Thursday, February 28, 2013

Four NJ Education Bills Worth Watching

My column today at WHYY's Newsworks examines four pending education bills before the NJ State Legislature:
During this first 2013 session of the New Jersey Legislature, a lengthy catalogue of bills is wending its way through the serpentine law-making process that begins with a draft bill and ends (in a few cases) with the Governor's signature. Some bills spin gracefully through the hazards of partisanship and special-interest lobbyists, while others lurch and stagger like extras on "The Walking Dead." This session, bills relevant to public education include no ballerinas or, for that matter, any zombies, but here's an annotated list of the more interesting ones, along with my two cents.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Christie Education Budget Reax

Here's the bottom line: Gov. Christie's proposed state budget is $32.9 billion and includes expanding Medicaid, Hurricane Sandy relief, signing on to Pres. Obama's Affordable Care Act, and making a $1.675 billion pension contribution. State education spending would increase by 1%, to $8.9 billion. About two-thirds of school districts would see very small state aid increases, while the rest would stay flat. That's better than an aid cut, but far less than NJ's school funding formula demands.

The biggest school-related news bullet is a $2 million pilot program for school vouchers, called "Opportunity Scholarship Grants," which is enough to give 200 kids vouchers for $10,000 each. This program is a kind of Hail Mary pass around the Legislature, as hopes dim for the far more ambitious Opportunity Scholarship Act.  Many papers focused on this initiative,  including NJ Spotlight, the Star-Ledger, the Record, and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's some reactions:

NJEA: "We are very disappointed that the governor once again failed to comply with the law and fund New Jersey’s schools at required adequacy levels, compounding the harm of his previous budgets.  Flat funding for nearly 200 districts hurts those schools and their students.  And minimal increases for others will not be enough to keep up, much less invest in the future."

David Sciarra of Education Law Center (in NJ Spotlight): “The very minimal increase for some districts, and flat funding for many others, means another year of cuts in programs, staff and services that are needed by our students. The governor's aid proposal does almost nothing to meet the needs of students in hundreds of underfunded schools throughout the state." Sciarra told the Record that the voucher proposed voucher program is "an illegal end run around the Legislature's power and authority" and told the Star-Ledger that the program should be "dead on arrival."

Senator Ray Lesniak, a prime sponsor of the original Opportunity Scholarship Act which would have been a $40 million program, called the Governor's microversion a "teeny-weeny step." (PolitickerNJ)

Sen. Tom Kean, also in PolitickerNJ: "“Governor Christie’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year is focused squarely on these priorities and moving New Jersey forward by getting back to the basics of what taxpayers demand from their government: conservative spending, no tax hikes, increased aid to schools, and a groundbreaking trial program to give children in failing schools a choice to seek a better learning environment."

Senator Barbara Buono: the budget address was "really offensive" and ignored the middle-class. Here's Tom Moran reaction to Buono's reaction, which he describes as  "playing the role of the unknown bantamweight boxer stepping into the ring with the muscular champ the fans adore."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Quote of the Day

Here’s a fiery editorial from today’s Wall Street Journal, charging that President Obama’s new universal preschool initiative is, er, misguided because of “the phenomenon known as 'fade out,' in which any tangible gains from preschool dissipate as students progress through elementary school.” The commentary cites studies from the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, which found  that “the costs [of preschools in Georgia]outweighed the benefits by a ratio of six to one. Nearly 80% of enrollment is 'just a transfer of income from the government to families of four year olds' who would have attended preschool anyway.”

Mr. Obama has set up a non-falsifiable evidentiary standard for government. The public schools fail the poor, but reforming them is hard and would upset the unions. So instead liberals propose Head Start to prepare poor kids for kindergarten. Head Start has little to show after 47 years, but rather than replacing it, the new liberal solution is to expand it to everyone.
Meanwhile, pundits who claim to be empiricists lecture Republicans to agree to all this so they don't appear to be so hostile to government. Everyone pretends that spending more on programs that have demonstrably failed is a sign of compassion and "what works," government expands without results, and the poor are offered only the false hope of liberal good intentions. 

In case you missed it, here's my column on NJ's preschools at WHYY's Newsworks.

Something in the Water?

From today's NJ Spotlight: "according to estimates from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 49 New Jersey children has autism, nearly twice the national rate."

What Would NJ Schools Lose from Sequestration?

According to the Courier-Post, this is the list of education cut if the U.S. Congress fails to come to a budget agreement by Friday:
• About $11.7 million in funding for primary and secondary education, putting about 160 teacher and aide jobs at risk.  
• About $17 million in funds for about 210 teachers, aides, and staff who help children with disabilities.  
• Aid to help about 1,480 low-income students finance the costs of college as well as work-study jobs for about 650 students.  
• Money for Head Start and Early Head Start services for about 1,300 children.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

For the few NJ school districts that still have April elections (see Spotlight coverage), the deadline for filing applications for school board candidacy is 4 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 25,. Here’s the Candidate’s Kit from NJSBA.

 New Jersey school districts are ramping up preparations for the new teacher evaluation legislation, set to launch statewide in September. One of the first tasks is for each district to select a teacher evaluation rubric. NJ Spotlight reports that 60% of NJ’s 500+ districts have chosen the model created by Charlotte Danielson (originally intended for professional development, not evaluation, by the way). Details here.

Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, per Philly Burbs, “ is sponsoring legislation to require all New Jersey public school districts to offer full-day kindergarten rather than just a half-day.” About 70% of NJ school districts currently offer full-day kindergarten. Assemblywoman Wagner predicts that her legislation won’t go anywhere because no one has the money.

The Director of The Foundation for Newark’s Future, Greg Taylor, is taking another gig and will be replaced by by the foundation’s chief financial officer, Kimberly Baxter McLain. The Foundation oversees the distribution of the $100 million Facebook grant and is responsible for raising matching funds. (Taylor's salary, a hot topic, was $382K.)

Leslie Brody at The Record looks at the how gifted and talented programs in NJ are being “squeezed out” because of No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on underachieving students and the rising costs of special education.
To the exasperation of parents and advocates, New Jersey gives no specific guidance on how to identify or serve gifted children, and provides no aid targeted toward helping districts meet the state’s mandate to give them “appropriate educational challenges.” By contrast, the state gives districts extra aid for each special needs child enrolled, and chipped in $163 million this year for those with extraordinary costs — though many districts say that aid still doesn’t go far enough. Special needs children have precise plans spelling out services that schools are legally obligated to provide.
(Also see this article from the New York Times on whether children accepted into accelerated programs are either “gifted” or “well-prepared.”)

Central Jersey looks at whether Jersey schools offer adequate athletic opportunities for students with disabilities.

The Courier-Post interview gubernatorial-hopeful Barbara Buono, who cites her work on the School Funding Reform Act as a source of great pride. In related news, the Press of Atlantic City reports on a rally urging Gov. Christie to fully fund the formula: “Advocates said there are ways to increase state aid to schools this year and phase in full funding of the legislatively mandated formula. Among the solutions offered was restoration of the 2009 tax rates on residents making more than $400,000 per year and closing certain corporate loopholes.” 
Don't miss (former NJ Deputy Commissioner) Andy Smarick's balanced discussion of the impact of closing bad schools. So much loss -- history, the "invisible web of social connectivity," sense of ownership, school spirit,  jobs for adults -- yet increasingly hard to square.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Quote of the Day: Diane Ravitch's "Mistake"

In this review of Diane Ravitch’s book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,”  Gary Houchens,  a former teacher, principal, and school administrator, criticizes  Ravitch for the “mistake” she makes in conflating school choice and testing. Houchens writes, “There are many excellent public schools throughout the U.S.  But Ravitch and defenders of the educational status quo seem blind to the fact that millions of children are being grossly underserved by government-run schools, which are the only option for most families of modest means. “

Houchens, now a professor of Educational Administration, Leadership, and Research at Western Kentucky University, continues,
And this is another fundamental point that Ravitch and many other school choice opponents seem to miss.  Just like traditional public schools, some schools of choice will be successful, while others will fail.  The difference is that schools of choice that fail to satisfy their clients will go out of business, whereas failing public schools will continue to drain millions of dollars of taxpayer money forever.  School choice is not a panacea for all of education's problems, but it gives many families something they can only dream of under the current system: an option. 
Ravitch's tendency to associate all choice advocates with the push for standardized testing and paint them all with a "corporate" label grossly oversimplifies the great diversity in the education reform movement and among school choice supporters in general…Lumping them all together serves Ravitch's rhetorical purpose of painting school choice in the most negative light possible and represents one of the most potentially destructive aspects of her work. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Legislature Considers Three Education Bills: NJEA v. NJSBA

It’s silly season in NJ’s State Legislature. New Jersey School Boards just released a description of three bills that are currently making their way through the Senate and Assembly.

S-1191 makes it “much for difficult” for local school districts to outsource cafeteria services, custodial work, and busing by requiring negotiations with bargaining units.  NJSBA notes in its position statement that districts save millions of dollars by subcontracting out some services:
The NJSBA believes that it is critical that a board of education be permitted to enter into subcontracting agreements whenever, for reasons of economy or to advance the best interests of the school district and the educational welfare of the children, it determines such agreements are appropriate. Local boards of education should have a nonnegotiable, managerial prerogative to enter into subcontracting agreements.
NJEA begs to differ. Its update notes that “legislators were persuaded by the testimony they heard, as well as by the calls and emails from NJEA members".  NJEA pet, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, lobbies, “We keep hearing about savings as a reason to oppose the bill. Who knows better ways to find economies than the people who do the job? All this bill does is require the parties to negotiate.” (Assembly Diegnan's campaign war chest is funded largely by labor unions. According to VoteSmart, NJEA contributed $16,400 to his last campaign, second only to the NJ Democratic Party.)

Bill S-1501 requires districts to provide a daily recess for all students grades K-5. “NJSBA believes that this issue should be determined by individual districts and not state statute. “

Bill S-2163 requires boards to go to court for binding arbitration hearings any time they need to dismiss, discipline, or lay off non-teaching school employees, essentially awarding tenure protection to non-tenured employees. From the bill statement:
This bill provides to non-teaching employees of local, county or  regional school districts, boards or commissions the right to submit  to binding arbitration any dispute regarding whether there is just  cause for a disciplinary action, including, but not limited to,  reprimands, withholding of increments, termination, non-renewal,  expiration or lapse of an employment contract or term, or lack of  continuation of employment, irrespective of the reason for the   employer's action or failure to act, and irrespective of any contractual or negotiated provision or lack therof.  The bill places the burden of proof in the arbitration on the employer.
NJSBA opposes all three bills. NJEA actively supports 1191 and 2163 and appears agnostic on the 1501.

New Jersey Preschools: Do We Get What We Pay For?

My column today at WHYY's Newsworks looks at President Obama's push for preschool and New Jersey's programs. We do a great job. Our costs are through the roof, by far the highest in the country. What can we do to expand access, per the President's instructions, and contain costs?
For early childhood education advocates, last week was Christmas in February when President Obama, in his fifth State of the Union address, proposed access to high-quality preschool for every child in America...

Pres. Obama's Administration has since released more details about his proposal. All 50 states would share costs, along with hefty federal contributions, to provide free preschool to 4-year olds from families that have incomes at or below 200% of the poverty level. Various incentives would prod states to provide preschool to middle-class families on a sliding scale.

New Jersey can strut proudly on this one: in the preschool department, we're well ahead of the President's agenda. The long series of State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which continue to govern many of the state's school funding allocations, mandates that NJ provides free preschool to about 51,000 children in our 31 Abbott districts. The cut-off for eligibility is family income at or below 300% of the poverty level. (NJ's new funding formula has technically increased eligibility to poor children not residing in Abbott districts, but the State has never come through with the money.)
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Quote of the Day: Charter School Equity

The Asbury Park Press looks at inequities in facilities funding between NJ charter schools and traditional schools.  The piece highlights Academy Charter High School in Lake Como, where “students dribble basketballs on a recent Thursday afternoon under a gym roof that lets in sunlight, rain and the occasional bird through weather-worn holes.” Says Carlos Perez, of the NJ Association of Charter Schools:
Facility funding is the single biggest challenge in starting or sustaining a charter public school and our state does not provide new or existing charter schools with access to facility funding or underutilized local public school facilities.
The article notes that currently 30,000 NJ kids attend charter schools and another 20,000 are on waiting lists; “without funding consistent with that of traditional public schools, it will be more difficult for New Jersey’s charter public schools to provide educational gains to more students, according to the association.”

The quote of the day? Here it is, especially for those who swear that all charter schools weed out kids with disabilities:
Academy Charter director MaryJo McKinley says her school opened 15 years ago in a renovated bar that was built in the 1990s but poorly maintained. She said the school has to spend 16 percent of its per-pupil budget on $30,556-a-month rent and facility issues. 
The school’s per-pupil costs are about $19,362; at Asbury Park High School, the per-pupil cost in 2010-11 was $29,095, a figure heavily bolstered by state aid. 
Academy Charter, with a roughly 19 percent special-needs population that year, had a 95.45 percent graduation rate in 2010-11, according to the state Department of Education. That rate has since crept up to 98 percent, says director MaryJo McKinley. Asbury Park High School had a graduation rate of 59.46 percent in 2010-11.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Education Law Center: School Construction Authority's Profligacy is "Nothing Short of Astounding."

A new press release from Education Law Center charges that NJ's School Development Authority, responsible for school construction in high-poverty districts, is wasting tons of money on overhead and, in fact, spend $34 million on administrative costs in 2012:
An analysis by ELC of financial records since January 2010 shows the New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) spent a total of $114 million on agency staff, office space, legal services, communications and other administrative expenses over the last three years. That amounts to a staggering 17% of the $661 million in SDA expenditures over the three-year period.

SDA costs are "stunningly high" and "way out of line" with the administrative overhead of similar school construction agencies in other states, said Mary Filardo, Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based 21st Century School Fund. Ms. Filardo is one of the nation's leading experts on the impact of school facilities on student learning and has served as a consultant and advisor to state and district school facilities planning and construction programs.
Seems like a pretty good argument for the Urban Hope Act, which allows school boards in Trenton, Newark, and Camden to bypass the SDA and contract with charter organizations to build school buildings and operate charter schools. Yet ELC has virulently opposed the Urban Hope Act, even after its usual ally, the New Jersey Education Association, expressed its support. From NJEA President Barbara Keshishian: "NJEA supports this legislation because it allows for innovation while providing meaningful public accountability. It is a creative expansion of public school choice that uses public funds to support public education."  Here's some background.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

An editorial this week in the NY Post: "The New Jersey Education Association has declared war on two Newark charter schools, Merit Prep and Newark Prep. It sued to shut them down, but lost in court — so now the union’s asked the state Legislature to kill them."

New JerseySchool Boards Association, NJ Spotlight, and the Star-Ledger review the new School Report Cards – now called “School Performance Reports” -- issued by the NJ DOE.
From an Assembly Democrats press release: "Legislation Assembly Democrats Bonnie Watson Coleman, Gary S. Schaer, Benjie E. Wimberly and L. Grace Spencer sponsored rejecting Gov. Chris Christie's proposed school funding changes targeting at-risk, bilingual and special education students was approved 47-30 Thursday by the Assembly." NJ Spotlight coverage here.
Today's Asbury Park Press features a long analysis of the role of the NJSIAA in NJ's efforts to accommodate children with disabilities in school sports programs.

Courier Post: “Online standardized testing will soon become the norm for school districts in New Jersey, but local superintendents say planning for the new test has been difficult due to a lack of information provided by the state.”

Asbury Park Press: “A school board in New Jersey has taken an initial step toward allowing a principal, who is a retired police officer, to carry a handgun in school.”  

According to the Courier-Post, Cherry Hill School District has frozen all spending because expenses next year will rise $600,000 above the 2% cap.
Pompton Lakes School District is generating much-needed revenue by accepting students through the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program, says the Record.

Parsippany Superintendent Dr. Lee Seitz is retiring, along with the district’s business administrator. The Star-Ledger recounts when Gov. Christie labeled Seitz as a “poster boy for greed” after  the school board there rushed through a contract renewal to evade the new state superintendent salary cap.

Pleasantville School District has had 15 superintendents in 15 years, reports the Press of Atlantic City. The School Board tried to make it 16 by voting to suspend the current superintendent but the State Fiscal Monitor overturned the decision.

The Jersey Journal has obtained a set of emails that show that Ward E City Councilman Steve Fulop, a contender in May’s Jersey City mayoral race, was “instrumental” in getting 8 of 9 school board members elected.