems with the program, and many parents end up not participating in choice because of the lack of busing–especially in urban districts. Aid-in-lieu payments don’t mean much to a parent who doesn’t have a car.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

New Federal Ruling: Students with Disabilities Must be Enrolled in Local District to Access Services

Last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, VA found that, according to the National Association of School Boards, "a disabled student unilaterally placed in a private school is not entitled to special education services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504)."

While the ruling hasn’t received much notice (beyond this write-up in Education Week), it has significant implications for students throughout the country who are enrolled in religious schools but receive services because of a diagnosed disability. In this particular case, the child, D.L., attends a yeshiva in Baltimore and is diagnosed with A.D.H.D. His parents sought services from the local Baltimore school, where he is not enrolled.

 One of the arguments made by the child’s attorney was that requiring enrollment in the public district infringed on D.L.’s constitutional right to freedom of religion. However, the panel held that the burden imposed on D.L.’s family was not a violation of religious freedom because the only burden was financial: DL’s parents would have to finance their son’s services themselves:
“BCBSC’s policy [the local district] may raise the overall cost of D.L.’s private education, but this does not offend D.L.’s constitutional rights. The Supreme Court has explained that a statute does not violate the Free Exercise Clause merely because it causes economic disadvantage on individuals who choose to practice their religion in a specific manner.”
 In addition, the judges held that the financial burden on the school district – requiring public school teachers to travel to the yeshiva – was unfair to the public system. From EdWeek:
"The right to a religious education does not extend to a right to demand that public schools accommodate [the parents'] educational preferences," the court said. "[The Baltimore city district] has legitimate financial, curricular, and administrative reasons to require that D.L. enroll exclusively in a public school in order to take advantage of Section 504 services. The school board need not serve up its publicly funded services like a buffet from which [parents] can pick and choose."
This ruling has particular implications for districts like Lakewood (Ocean County) where about 20,000 kids attend yeshivas in lieu of the (troubled) public district. In fact, Lakewood spends a great deal of its $101,388,888 operating budget on special education services for kids whose parents choose to enroll them in private religious schools, unlike students  who, through the IEP process (Individualized Education Plan), are placed in private special education schools by the public district.

Lakewood has a total enrollment of about 4,600 kids.  If you scroll through its budget (here) you’ll find this listing:

Nonpublic Textbooks    803,000
Nonpublic Auxiliary Services    5,100,000
Nonpublic Handicapped Services    3,300,000
Nonpublic Nursing Services    1,297,000
Other Special Projects    2,000,000

These are costs related to providing disability services to students just like  D.L. For comparison’s sake, look at another Ocean County district, Toms River, which has a far greater enrollment of 14,480 students.  Here’s Toms Rivers’ expenditures on nonpublic services:

Nonpublic Textbooks    85,294
Nonpublic Auxiliary Services    490,334
Nonpublic Handicapped Services    359,612
Nonpublic Nursing Services    121,837
Nonpublic Technology Initiative    84,880

Lakewood spends over $10 million annually on costs incurred by students with disabilities who are not enrolled in the public district. Toms River spends $1.3 million.  We'll wait and see how this federal ruling plays out in New Jersey.

NJ School Choice Summit next Sunday

The New Jersey School Choice Summit will take place on Sunday, January 27th, from 3-6 at the Holiday Inn of East Windsor. Speakers include Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf, Derrell Bradford, Assemblyman Tony Bucco, Senator Michael Doherty, and Carlos Perez. The conference will be moderated by Bob Bowdon, of “Cartel” fame. Tickets are two bucks and can be reserved here.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

The Star-Ledger reports that as “part of an effort to heighten school security in the wake of the tragic school shootings in Newtown, Conn., the state Department of Education plans to launch surprise security drills in New Jersey schools.” Also see coverage from NJ Spotlight, the Courier Post, and the Asbury Park Press.

From the NJ Herald: NJ’s Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, which allows kids to cross district boundaries, has “more than doubled in size… Enrollment in the program has grown from 1,000 students in 15 districts in the 2010-2011 school year to 3,400 students in 69 districts in the 2012-2013 school year, according to Department of Education spokesman Richard Vespucci.”

The NJ DOE has begun to correlate student test data to individual teachers (using a measure called “student growth percentiles” of SGP's).  From NJ Spotlight: “The early reaction from a handful of local administrators contacted last week was generally positive. By and large, the administrators said the data looked consistent with their own measures of individual teacher performance, as observed in classrooms and schools.” Courtesy of the DOE, here's research on SGP's and a video.

The fiscal impact of charter schools was a hot topic at the Florence  Board of Education meeting. An estimate of tuition payments for next year for the three charters in the area comes to $1.6 million, and the district is also challenged by falling ratables, costs of out-of-district special education placements, and increasing health care costs. “District Business Administrator Bruce Benedetti blasted the funding model, saying, ‘The people who are promoting charter schools must not have ever worked in public school finance.’” (Philly Burbs)

Elmwood Park School District has a fiscal monitor because it can’t balance its budget: according to The Record, Superintendent Richard Tonko says a main factor is special education costs, particularly out-of-district placements. “The district currently has about 480 students in special education. Out of those students, approximately 90 are out of district, according to Tomko.”

About two weeks ago the Christie Administration proposed changes to the school funding formula. NJ Spotlight reports that those “plans to adjust the state’s school-funding formula and reduce the extra aid for at-risk students hit another snag yesterday, as Senate and Assembly Democrats took steps to block the changes before the 2014 state budget is even introduced.”

Upper Township in Cape May County is a three-school district that serves 1,200 kids and has eight administrators. A reader wonders why, as reported by the Upper Township Gazette, “the school board unanimously approved Jeff Samniego for the newly created position of Supervisor for Planning, Research and Evaluation effective Tuesday, Jan. 8 at a pro-rated annual salary of $88,000.”

The Record looks at how “school districts are grappling with how to set appropriate boundaries in an age when using social networking sites is almost second nature to teachers and students.”

The Press of Atlantic City  reviewed local municipalities and schools districts, finding that some have failed to submit employee contracts to PERC, the state Public Employment Relations Commission.

The Asbury Park Press asks students, parents, and educators to describe their “perfect school."

Here's the New York Times on the bussing strike that has mostly affected special needs students:
The strike that began Wednesday, which idled more than half of the city’s school buses and forced about 113,000 children to find new ways to school, was prompted by a fight over union jobs. But its true roots are in an attempt to reform one of the most inefficient transportation systems in the country, one that costs almost $7,000 a year for each passenger, an amount so high that many of those children could hire a livery cab for about the same price. By comparison with the next three largest school districts, Los Angeles spends about $3,200, Chicago about $5,000, and Miami, $1,000.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Quote of the Day

Rick Hess at Edweek considers the investment in the Gates Foundation's MET analysis, particularly its finding that using student academic growth gauged by standardized tests allowed researchers to reliably predict teacher quality:
[T]he hundreds of millions spent on MET were funny in that, on the one hand, this was a giant exercise in trying to demonstrate that good teachers can be identified and that they make a difference for kids. I mean, I always kind of assumed this (otherwise, it's not real clear why we've been worrying about "teacher quality.") So it was moderately amusing to see the MET researchers make a big deal out of the fact that random classroom assignment finally allowed them to say that high value-added teachers "cause" student test scores to increase. I'm like, "Not so surprising." At the same time, this is too glib. Documenting the obvious can have an enormous impact on public understanding and policy, especially when questions are fraught. Moreover, I've long wondered about the stability of teacher value-added results over time, so I was struck that the third-year randomization showed earlier value-added scores to be fairly more predictive than one might've thought.

More on Value-Added Teacher Evaluations (Across the River)

This is probably not how Mike Bloomberg imagined his education legacy: mired in  mud after the leadership of UFT, NYC’s teachers’ union, declined to sign onto an agreement that would tie student test scores to teaching evaluations, thus endangering NYC’s public education budget.  The state had won $700 million through Race to the Top; receipt of a big share of the money is contingent on an agreement with UFT to come to consensus on those prickly value-added measures. Each district – there's about 700 in New York State – negotiated separated. Almost all came to terms, with the exception of 3 small districts and New York City.

The breakdown in negotiations in NYC followed the first few days of a city-wide school bus strike which mostly affected kids with disabilities. About half of them never got to school yesterday.

According to today’s New York Times, the State Legislature “approved the broad outlines of the new teacher evaluation system. Twenty percent of the rating was to be based on students’ growth on state tests. Another 20 percent was to be based on local measures, bargained with the union. Of the remaining 60 percent, classroom observations must be a majority of the criteria, but student surveys could be included.”

That 20% doesn’t come close to the percentage suggested in the recent Gates Foundation report. (See coverage here.) Researchers there said that for evaluations to be meaningful, student test data must represent between 33% - 50%, and ideally more. UFT doesn’t know a good deal when it sees it.
Mr. Bloomberg said the deal had fallen apart in the middle of the night after the teachers’ union made last-minute demands that he said would “undercut the intent of the law” — a statement the union disputed.
“There were things that they had come in at the last moment that were obviously designed to keep the deal from working,” the mayor said.
First, the mayor said, the union demanded that a so-called sunset clause be put in place for 2015, effectively making it impossible to get rid of ineffective teachers because the dismissal process takes two years. By the time a teacher would be dismissed, the evaluation system would no longer be in place, Mr. Bloomberg said, making a “joke” of the law.
“To have such a sunset clause would be a sham,” he added.
The union contends that the sunset clause had been introduced earlier in the negotiations.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Gates Study: Student Test Scores a Better Evaluation Tool than Classroom Observations

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks examines new research out from the Gates Foundation on the validity and fairness of using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.
One of the most contentious issues surrounding education reform is whether or not one can measure teacher effectiveness through student test scores. While other professions have long used objective data to measure performance– doctors get rated on patient outcomes, lawyers get rated on successful resolutions – rating teachers is considered far more complex and politically wrought. Historically, schools have relied on subjective observations, usually performed by principals or supervisors.

Teacher unions have fought to preserve this system on the grounds that using test data as a measure of effectiveness penalizes those who work with kids with disabilities, or those from impoverished homes, or those just learning English.

Now, a new study offers evidence that objective data can fairly evaluate teachers in spite of those differences.
Read the rest here.

Loss in Property Values from Sandy = Loss in School Funding

The Wall St. Journal reports today that “more than a dozen New Jersey towns could lose at least 10% of their tax base due to property damage from superstorm Sandy, a hit that could lead to property tax hikes in towns if federal assistance doesn’t help plug the budgetary holes. An additional 10 municipalities could lose between 5 and 10 % of their tax bases from Sandy damage, according to a notice released by the state Local Government Services Wednesday.”

What does that loss in the value of property have to do with education? NJ public schools are funded through property taxes. If the total assessment goes down due to Sandy damage, then local taxes go up to cover the difference – not possible when tax increases are capped at 2% -- or districts cut programs.

Here’s my earlier coverage at WHYY Newsworks.

The Journal notes,
In the borough of Tuckerton, for example, officials estimate that the Ocean County locality lost $90 million from its tax base, according to information provided by the state. The town lying on the Little Egg Harbor has a population of just 3,300.
Further south, Port Republic lost as much as $2 million in property values, with the city hit by flooding from the Mullica River after Sandy.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Statehouse Democrats Blast Christie Administration's 2013 School Funding Formula

 Check out today's NJ Spotlight for the big education news story of the day: the Democrats in the Assembly and Legislature are in the midst of passing a resolution condemning the Christie Administration’s proposal for school funding next year as arbitrary, miserly, and ill-informed.

Specifically, the Educational Adequacy Report, presented last month by Comm. Cerf (way late, also dimly viewed by the resolvers) proposes to raise the cost per pupil but significantly lower the adjustments intended to compensate for extra education needs for children with disabilities, kids learning English, and those from high-poverty homes. Overall, about 100 districts would get more money than last year and 152 would get less. (Here’s the list.)

How pissed are the Democrats? Here’s a sample from the Resolution:
WHEREAS, On December 14, 2012, 835 days after the date stipulated in the school funding law, the Governor submitted the Educational Adequacy Report to the Legislature. The report did not include any new substantive analysis regarding the resources that are necessary to provide educational services to all students consistent with the State’s standards. Rather, it largely restated or slightly modified the recommendations included in the Education Funding Report;
On the report’s justification for lowering aid:
WHEREAS, This explanation is devoid of the type of research and analysis of the school funding level necessary to achieve the State’s standards as required by the “School Funding Reform Act of 2008,” or as expected by the Supreme Court in its ruling;
Specifically regarding the Adequacy Report’s intention to raise the amount of money districts must spend on special needs kids before the state kicks in – from $45K to $50K –
WHEREAS, The department also recommended increasing the extraordinary special education aid thresholds by $5,000. In the report, the department stated that it, “...anticipates that this change will allow for only those students with the highest cost services to be eligible, and will help ensure that the State can reimburse those costs at the higher rate provided for in the SFRA.” This explanation suggests that the recommendation is motivated by a desire to reduce State expenditures, not on any measure of a reasonable benchmark that should be used to provide aid to school districts to minimize the fiscal stress that may occur when a school district incurs exceptionally high costs for a small number of students;

NJSBA Forms New Special Ed Task Force

Here's Dr. Larry Feinsod, new Executive Director of New Jersey School Boards, on what he regards as one of NJ’s greatest educational challenges:
Over the past 40 years, I’ve also discovered that funding special education is one of the most vexing problems facing our schools.  No state pays more per student for special education than New Jersey. And our current funding system pits the needs of traditional-education students against the needs of special-education students. We cannot continue with this unacceptable situation.
Dr. Feinsod just announced the formation of the NJSBA Special Education Task Force, “with the charge of reviewing the state’s current process for finding special education; studying other state’s systems of providing special education; exploring alternative funding methods; and identifying cost-efficient strategies to fund and deliver special education services.”

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

Gov. Christie barely mentioned education this week in his State of the State address, a sharp contrast to last’s year’s preoccupation with tenure reform and school choice. NJ Spotlight says, “For a governor who has made education a core priority of his tenure, Christie's 42-minute address barely touched on the topic until the very end, and even then it was largely to list past accomplishments.” The Press of Atlantic City quotes a spokesman for the NJ Association of State Colleges and Universities: “he and K-12 education advocates said while recognition is appreciated, the real message will come with the proposed budget next month, when projected revenue shortfalls of as much as $2 billion could affect aid allocations.”

From the Star-Ledger: "An Essex County lawmaker wants to install silent panic alarms in New Jersey public schools that would immediately alert authorities to emergencies. Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, a Democrat, also wants to install red lights on the exterior of school buildings. The lights would turn on when the alarm is activated. Caputo on Tuesday introduced a bill (A3691) that would institute the measures."

NJ Spotlight looks at a growing trend: incorporating student evaluations of their teachers into teacher evaluations: “ The idea is gaining traction nationally, however, with the release this week of the final report of the massive Measures for Effective Teaching (MET) research project conducted by the Bill & Belinda Gates Foundation, which looked at a variety of ways of evaluating teachers." In an email, Ed. Comm. Cerf said,“I am intrigued by recent research indicating that they may be valid as one element of an approach that incorporates multiple indicators,” he wrote in an email. “At the same time, I share the concerns of some educators about student surveys, so would not want to take any steps in that direction without soliciting their views and perspective.”

For more on the the Gates Foundation study, see the Star-Ledger or this  Wall St. Journal piece which sums it up: "The Gates Foundation said its study found that a combination of student surveys of teacher quality, well-crafted observations of classroom teaching and test scores is the best predictor of teacher effectiveness. Mr. Kane said combining all three is the best predictor of teacher quality."

Also in the Wall St. Journal, Lisa Fleisher reports on a report released by StudentsFirstNY, which found that “[p]oor and minority students in New York City are more likely to be taught by failing teachers than other students.”  In fact, “in schools where nearly all students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—a generally accepted measure of poverty—3.4% of teachers were rated unsatisfactory. By contrast, 1.3% of teachers in more affluent schools had earned the low rating. The report examined the 2011-12 school year.”

Newsflash: NJEA hates Michelle Rhee.

And the Camden branch of NJEA, CEA, is not so crazy about the Camden School Board, Gov. Christie, Comm. Cerf, and NJEA's endorsement of the Urban Hope Act, which will allow for expansion of charter schools in Camden.
Currently, our district has only 13,000 students, down from 20,000 just a few short years ago. Charter schools, enroll about 20% of Camden students and with more charter schools and new Hope Schools coming to Camden, our district stands to lose even more students, and the funding that follows. The deterioration of Camden Public Schools is the goal of Gov. Christie and thanks to the acting-DOE Commissioner Chris Cerf, and the newly-formed New Jersey Funding Task Force, our survival as a district is at stake.
This morning’s New York Times features a profile of NYC’s gifted and talented programs. In PS 163 on the Upper West Side:
On one side are 21 fourth graders labeled gifted and talented by New York City’s school system. They are coursing through public school careers stamped accelerated.
And they are mostly white.
On the other side, sometimes sitting for reading lessons on the floor of the hallway, are those in the school’s vast majority: They are enrolled in general or special education programs.
They are mostly children of color.

Friday, January 11, 2013

NJ's Special Education Funding: A Canary in a Coal Mine

Let’s just call this Special Education Week. (Here’s my NJ Spotlight piece. Here’s my WHYY piece.). A story just popped up, courtesy of The Record, regarding Elmwood Park Schools, a working class borough in Bergen County. The story deals – tada! – with Elmwood Park’s fiscal disarray, which is mainly blamed on the expense of educating kids with disabilities.

At Monday night's School Board’s meeting, Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf appeared and informed board members and administrators that the DOE was appointing a state fiscal monitor because for two consecutive years Elmwood Park has been unable to balance its budget. (No word on why the Board awarded Superintendent Richard Tomko a merit raise on top of his $189K annual salary.)

The news story and accompanying Record editorial blame the district’s fiscal ills on the costs incurred by students with disabilities, particularly those who are receive mandated services in out-of-district placements. Both Comm. Cerf and Superintendent Tomko referenced these costs when describing the district’s financial disarray.  From The Record:
Tomko on Monday afternoon said increased enrollment, but particularly among special needs students, is a leading cause of the district’s financial instability. The same factor is once again coming into play this school year, he said. 
Since school began in September, the district has enrolled eight students whose needs demand unique care in facilities outside the district, Tomko said. 
Anticipated costs associated with educating these additional special needs students, among others the district by law cannot turn away, will likely exceed by $200,000 the $6 million set aside for special education in 2012-13, Tomko estimated. The total budget for this year is $36 million.
(Comm. Cerf is not so quick to put this deficit completely on the backs of special ed kids, referring to “material weaknesses” in district financial controls.)

Certainly, the cost of special education burdens Elmwood Park Schools. It’s one of New Jersey’s many small districts, with five schools and a total enrollment of 2,100 kids,  hardly a scaffold for efficient delivery of instructional services. According to Elmwood’s budget for 2012, 364 kids meet the qualifications for special education. That’s about 19%, which is high – NJ usually wiggles in at about 15% -- but not completely out of line. Of those 364, 100 kids are sent out-of-district, mostly to private placements, which can cost, as the Record editorial points out, more than $100,000 per year.

These high costs are exacerbated by Elmwood Park’s extremely low cost per pupil: $10,229 per pupil (total budgetary cost: $14,999), well below NJ’s average of $13,253, according to most recent info from the DOE.  The district itself advertises this fact in a narrative on the DOE website:
The district’s commitment is to continue to provide unwavering academic success within a sound fiscal strategy. By reviewing the financial data provided in the school report card, it is evident that Elmwood Park’s per pupil expenditure continues to be far less than what the state has identified as “adequate.” Be that as it may, we remain competitive with districts throughout the state and within the same district factor grouping.
The Record editorial offers this solution:
The best approach going forward would be for special education costs to be borne by the state. We need to explore creating a dedicated fund to do that. No matter where special education children are living at the moment, their educational needs are an issue for a government entity with greater resources than a local school district.
Interesting idea, and consistent with the philosophy behind the School Funding Reform Act. (The money follows the child, regardless of place of residence.) But a bit simplistic and, anyway, taxes are taxes, right? A more granular approach would examine ways to scale up high-quality special education programs, private or public (traditional or charter), perhaps on a county-wide basis, well beyond what we do with Special Services school districts or shared services.  Covering the high costs of special education – mandated through state and federal law – is just  a symptom of New Jersey’s inefficient and unwieldy school infrastructure. This is a big picture problem, not a circumscribed one.

KIPP's Camden Application and Special Education

My piece today at WHYY Newsworks examines KIPP's application to the Camden School Board to open several charter schools under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act. In particular, I look at the application's emphasis on special education, which points to entrenched problems in serving these kids in Camden's traditional schools.
KIPP's application to the Camden looks pretty bland on the surface: mostly facilities and budget planning material. But one third of the opening section is devoted to special education, a tightly regulated arena governed by state and federal law that mandates that all public schools provide special needs students with appropriate support and services.

The reason for this emphasis on special education is significant. While here's a widespread belief that charter schools discourage enrollment of students with disabilities, KIPP argues that, in fact, the organization welcomes special needs kids. This commitment is especially relevant to Camden Public Schools, which has a dismal track record of accurately labeling students and serving those who are eligible for services.
Read the whole thing here.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

KIPP Looking for Camden School Leader

KIPP is looking for a School Leader to head the  Renaissance School in Camden, authorized through the auspices of the Urban Hope Act (which allows charters to operate schools in Camden, Newark, and Trenton). Pending approval of its application to the Camden Board of Education, KIPP will open its first Camden school in 2014 and expand educational opportunities in a high-needs neighborhood. Here’s the blurb:
Refer a friend or colleague to lead the first Renaissance Elementary School in Camden New Jersey:  If we hire a school leader that you refer for this position, we’ll send you $15,000.  Refer a friend or colleague by filling out a referral here. If you have any questions please e-mail Shennell Barnes at *By referring someone you agree to the TEAM referral guidelines.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

NJ Special Education: Talking About Costs will Promote Equal Access

My column today in NJ Spotlight is called "Putting a Price on Special Education will Promote Equal Access." Here's the beginning:
Last week, NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney interviewed Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), acclaimed architect of New Jersey’s new tenure law, about her education agenda for 2013. Ruiz said that “she wants to focus on special education in the coming year, specifically helping families of students with disabilities navigate the system,” adding, “how do we as a state create opportunities for families who really feel they haven’t that access?”
The issue of equal access to high-performing schools for children from all families, regardless of wealth, ZIP code, or parental advocacy, infuses education reform discussions in New Jersey and elsewhere. Locally, it’s the heart of our Abbott rulings, funding formulas, and charter school wars. Nationally, the issue of access informs debates on school choice, teacher and administrator accountability, and measuring student outcomes.
But Sen. Ruiz’s question is rarely asked in the world of special education. Certainly, it’s a more difficult discussion; after all, we’re talking about our most fragile children who require a wide gamut of educational services. (Full disclosure: I have a child with multiple disabilities.)
Read the rest here.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Quote of the Day

Students First, Michelle Rhee's group, has just issued State Policy Reports. This is from New Jersey's  (presumably value-added) evaluation:
New Jersey is taking steps to elevate teaching, but must still do more. The state has reformed tenure significantly and adopted better educator evaluations, though student growth is not yet a predominant criterion. Effectiveness is not tied to placement or salary decisions, and districts are required to base layoff decisions on seniority, putting effective educators at risk. New Jersey must also do more to empower parents. The state must make information to parents regarding teacher and school performance more accessible. New Jersey should create an opportunity scholarship program for low-income students and expand availability of quality choices by strengthening charter accountability for authorizers and increasing access to comparable resources and facilities for public charter schools. New Jersey should also allow mayors to take control in low-performing districts. Finally, the state should no longer lock teachers into the existing pension system and should offer a more attractive, portable retirement option.

Paging Applicants for Trenton Charter Schools

The Star-Ledger Editorial Board has a sharply-edged rebuke to the Christie Administration’s failure to rebuild crumbling schools in cities like Trenton. This scolding was triggered by a court ruling that the DOE is denying requests for urgent and necessary repairs. Says the Ledger,
State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf should accept this ruling and act upon it at once. Because when dilapidated schools such as Trenton Central High are literally falling down around these kids and their teachers, how can we fault them for failing?
I’m not sure about the Ledger’s logic (fairly new school buildings in Trenton are also failing), but the editorial dovetails nicely with another news story today, NJ Spotlight’s acquisition, via an OPRA request, of KIPP Norcross Academy’s first formal application to build and run several charter schools in Camden under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act.

There are three school districts in New Jersey that are included in the Urban Hope Act: Camden, Newark, and Trenton. Is the Christie Administration waiting for some applicants to step unto the breach in Trenton

Anyway, the KIPP application (too bad it had to be OPRA’d) is worth reading. Here’s its section on special education, which combats common wisdom that charter schools don’t serve kids with disabilities:
At TEAM school, serving the kids who most need a strong school environment means going to extraordinary lengths to ensure we are serving the same students that any public  school serves – from students with special needs, to students with challenging home lives, to students who are years below grade level. Our dedication to this effort can be seen in everything we do: from our admission process, to our special education services, to not forcing or counseling bad kids out, to our teachers’ unfaltering resolve to make sure every child is on track for success in life, even if they enter years behind…
TEAM not only targets and recruits students with special needs directly, but our campuses have never turned away a student with special needs.

Worth a Watch:

This Washington Post video, which directly addresses the issue of charter schools expelling kids with discipline problems and sending them back to traditional public schools.

New Bill Introduced in NJ Legislature to Study Special Education

Assembly Republican David Rible has introduced a bill that would, according to the press release, would create a task force that would “leave no stone unturned in its quest to find ways to make special education more efficient and effective with a greater emphasis on student achievement.”

The bipartisan bill, A-1365, is co-sponsored Assembly members Mary Pat Angelini, Jason O’Donnell and Donna Simon, and Senators Jennifer Beck and Teresa M. Ruiz. Its genesis is a series in the Asbury Park Press on NJ’s inefficient and expensive special education system. The Task Force would study:
•    Methods of classifying and education special needs students.
•    Best practices for special education.
•    Strategies to reduce costs associated with out-of-district placements.
•    Standards to ensure programs meets students’ needs and focus on achievement.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

NJ school districts continue to deal with the aftermath of the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School, particularly parents’ concerns about security. This Record article about Glen Ridge is a good example. Marlboro (Star Ledger), for now an outlier, is hiring armed policemen for each school building, at a cost of $100,000 in overtime for the next 90 days.  Further New Jersey Newsroom coverage here.  And here’s a Star-Ledger editorial. 

NJ Spotlight's John Mooney interviews Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf and Sen. Teresa Ruiz on their respective goals for 2013. Sen. Ruiz intends to focus on special education, specifically in regards to equity: “How do we as a state create opportunities for families who really feel they haven’t that access.”

Also in NJ Spotlight: “As Newark’s landmark teachers contract begins to be implemented, only about 20 percent of district teachers who can opt to earn bonuses for exemplary evaluations and service in hard-to-fill slots have actually decided to do so.” Superintendent Cami Anderson, however, is encouraged by the participation: ““We thought that was pretty exciting,” Anderson said in an interview. “We didn’t expect more than that. I think it is human nature to choose what you are accustomed to.”

 How threatened is NJEA (NJ's primary teacher union) over blended learning schools that combine online and traditional education? This threatened: it's gone to court to shut down a blended learning charter school in Newark called Merit Prep, even though NJEA doesn’t represent Newark teachers. (AFT does.)

The Courier Post: “Officials have apologized to an 8-year-old student of Hindu heritage and his parents after he included a swastika in a holiday drawing.” The Old Bridge student received support from the International Raelian Movement, "which believes humans created by extraterrestrials” and that the swastika is a “symbol of good will." The group said school officials needed counseling and not the student.”

Asbury Park Press: as Tom Rivers Public Schools' “post-Ritacco era begins” (the former superintendent, Tom Ritacco, is in jail for 11 years after being convicted of taking bribes from a district insurance broker) the school board at Toms River is riven by two opposing factions. “The reaction from the public [at a recent meeting] was of such disgust that one woman rose to the microphone to denounce board members as ‘buffoons.’"

The Press of Atlantic City reports on state test scores for K-8 students. As the state transitions to a new national testing system, “in some grades, almost a third of all students are not meeting current state standards, according to the results released by the state Department of Education in December.” High school students did better.

John Zerillo, a retired Mercer County director of public safety and former assistant commissioner of the NJ Department of Corrections, says this in the Trenton Times:
If New Jersey is to prevent the continued growth of a racial caste system, public officials involved in education must aggressively transform failing school districts. Instead, failing urban schools are feeding dropouts into economically stagnating communities, where 18 percent of minorities are below the poverty line, and into prisons, where 77 percent of inmates are minorities. 
The U.S. Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) warned government that equal funding for segregated white and black schools does not assure a quality education or equal protection. Nevertheless, the New Jersey Supreme Court has frequently ordered funding of urban schools so that they receive funding equal to wealthier districts, but there has been little or no benefit: The quality of urban schools and communities is not nearly equal to those of the suburbs.

The Trenton Board of Education is unhappy that it still must receive oversight from a state Fiscal Monitor.

Sara Mead at Education Week looks at a new report from the The Foundation for Child Development, “which culls a variety of indicators of children's well-being across multiple domains of economic, health, education, behavior, and social/emotional/religious well-being to try to track how our nation's kids have fared over time.” There’s good news and bad news but, says Mead, “the education findings here are a resounding ‘Meh.’ 4th grade reading scores are up over the past decade, consistently so. But the pace of improvement has been near molasses in January slow: The authors calculate that it will take 35 years of continued gains at the current rate before 50% of 4th graders read proficiently on NAEP. That's a looooong time to wait, particularly in light of global and economic trends. Pre-k enrollment--which may have helped fuel some of the education progress--has also pretty much stalled after a decade of expansion. That said, the fact these increases have occurred even in light of decreased economic circumstances for many children shouldn't be ignored"