Thursday, March 28, 2013

NJ's Superintendent Salary Caps

Today's Star-Ledger reports that the Superintendent of West Winsor/Plainsboro Public Schools (Mercer County), Victoria Kniewel, is leaving in order to avoid a salary cut. Her contract, which sets her salary at $192.6K, expires in two years. Under NJ's superintendent salary cap, Kniewel would could earn no more than $175K under a new contract. Princeton's superintendent, Judith Wilson, is also leaving; she makes over $220K, and the salary cap would lop $57K off her annual earnings. (Caps are linked to total enrollment; the more students, the higher the cap.)

The West Windsor School Board president comments that the salary cap interferes with districts' ability to "attract quality candidates" because other states don't enforce salary caps. That's true. But other states don't have as many school districts as we do;  one could argue that NJ's abundance of central offices -- superintendents, business administrators, personnel directors, etc. --  leads to redundancy and inefficiency. We can't pay our superintendents as much as other states because each one is responsible for far fewer students.

It might be interesting to look at the ratio of superintendents to students in other states with high quality schools. Here's one example: New Jersey has 591 operating districts with a total enrollment of 1.35 million kids. Massachusetts' highly-regarded school system, by way of comparison, has 244 school districts which educate about 957,000 kids, a far lower ratio.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Quote of the Day

NJ School Board's Larry Feinsod on how LIFO, or seniority-based layoffs, is "an impediment to instructional excellence":
Just as tenure was in dire need of overhaul, LIFO is long overdue for elimination.  On March 18, the NJSBA Board of Directors adopted new policy language that we hope will set the stage for a major campaign to eliminate LIFO as a factor in public school employment.  The new policy provides clarity to the Association’s long-standing position on seniority:

The NJSBA believes that the seniority statute, regulations and case law thwart school management’s ability to operate efficiently and in the best interests of students; and that a school board should be able to rely upon criteria, such as a staff member’s teaching experience and job performance, when determining whom it will retain on staff after a reduction in force.

By itself, the revised policy language won’t bring about the end of LIFO; aggressive action in Trenton and at the grassroots level will.  That’s why during the coming months, NJSBA will ask local school board members to actively convey the need for critical reform to our state’s leaders.

Gov. Christie's "Teeny-Weeny" Voucher Bill

Read my column today at NJ Spotlight which considers NJ's hotly-contested Opportunity Scholarship Act, or "the voucher bill."
In 1994, Gov. Christie Whitman announced a plan, never endorsed by the Legislature, to offer publicly funded vouchers to private and parochial schools for children in Jersey City. Over the past 20 years, Whitman’s modest proposal has evolved into the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA).

In its grandest form, inscribed in Senate Bill 1872, OSA would provide $1 billion in vouchers for up to 40,000 kids over five years, paid for by corporations in exchange for tax credits. A slimmed-down (and superior) Assembly version, unveiled last year, limits eligibility to seven school districts: Newark, Camden, Elizabeth, Asbury Park, Lakewood, Passaic, and Orange.

Yet in spite of fierce efforts by lobbyists, OSA has never made it to the Statehouse floor and prospects remain dim. Gov. Chris Christie, hardly one to flinch from a fight, acknowledged this in last month’s budget address when, as part of his $89 billion school-aid package, he proposed the inclusion of $2 million for a one-year pilot program. It’s OSA writ small, barely enough to offer $10,000 vouchers to 200 poor kids.
Read the rest here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Did NJ Take Over Camden's Public Schools?

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks is titled "Christie Doesn't Trust Camden to Pick New Superintendent":
Why did the State take over Camden's public schools? The causes are many, but here's the big one: the state wants to be the one to choose the district's next superintendent. Yesterday Gov. Christie and Education Comm. Chris Cerf came to Camden to break the news.

In fact, the takeover comes just as the Camden Board of Education was getting close to naming a new superintendent. On Saturday The board interviewed five candidates and last night had second interviews for the narrowed field of three. According to the latest news, e board is planning to go forward with its official "Meet and Greet" for the two finalists tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Octavius V. Catto Community School (map).

The state, though, is making it clear that it will have the final say. The first page of the formal "State Intervention Plan for the Camden School District" states, "Upon State intervention, the Commissioner of Education will recommend to the State Board of Education the appointment of a new State district superintendent. The State district superintendent will be appointed for an initial term that will not exceed three years and the costs of his or her salary will be borne by the Camden school district."

Read the rest here.

Monday, March 25, 2013

New Jersey Taking Over Camden Public Schools

From this morning's Philadelphia Inquirer:
TRENTON - Gov. Christie plans to announce Monday that he is taking the extraordinary step of putting the educational and fiscal management of the Camden School District under state control, The Inquirer has learned.

As part of the takeover of what the state considers the worst-performing district in New Jersey, Christie will appoint a new superintendent and leadership team, shifting the school board to an advisory role, according to Christie administration officials briefed on the plan.

The Republican governor's move nonetheless has support from at least a few school board members and key Democratic leaders in the South Jersey political establishment, some of whom are expected to join Christie at the takeover announcement Monday in the city, officials said.

Camden will become the fourth urban district under state control, after Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City. This is the first takeover initiated by Christie, who will add the severely challenged district to his education portfolio less than eight months before his reelection bid.

Though the news will likely be greeted with relief by those who believe the district is permanently broken, critics will cite the state's previous - and largely unsuccessful - interventions in Camden schools, government, and law enforcement.

In an odd bit of timing, the takeover comes as Camden school board members were closing in on selecting a new superintendent. As recently as Saturday, they were interviewing candidates, and a meet-and-greet for the public with as many as three finalists was scheduled for Tuesday night, school board member Ray Lamboy said last week.

Lamboy, who served on the board subcommittee charged with finding a new superintendent, said he wasn't sure what the board had spent on the search. Some of the candidates have been flown in, and a search firm has been hired.

That process will now be moot.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

The Star-Ledger, the Asbury Park Press, and  NJ Spotlight cover the new report out on the effectiveness of NJ’s Abbott Preschool Program, which shows that participating children outperform kids who don’t attend full-day preschools. Also, contrary to some other national studies, these high-poverty kids retain that advantage through 4th and 5th grade. The Asbury Park Press Editorial Board is less gung-ho.

Last week, eight NJ school boards held referenda to approve construction projects. Four passed and four failed. In all, $25,662,419 was approved among Weymouth Township in Atlantic County, North Arlington in Bergen, Bellmawr in Camden County, and Livingston in Essex. Here’s the details from NJ School Boards Association.

The South Jersey Times looks at NJEA’s endorsement of Sen. Barbara Buono: “Buono has clear, NJEA-friendly differences with Christie over school vouchers, charter schools, state aid, etc., to which she can give voice. The onus is still on her, however, to defend her votes against public employment compensation changes that have helped lift New Jersey, its towns and its school districts out of their fiscal morass.”

NJ Spotlight breaks down Student Growth Percentiles, the NJ DOE’s method for incorporating student test score data into teacher evaluations.

Ross Danis, president and CEO of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education, comments on the abrupt departure of Greg Taylor as the CEO  of the Foundation for Newark’s Future, and touts the Newark Trust for Education’s tracking of Newark schools’ resources.

From the Courier-Post: “The state Department of Education approved a two-part application for the construction of the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, sources confirmed Monday.”

“Accusations of racism and anti-Semitism”  are bandied about at school board meetings in Spring Valley, NY, where a district that is about 90% minority is governed by an entirely Orthodox Jewish school board. See reference to Lakewood, a NJ district with similar demographics and board leadership.

The Record examines Senate Bill 1501, which would mandate 20 minutes of recess at all NJ public elementary schools. Best line: "I don't understand why legislators are trying to change students' 'sedentary' behavior at home, by taking time away from instruction at school," said William Petrick, superintendent for Little Falls School District. "We already have recess at school. Would they please pass a law that requires every parent to take their child outside and play with them?"

Another piece of legislation would require all NJ school districts to offer full-day kindergarten, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. Currently 30% of NJ districts only have half-days. NJEA supports the bill, although the article focuses more on nay-sayers, who worry about funding and facilities space. The superintendent of Haddonfield, an “affluent” district, says that “families seem happy with half-days” and “many (pay) for their own after-school programs or offering their own activities and enrichment.”

In other legislative news, NJ Newsroom notes Senate Bill 600, which creates "a task force to improve the funding, delivery and effectiveness of special education programs and services in New Jersey" and was signed by Gov. Christie.  NJ spends $3 billion/year on special education.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Quote of The Day

Ryan Hill, President of the TEAM Academy Charter Schools in Newark, regarding the new KIPP schools to be built and operated in Camden under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act (NJ Spotlight):
The head of the KIPP network in New Jersey said he was optimistic about what the new schools may bring to Camden. He cited recent state statistics showing that only a tiny fraction of students coming out of the city’s schools are prepared for college-level work. 
“We think we can be a big part of the solution in moving that number way, way, way north,” said Ryan Hill, president of the TEAM Academy charter schools in Newark that are part of KIPP’s national network.  
“It probably will be a different level of challenge than we have encountered, even in Newark,” he said. “We’re up for it, and putting our best people on it, and we’re excited about tackling it.”

The Politics of NJ's "Voucher Bill"

My post this week at WHYY's Newsworks looks at the politics of NJ's embattled school voucher bill, which has  evolved from a  sprawling overreach to a (potential) timid pilot. And, of course, how the strong feelings aroused by this bill erupted into a particularly nasty exchange between Gov. Christie and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver:
New Jersey's education politics have, once again, gone viral: from The Huffington Post to U.S. News and World Report, Americans are reading about the kerfuffle between Gov. Chris Christie and N.J. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver over an oft-proposed voucher bill called The Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA). In short, at a town hall meeting in Paterson last Tuesday, our mellifluous governor lumbered into dangerous territory when he criticized the Speaker for refusing to allow the Assembly to vote on the controversial bill.

OSA would award tax credits to corporations that provide scholarships to private and parochial schools for some poor kids in failing districts. These scholarships are often referred to as "vouchers" because they allow families to exchange them for tuition at a school other than the state-assigned public school.
Read the rest here.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Do NJ Kids Do Better in Private Special Education Schools?


A report commissioned by ASAH, the NJ consortium of private special education schools found that students in these out-of-district placements have better outcomes than students placed within public districts in more inclusive settings.

Today's NJ Spotlight interviews the researcher who compiled and interpreted the data, Professor Deborah Carran of Johns Hopkins University.
“The most amazing thing I found is that the number and proportion of these kids that are going into post-secondary education,” said Carran in an interview. “They are going into junior colleges and four-year colleges. And they are employed and engaged.
“They are doing stuff and not just sitting at home waiting for their parents to take care of them,” she said.
“Ouch,” say parents of kids with disabilities stuck in  in-district placements. “ Our kids are not going to be doing stuff! Better sue our districts to pay tuition to private schools.”

It’s hard to take the study too seriously, in part because the only thing I can find on the study is  a one-page description. And Prof. Carran seems to have developed a nifty little cottage industry, providing similar research and conclusions for the private special ed consortium in Baltimore, which also commissioned a study.

On the other hand, her work on qualitative differences in special ed placements and the impact on reintegration goes back to at least 1994.

In NJ, this subject has hefty resonance because our special education costs are so high, over $3.3 billion per year. (See here.) NJ Spotlight points out that NJ school districts' rate of placing students in out-of-district placements is 8%, far higher than any other state in the country, and certainly that accounts for some of the cost. More fundamentally, the expense is due to our ineffective infrastructure of almost 600 districts. This sort of fragmentation impedes scale and stymies districts’ efforts to develop the same sort of programming  as private schools, which are able to draw students from many districts.

One commentator on the ASAH report  was Deborah Jennings, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, who said, “I would hate for families to generalize from this study that a private school placement is the answer for their child.Special education is not just about a place, but it's about individual children receiving the services, supports, accommodations, and modifications to achieve their greatest potential.” 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Legislative Update: Senate Passes NJEA-Approved Bill

Sigh. Today the NJ Senate approved, by a vote of 22-15, Bill S 1191, which would bar school districts from subcontracting non-instructional services like busing, custodians, and cafeteria workers.  Here’s NJSBA’s press release, which notes,
S-1191 would impose onerous, pro-union requirements such as extensive notice and comment periods, as well as transitional employment for affected employees, which appear intended to preclude school districts from privatizing food or custodial services altogether, regardless of whether such a decision makes sense from a managerial or fiscal standpoint.
See post below for more details, including NJEA's vibrant support for a bill that helps adults and hurts kids by forcing cuts to instructional services.

NJSBA also mentions that on the Senate substantially changed the language in the original bill, which is still retained in the Assembly version (which gets voted on next). Here's the description of the changes:
The new text in the Senate bill would allow county governments that have created a countywide purchasing agreement for custodial or food services to unilaterally force school boards to take part in the county program. NJSBA opposes the new provisions, as it would compromise local control by allowing counties to compel school district participation in a countywide agreement – even if the district has already subcontracted food or custodial services, and regardless of whether the district negotiated a better deal on its own. 
Hey --  maybe NJ isn't so slavishly devoted to home rule after all, at least when it comes to protecting special interests.

(Correction: 1191 was passed on Monday, not Tuesday.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Quote of the Day (& Why We Need Tenure Reform)

Lisa Fleisher in today’s Wall Street Journal:
Principals at more than one in 10 New York City public schools didn't flunk a single teacher for at least eight years, according to an analysis of city data by The Wall Street Journal. 
Teachers at 142 of 1,269 schools that have been open for at least the past eight years were all marked "satisfactory" on the city's pass/fail system for reviewing job performance...
The findings give ammunition to Department of Education officials who say the teacher-rating system should be changed. New York City is one of a handful of school districts statewide that hasn't adopted a new, more nuanced system of grading teachers. The city and its teachers union haven't been able to reach an agreement. Under the current system, teachers are either rated unsatisfactory or satisfactory. Annually, less than 3% of teachers citywide are marked "unsatisfactory."

NJ School Boards Chief Speaks out on Two Ill-Conceived Bills


Lawrence Feinsod, Executive Director of the NJSBA, remarks in a note to school board members on two bills before the State Legislature, Senate Bill 1191 and Assembly Bill 3627. (I’ve written about them here.) S 1191 disallows school boards from outsourcing non-instructional services, like transportation, cafeteria, and maintenance. A 3627 gives “tenure-like protection” to non-certificated staff, including the right to binding arbitration any time a school board wants to not renew a contract or without a salary increase.

Both bills have been approved by the Senate; the Assembly votes next.

Feinsod on 1191: “Prohibiting subcontracting is not a new idea.  The unions have pushed it for almost two decades. Even in the best economic climate, the idea is a bad one.”

Feinsod on 2627:
Last summer, the heralded TEACH for New Jersey was signed into law, basing continuation of tenure on performance.  It marked a dramatic change in the relationship between public school employers and certificated staff.

Legislation that moves in the opposite direction by giving "tenure-like" protection to non-certificated staff is now advancing in the Senate and Assembly...In effect, the proposal would inhibit a school district's ability to make sound personnel management decisions.  For example, if a school district faced a budgetary shortfall or a decline in student enrollment, its decision to eliminate the position of a non-teaching staff position would be subject to binding arbitration.

NJEA, NJ's primary teacher union, refers to the Senate passage of 1191 as "another important victory."

And here's NJEA's testimony on 2627:
This bill is truly about protecting employers and employees.  It will help our boards of education and county college boards of trustees and it will protect our cafeteria workers, bus drivers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, and so many other employees who help make our school districts and county colleges REAL communities.  
It seems unlikely to me that Gov. Christie would sign either of these bills, and equally unlikely that the Legislature would muster the 2/3 majority to override a veto. This little melodrama is more likely a stylized pander to NJEA, a bit of emoting intended to placate lobbyists who have undergone some significant losses, particularly the passage of bill that place limits on tenure and another that increase employee contributions to health and pension benefit premiums. "Hey, we tried,"  the legislators could ham it up post-performance. "It's that rotten Christie. Here's a check for Barbara Buono's campaign chest."

On another level, these bills offer an example of  one of the ways in which NJEA, like all teacher unions, finds itself in the uncomfortable position, per its dualistic mission, of lobbying for benefits for adults at the expense of kids.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Embarrassing Moments in School Board Governance

According to the Star-Ledger, a school board meeting in Monroe Township got “heated” when Superintendent Kenneth Hamilton “launched an angry tirade” against  former board member Mark Klein, who had challenged Hamilton’s leadership in lobbying for state aid.  Here’s the Superintendent’s remarks after Klein made disparaging remarks at a board meeting:
“Last month I sat here and listened to you pontificate when you knew nothing,” Hamilton yells. “You know good and well what this administration has done to get more funding from the state. You've seen every letter. You've heard every phone call. You do nothing but stand there at that microphone and pontificate, and you don't know what you're talking about. You're an empty can making a lot of noise, and I'm sick of it. I'm sick and tired of it.” 
The argument continues, with Klein calling for Hamilton to quit.  
“You want me to talk about ethics, also?” Klein says. 
“Yeah, I want to talk about ethics,” Hamilton responds. “Bring it.”
The exchange can now be viewed on youtube. Current board members have requested a police presence at their next meeting, although it’s unclear whether that’s to protect them from Klein or Hamilton.

ELC Wins Special Ed DOE Ruling

Education Law Center has just issued a press release  that describes a new ruling by Ed. Comm. Chris Cerf regarding the financial responsibilities of school districts when a child with disabilities is placed in a group home and the parents move out-of-state.

In this case, a child with multiple disabilities, referred to in court documents as K.O.L, resided in Hillside (Union County) with his father. The NJ  Division of Developmental Disabilities placed the boy in a group home in 2010 and, per his Individualized Education Plan, enrolled him in a private special education school. As required under law, K.O.L.'s district of residency, Hillside, paid for the educational portion of his program. The year after his placement, K.O.L's  father, R.L, moved to Massachusetts and is currently homeless. Hillside Public Schools sought to stop paying for the educational portion of K.O.L.’s program and sought reimbursement from the father for tuition paid while K.L. was out of state.

From the press release (which contains a link to Comm. Cerf’s March 5th ruling):
The Commissioner ultimately agreed with ELC that:
•    the parent "bears no financial responsibility whatsoever in this matter" since tuition must be charged to the district of residency or, for parents residing out-of-state, to the State of New Jersey;
•    Hillside must be bound by the 2010 district of residence determination "unless and until" that determination is reversed on re-determination or appeal.    
“This important ruling will prevent gaps in educational services for special needs students in group homes whose parents move,” said Elizabeth Athos, the ELC Senior Attorney who argued this case. “The purpose of the law in this case is clear: to protect students from the harm caused by being out of school."

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

Tom Moran has a great piece in the Star-Ledger that deconstructs the politics between Gov. Christie and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver over the Opportunity Scholarship Act, the voucher bill that remains buried in the Statehouse because Speaker Oliver refuses put it to a vote. Christie's frustration was on full view  at a meeting in Paterson this week where, in a “grand irony in the fight over education reform in New Jersey,” he noted that  he was a white Republican from the suburbs trying to fix failing urban schools, unlike, say, Speaker Oliver, an African-American trying to preserve the status quo.Writes Moran,
Yes, you can argue against this [voucher] bill on the merits, so it’s not a litmus test. But the same pattern holds on other reforms. Democrats dithered on tenure, then watered down the reform until it became acceptable to the teachers unions. 
That kind of complacency is hard to stomach when half the kids in some urban districts don’t make it through high school. Where is the fierce urgency?
Newsflash: NJEA endorsed Senator Barbara Buono for Governor this weekend. From the press release: “Barbara Buono rejects the misplaced priorities of the past – priorities like tax cuts for millionaires while blocking an increase in the minimum wage; shortchanging public schools while allowing property taxes to increase by 20 percent; and demanding taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools while underfunding public schools by billions of dollars,” [President Barbara Keshishian] said."

Star-Ledger: “Starting next year, New Jersey public school students will spend eight to 10 hours taking standardized tests — an increase of up to four hours per year for each child depending on grade level, according to guidelines released by state education officials earlier this month.”

"Three years after New Jersey school districts saw their budgets squeezed by state funding cuts and spending caps, many are looking to make ends meet by selling advertising space."

The Asbury Park Press blasts the School Development Corporation, responsible for managing construction projects in some of NJ’s most defeated school districts: “Christie has spent a good part of his term touting the need for school choice, and castigating those who have allegedly stood in the way of his attempts to improve the lot of students in urban areas. If he is serious about his avowed commitment to improve the educational opportunities for children in the state’s poorest districts, he can begin by ratcheting up efforts to improve the learning environments of those trapped in disgracefully substandard facilities.”

There are bedbugs in Oak Street Elementary School in Lakewood.  Mold, bacteria, and lead  were found at one of Hamilton Township’s high schools.

Patricia Wright, Executive Director of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association, probes the weaknesses in the new teacher and principal evaluation system and points to a lack of resources provided by the DOE to districts: "educator evaluation is not, in and of itself, reform. It is intended to be a driver of school reform. Real reform can only begin when we deepen the conversation of teacher and leader practice from a focus on evaluation checklists and labels to what is needed to affect change: time and resources to focus on what truly matters -- higher levels of student achievement."

David Leonhardt in today’s New York Times examines the failure of America’s elite colleges to attract poor students from rural areas or smaller cities, per the new study by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery:
The pattern contributes to widening economic inequality and low levels of mobility in this country, economists say, because college graduates earn so much more on average than nongraduates do. Low-income students who excel in high school often do not graduate from the less selective colleges they attend.  
Only 34 percent of high-achieving high school seniors in the bottom fourth of income distribution attended any one of the country’s 238 most selective colleges, according to the analysis…Among top students in the highest income quartile, that figure was 78 percent.



Friday, March 15, 2013

Chris Cerf's "Perverse Accountability Regime"

In Monday's  blogpost I looked at the NJ’s DOE’s newly-released list of the state’s  57 “Reward Schools,” our highest-performing ones according to state test scores. This list, to be published annually, is part of our No Child Left Behind waiver application, which promises to divide NJ’s public schools into three categories: Priority (the worst, and now the target of higher levels of intervention), Focus (the second worst, which are officially on notice), and Reward (great job! keep it up!). Many schools will be lumped in an undifferentiated category of “you’re doing okay, but nothing to write home about.”

Most of the schools on the list are either in rich neighborhoods or are magnet schools run under the umbrella of vo-tech county schools.

The Record noted on Wednesday that "[m]ost of the schools winning the new designation — which the state Department of Education posted online last week with little fanfare — are in affluent communities or are selective magnet schools, such as the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack and Bergen County Technical High School in Teterboro.”

And yesterday Education Law Center put out a press release that charged that these Reward schools “are, for the most part, located in affluent communities or are schools with high achieving students enrolled through selective screening.” Also many of the Reward Schools serve disproportionately low numbers of kids with disabilities and those who are new to English.

All that is true.  Schools with a wealthier enrollment tend to have higher test scores and our “vo-tech” magnet schools, particularly those located in monied counties like Bergen, are more discriminating in admissions criteria than even top-of-the-line private schools. This leads ELC Executive Director David Sciarra to remark that Education Commissioner Chris Cerf is rewarding schools that, by definition, don’t serve low-income kids: “Commissioner Cerf should explain how this recipe for success is relevant to schools serving high concentrations of poor and bilingual students, students with disabilities, and students at risk of academic failure.”

Mr. Sciarra then alleges that Comm. Cerf has “created a perverse accountability regime” by rewarding high-performing schools that don’t offer admission to “low-income and bilingual students and Black and Latino students.”

It’s true: low-income, bilingual, and (many) minority students don’t, for the most part, have access to the 57 Reward Schools in NJ. But that’s not a system created by Comm. Cerf. It’s created by our fragmented infrastructure that adheres to the tenets of home rule. The only way to get your kid into NJ’s top schools is to live within district boundaries or, in the case of vo-tech magnets, live within county boundaries.  That’s the perversion: not the label, but an exclusionary system that bases access on local residency.

Maybe Comm. Cerf has another idea in mind and the  identification of Reward Schools serves a larger purpose. If we raise public awareness of the educational disparity of access, currently dependent on district/county residence, there could be less resistance to increasing access through public school choice, one of Cerf's priorities. But that’s going to be a hard one for ELC to square.  The organization has consistently fought school choice, particularly charter school expansion. However, one way to overcome the district residence issues, the very "perversion" that ELC points to in its press release, is to establish schools that are open to kids in larger areas, home rule be damned. Can ELC get behind that?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

NJ's New Teacher Evaluation System; Is VAM A Sham?

In my post today at WHYY's Newsworks I look at New Jersey's new teacher/principal evaluation and the attendant regulations (released last week). What does this all mean for teachers and students?
New Jersey's new criteria for grading teachers ultimately will benefit students. Last week the New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) released regulations for AchieveNJ, the blueprint for an entirely new rubric for teachers and even principals. It puts more emphasis on student performance as a benchmark for how well educators are doing.

Under the new proposal, teachers who instruct students in areas that have standardized tests will have between 35% and 50% of their evaluations based on student academic growth. (The DOE recommends the lower number.) For those who teach in untested areas, 15% of evaluations will be based on general school test scores. The rest of the annual evaluation, which eventually results in a rating on a scale that ranges from ineffective to highly effective, will be based on traditional subjective measures like classroom observations, lesson plans, classroom management, etc.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Gov. Kean and JerseyCAN

Former Governor Thomas Kean has a new gig: co-chairing a new education reform organization in New Jersey called JerseyCAN. Today's NJ Spotlight has an interview. Here's Gov. Kean's thoughts on the Abbott funding debate, which directs compensatory state aid to 31 poor NJ school districts:
Q: This is a highly-charged debate. Are you saying we are spending too much money in these districts now?

A: We are spending too much without results, without question. To justify spending that kind of money and have test scores where they are is inexcusable.

Q: The New Jersey Supreme Court has heard this debate in the Abbott v. Burke litigation. Are they wrong?

A: The court has been more of a problem than a solution, until recently. The last court decision is really the first one that said we would take into account the science of education reform and what we have learned. Before that, it was all about money and that didn’t work. We are still spending more on those kids than anywhere else in the country, and there’s no excuse for not doing better.

We need to be very open to what works and not look at what some special interest likes or not. If it works and helps kids with special needs and those born in poverty, we ought to be looking at it hard. With the money we have, we should be able to do it. It’s inexcusable to say the status quo is good.

Quote of the Day (VAM)

Michael Guerriero in The New Yorker derides the uses of standardized tests to evaluate teachers, particularly the internal assessments used by schools to track student progress throughout the year. In this piece, he cites a vote by teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle to boycott the Northwest Evaluation Association’s Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exam.
And so the MAP brings us to the very point at which teaching and testing have diverged. When students are forced to take an exam like the MAP two or three times a year so that they can be better prepared for other, more important exams, the assessment is no longer a partner to curriculum. The assessment has become the curriculum. The MAP, and tests like it, are pushing schools past the clich├ęd, bemoaned exercise of “teaching to the test,” to a curriculum that simply is the test. And while the exams may be a thoroughly vetted, sophisticated means of measurement, they are an inadequate, constricted form of expression. As the author and relapsed educator Garret Keizer observed in his return to teaching, of which he writes in the September 2011 issue of Harper’s, “No student I meet seems to believe that the universe formed in six days but a disturbing number insist that an essay is always formed in five paragraphs.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

Ranking Disparities Among NJ's Magnet/Vo-Tech Schools

Today's NJ Spotlight profiles the NJ DOE's annual list of the state's highest-performing "Reward" schools. According to our  waiver for No Child Left Behind, every year  the DOE divides public schools into four categories: “Priority,” “Focus,” “Reward,” and unidentified (i.e., passing but undistinguished).   Priority schools are the bottom 5%. Focus schools are the next lowest cohort. Reward schools are the best schools in the state.

From Spotlight:
The number of Reward Schools listed this year is half of last year’s 112 schools, largely due to the fact that schools now required to meet specific achievement targets.
Just nine schools were highlighted as “high growth” for reaching the progress targets, with the remaining 48 on the list as “high performing” based on overall achievement.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the highest performers were either in higher-income communities or magnet schools that select their students through an application process. Fourteen of the total were county magnet schools run out of their vocational districts.
Magnet schools, which represent almost a third of NJ's "Reward" schools, are run by individual counties and offer a form of school choice to kids who don’t want to attend their local district schools. Unlike charter schools, magnets can screen students for academic aptitude and disabilities, and any kid in the county can apply.  Typically, county taxes pay half the cost, with students’ home districts paying the other half.  Vo-techs/magnets are staffed by union employees, so there’s none of that anti-charter lobbying that afflicts the school choice movement.  

A full 10% of the list of "Rewards" schools is devoted to schools run by the Monmouth County Vocational School District, including High Technology High School, the Marine Academy of Science and Technology, and Biotechnology High Schools. Bergen, Union, Morris, and Essex County all have vo-tech schools on this prestigious list.  
 
Costs per pupil at these schools are above the state average. For example, the 2011 total cost per pupil at Bergen Academies, a highly competitive magnet school, was $34, 227.  By way of comparison, the total cost per pupil the same year in Hackensack High School, the municipality where Bergen Academies is located, was $18,153.  That’s probably the biggest discrepancy between “vo-tech” and traditional high school, but clearly a non-trivial number of tax dollars (collected through the state, county, and municipality) go to these enormously successful public magnets that offer school choice to kids, particularly those in affluent areas. 

After much political contretemps, NJ has focused its expansion of school choice to poor neighborhoods areas where students have the fewest options. Should we also consider shifting at least a little bit of our magnet school investments to counties where kids are stuck in rotten schools? 
Example: there are two school run by Camden County Vo-Tech. Neither are “magnets” (like those in Bergen or Monmouth or Morris) and neither are on anyone's list of great schools; they’re true vo-tech schools, offering certification in auto mechanics, carpentry, electric, horticulture, etc. Total cost per pupil is $19,102, slightly less than we spend at Camden High School.  Students at the  higher-achieving Camden vo-tech, located in Pennsauken, have average SAT scores of 410 in math and 380 in verbal. 9.8% of the kids there take one of the 5 AP courses available. The graduation rate is 60%. The cost per pupil is $19,102.

At Bergen Academies in Hackensack, which spends over $34K per pupil, average SAT scores are 720 in math and 680 in verbal. 87.3% of the kids take one or more of the 23 available AP courses. The graduation rate is 99%.

Of course, this contrast is emblematic of the state: kids in affluent districts get access to far more  academic rigor and abundance, and this disparity is reflected in our county-run magnet schools. 

This attention to need is the reasoning behind the DOE’s strategy to focus expansion of charter schools in poor urban areas; kids in more wealthy neighborhoods already have access to good schools. What if we applied that reasoning to magnets and focused energy and resources on our more poorly-served counties?  Can we really justify spending $34K a year on wealthy kids (more than the tuition at many private schools) without a comparable option in Camden?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

The Star-Ledger reports that "[t]he New Jersey Education Association's spending on lobbying dropped 96 percent, from $11.3 million to $409,000 -- accounting for more than half of a sharp drop in lobbying statewide, according to an analysis released today by the Election Law Enforcement Commission."

John Schoonejongen at the Asbury Park Press analyzes the steep drop: “The union to which no one said 'no' suddenly found itself not only not sweeping the table whenever an issue came up that concerned it, but also getting backed into a corner and slapped like a schoolyard snitch.”

There’s lots of local coverage on this week’s release of the NJ DOE’s teacher tenure evaluations, specifically the percentage of the evaluation driven by student test scores. Here’s the Star-Ledger, NJ Spotlight, The Record, and Asbury Park Press.

The Record Editorial Board opines,
 The union has a point [with its resistance to the use of test scores to measure teacher proficiency], but the guidelines, which are subject to six public hearings around the state over the next few weeks, take that view into consideration. State tests aren’t even an issue for some teachers who work in subjects that are not tested. For teachers whose students take state tests, the guidelines say that 35 percent of their evaluations would be based on test results. In all cases, 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student achievement goals set by principals and teachers. 
Educators may have legitimate differences with standardized tests, but they’re still valuable in tracking student achievement in comparison with their peers. Student performance definitely should be part of an evaluation model for teachers.
Interdistrict Update: Pennsville School District will apply to the state to become part of the Interdistrict Public School Choice Program. From the Star-Ledger: “’This is a great opportunity to bring significant funding and quality students to Pennsville for the express purpose of improving educational opportunities for our students,’ Superintendent of Schools Dr.  Mike Brodzik said.” Tewksbury Township Superintendent James Gamble attributes the districts $257,900 increase in school aid [in the proposed 2014 budget] to the Choice Program. “Gamble anticipated receiving $240,000 to $250,000 in Choice aid, and said that it is “blended into the overall program.” It will also help pay for spending $100,000 on additional security — interior locks and security scan cards.”

Speaking of the budget, NJ Spotlight highlights a little-noticed feature: “while aid is largely staying flat, more than a few districts are taking sizable hits in their required debt-service payments to the state, in many cases eliminating any bump in aid -- and then some.According to data provided by the state yesterday, nearly 500 districts will see double-digit percentage increases in assessments paid to the Schools Development Authority for debt service on construction grants for projects launched in the last several years.”

SDA payments, huh?  Newsflash: Trenton Central High School is falling down: “School board members, students and teachers spoke about walls that cascaded water during storms, ceilings that showered tiles on students’ heads, warped floors and plumbing problems that union grievance chairwoman and computer teacher Janice Williams said used to send urine dripping into her basement computer lab.” (Star-Ledger)

Lawrence Feinsod, Exec. Dir. of New Jersey School Boards Association, reports that “the number of school districts in New Jersey that hold April school elections has dwindled to 41, as 33 more communities opted to move their elections to November starting in 2013.” In total 501 school districts will hold elections in November this year.

NJ Spotlight and The Record review projected changes in student testing due to implementation of PARCC, the national coalition that is developing new subject-specific assessments tied to the Common Core.  

Edgewater Public Schools, according to the Record, “became the latest district to oppose Gov. Christie’s superintendent salary caps on Feb. 28, passing a resolution to protest pay based on district enrollment numbers rather than other, more traditional, factors.” Its current superintendent receives $147.9K for the 770-student district, well above the $125K cap for a district of that size.








Friday, March 8, 2013

Education Law Center Blasts Christie's Proposed School Aid

Education Law Center has issued a press release condemning Gov.Christie’s proposed state school aid budget as “paltry,” “not keeping pace with inflation,” “legally improper,” “arbitrary,” and “more evidence of Gov. Christie’s total disregard for the funding needs of New Jersey’s public schools and at-risk children.”

See my coverage yesterday at WHYYhere's a district-by-district breakdown of aid figures.

ELC takes umbrage at Christie’s disrespect of the 2008 School Funding Reform Act,  former-Governor Corzine’s regulatory mechanism intended to bypass Abbott District designations by having state school aid “follow the child.” ELC fought the implementation of SFRA in State Supreme Court. Consequently, the “Special Master” assigned by the justices ruled that SFRA was kosher, as long as the State fully funded the new formula.

That’s never happened. By court decree, then, Abbott allocations must rule the day.  While Abbott districts saw some large increases in Christie’s 2014 school aid proposal –  $7,559,176 to Elizabeth, for example and $3,056,727 to Camden – the total package is not enough to fulfill the requirements of SFRA.

ELC may go back to Court for what would be the 22nd Abbott ruling. Meanwhile, it will pressure legislators to increase allocations.

The press release itself raises a few questions. For example, ELC criticizes the proposed budget because 93 of the 285 districts that saw (basically) no increases from last year are “below adequacy,” the SFRA-based calculation of the lowest amount of aid needed to provide an “thorough and efficient” education. (See today’s Spotlight for a particularly sneaky way that the Christie Administration managed to create the perception of aid increases without actually giving districts more money.)

In the context of “adequacy,” ELC points to Elmwood Park, Seaside Heights, and Chesterfield Township, which it describes as some of the “smallest in the state” that still saw “the largest percent increases.” It’s true: Elmwood Park got an increase of $500K, but the district is well below adequacy, spending only $10,229 per pupil, unable to balance its budget, and particularly challenged by a high enrollment of children with disabilities. (See my earlier coverage.) Seaside Heights, which has its own problems, got an additional $156K Chesterfield Township got another $60K.

Really? The best example of Christie's arbitrary disregard of the needs of schools children is an apparently overly-generous $60K allocation?  Seems like ELC's press release writers could do better than that.

Ravitch Starts National Anti-Reform Network

Politics K12 reports on Diane Ravitch's new anti-reform organization, The Network for Public Education:
Education historian Diane Ravitch, a fierce critic of current education reform trends, is launching a new advocacy organization that will support political candidates who oppose high-stakes testing, mass school closures, and what her group calls the "privatizing" of public schools.

The new Network for Public Education is meant to counter state-level forces such as Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and Students First—all of which are promoting their own vision of education reform and supporting candidates for office, including with donations. That agenda backs things such as charter schools and teacher evaluations tied to student growth. Other powerful outside groups are also pushing such an agenda, though without the political donations, including former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education and Chiefs for Change.
The new network describes its mission as primarily one to "endorse and rate candidates for office based on our principles and goals. More specifically, we will support candidates who oppose high-stakes testing, mass school closures, the privatization of our public schools and the outsourcing of its core functions to for-profit corporations, and we will support candidates who work for evidence-based reforms that will improve our schools and the education of our nation’s children."

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Today's WHYY Post: Christie's Proposed School Aid, 2014

My post today at WHYY's Newsworks  looks at the reaction of various interest groups -- school boards, teachers' union, principals and supervisors, superintendents --  to Gov. Christie's proposed 2014 school aid.
Last week Gov. Christie proposed a $32.9 billion budget for 2014.  He prefaced his formal address with promises of "fiscal sanity" and "fiscal discipline," and then dropped the biggest ticket item: $8.9 billion for public schools, an increase of $97.3 million over 2013.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

NJEA is Out of Remission

The honeymoon’s over. After years of attacking Gov. Christie and his education agenda full throttle – and losing authority, gravitas, and public support  – NJEA’s leadership had seemed to undergo a makeover, fully backing the bipartisan bill that reformed teacher evaluation and tenure in New Jersey. Heck: NJEA even backed the Urban Hope Act, which allows charter operators to take over some of our worst-performing schools in Trenton, Camden, and Newark.

Of course, the Legislature made a huge concession to NJEA in negotiations over TEACHNJ, the tenure reform bill, at the last minute deleting the section of the bill that would have eliminated seniority-based lay-offs. Nonetheless, the resulting  resolution was a huge step in partnership and collaboration.

Judging by today’s NJ Spotlight story, however, NJEA’s leadership has suffered a relapse, reverting back to the reactionary stance that undermined its brand in the first days of the Christie Administration. The first symptom was NJEA President Barbara Keshishian’s screechy response to Gov. Christie budget proposal, which increases state school aid, although not to the unattainable levels of Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act. The second symptom is covered in the Spotlight story, which recounts the union leadership’s retro reaction to the DOE’s proposed regulations for implementing the new tenure law.

From Steve Wollmer, upon the online release of proposed regulations that will set out the parameters for evaluating teachers based on student longitudinal growth:
“A lot of our worst fears are being realized.” 
“The overarching concern is that they promised districts they would give them maximum flexibility and this instead is one of the most intrusive pieces of policy ever in terms of how top-down, state-controlled.”
In fact, the regulations, still subject to revision, set out the maximum amount of test score data that can be used to evaluate a teacher’s performance – 50% -- and still leave individual districts a lot of leeway in using multiple measures, including less than 50% of test score data. The regulations simply specify the maximum. Many districts, for example, are choosing to use the fine and gentle Charlotte Danielson metric for measuring classroom effectiveness, which includes 76 different elements by which teachers can demonstrate proficiency.

NJEA’s reaction is disappointing. It’s almost as if the leadership has been reading too much of Diane Ravitch’s blog, in which every educational innovation  is  subject to increasingly paranoid rants about conspiracy theories driven by profit-hungry power-mongers. Ravitch’s list of malefactors grows by the hour: just a few of the targets are the Common Core curriculum, No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, standardized testing, charter schools, President Obama, US DOE Sec. Arne Duncan, Mark Zuckerberg, Mike Bloomberg, Cory Booker. Etc.

Anything new is bad. Anything old is good.

That’s the sickness that NJEA had remedied by collaborating with state legislators, particularly Sen. Teresa Ruiz, on tenure reform. Apparently the patient is no longer in remission. 

Why would the union take the strategy of stepping backwards? It’s so Republican of them, embracing that tired, diminutive stance of the “party of no.” That’s bad for the teachers they represent, bad for kids in failing schools, and bad for NJEA’s effectiveness in molding NJ’s public schools.

NJ Bill Restricting School District Outsourcing Clears Committee


This just in from New Jersey School Boards Association: Senate Bill 1191, which would restrict school districts’ abilities to outsource certain services, is through committee and poised for a full vote by the Senate. (I covered this bill last week at WHYY’s Newsworks.) Essentially, the bill requires that school boards engage in negotiations with unions before subcontracting out custodial, food service, and bus driver positions.
From NJSBA:
NJSBA opposes the bill. The Association performed a survey into subcontracting in 2009, which generated responses from approximately 40 percent of school districts; the responding districts reported savings from subcontracting that totaled at least $34.3 million a year.  
The bill was also substantially amended by the Senate committee, which added language allowing counties to require school boards to take part in countywide purchasing agreements for the custodial or food services, if the county has established such a purchasing system. The new provisions, which NJSBA opposes, would compromise local control by allowing counties to compel school district participation in a countywide agreement, even if the district has already privatized food or custodial services – and regardless of whether the district was able to negotiate a better deal on its own.
The bill also places significant hurdles in front of school boards that have not yet subcontracted services, but desire to do so.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Hunterdon Democrat to NJ Teachers: "Welcome to the Real World"

The Hunterdon County Democrat Editorial Board weighs in on teacher discomfort with NJ’s new teacher evaluation legislation because of discomfort with the fairness of both evaluators and accountability metrics.
Welcome to the real world. 
Employees, and managers, have long struggled with evaluations. Those that simply reward quantitative measures — number of widgets bolted per minute, hours billed per week, dollars rung up per month — don’t take into account the quality of the end product...
In the United States, it is estimated that 7% of the workforce is unionized. The weakening of unions has had its downfalls, but where performance evaluation is concerned, it has given well-respected companies flexibility to treat employees as the individuals that they are.  
Good employees, regardless of the current economic environment, really are worth keeping. They uphold quality standards, while keeping “production” rolling. They engender good will for a company with its customers and shareholders.  
But when it comes down to it, some people are just in the wrong department, or company, or career. Being shown the door can lead to new one that’s a better fit.
It’s the same way with teachers, but for many years a union’s strength trumped common sense labor practices. More than a few school administrators grumbled about their inability to fire, or retrain, teachers who weren’t making the grade. 
Sometimes parents, even well-respected teachers, do the same over a cup of coffee. The state is now taking steps to address a system that, for far too long, has given preference to job tenure over a school’s or family’s needs.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sunday Leftovers

The Star Ledger, NJ Spotlight, Asbury Park Press, the Courier Post, Central Jersey, and the Record have  breakdowns of each school district’s state aid for 2013-2014. The highest increases go to Elizabeth ($7,559,176),  Camden ($3.6 million),  Bridgeton City ($3,159,226), and Atlantic City ($2,256,673).

NJ Spotlight examines the “teeny weeny” voucher program (Sen. Lesniak’s description) that Gov. Christie proposed in his budget address.

Alyson Klein at EdWeek breaks down the impact of sequestrarian on school districts. Also see Star-Ledger coverage.

The state DOE, reports the Star Ledger and NJ Spotlight, is closing three charter schools for poor test scores and leadership: The Institute for Excellence Charter School in Hammonton, Liberty Academy Charter School in Jersey City, and Oceanside Charter School in Atlantic City. Thirteen autonomous public schools will have their charters renewed.

The Press of Atlantic City reports that “The decision to accept students from other towns is proving to be very profitable for local school districts in the state Public School Choice Program.”

Elizabeth Smith and Mo Kinberg light into Gov. Christie for neglecting school construction.

More than 200 kids enrolled in Trenton Public Schools are homeless.

Perth Amboy update: the School Board has rescinded Superintendent Janine Caffrey’s suspension. However, reports Central Jersey, “Caffrey appears to have sparked another [dispute] with the 2013-14 school calendar in which teacher in-service days are scheduled for Sept. 3-6 during Rosh Hashana, a Jewish holiday — while school is closed for the Monday after the Super Bowl and St. Patrick’s Day next year.”
More than one hundred Newark Public Schools employees, mostly supervisors and department heads, received lay-off notices.

A study from Mathematica  gives high marks to KIPP charter schools: 
Mathematica used a matched comparison design and a random assignment lottery to  produce comprehensive evidence on the effects of KIPP middle schools across the  country. In the large majority of these schools, KIPP’s impact on student achievement in math, reading, science, and social studies is consistently positive and educationally substantial. In math and reading, there are positive impacts in each  of the first four years after a student enrolls in a KIPP school. In science and social  studies, the study measured impacts in the grade that states administered tests in  these subjects (typically 8th grade), and found positive impacts three to four years after students enroll at KIPP. The evidence suggests that KIPP is among the highest-performing charter networks in the country.
Also see more local coverage from the Philadelphia Inquirer.



Friday, March 1, 2013

Searching for Logic in the Jersey Anti-Charter School Movement

From yesterday’s NJ Spotlight article on NJ’s progress towards updating our charter school laws:
“This is exciting,” said Carlos Perez, executive director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “We’ve talked about the need for a charter reform bill for some time now. The administration is absolutely correct that a strong charter law is the pathway to high quality charter schools.”
Others with a different vision for revising the charter-school law continued to oppose Christie’s approach and policies.
“What the overwhelming majority of New Jersey residents want added to the charter law is local approval of new charter schools and of charter expansions, more transparency and accountability, and an end to the terrible segregation between charters and traditional public schools,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a founder of Save Our Schools-New Jersey.
“Instead, the Governor is proposing failed for-profit charter schools and an increase in charter schools being forced on unwilling communities,” she said.

[Assemblyman Patrick] Diegnan, who has sided more with the positions of SOS and other critics of the Christie administration’s policies, said he would continue to press for tighter controls.
For instance, Diegnan said his bill would include a controversial provision requiring a vote by local residents before any new charter school is approved to open.
“I remain a big advocate for that,” he said.
This excerpt is a useful window into some of the rhetoric surrounding the issue of local control and school choice. First, a reality check. There's no evidence that the "overwhelming majority" of NJ residents prefer local referenda on charter school expansion. Certainly there's terrible segregation among NJ's public schools, but that has nothing to do with charter schools.  SOS's contention that  school choice proponents are jockeying for "failed for-profit charter schools" is just silly. 

Assemblyman Diegnan and SOS-NJ want the Legislature to pass a bill that subjects all aspiring charter schools to a public referendum. They hope to garner more support than another piece of charter school legislation written by  Senator Teresa Ruiz, duly hallowed for her successful shepherding of a major tenure and evaluation reform bill through the Legislature last year. Ruiz's bill, reportedly, would increase accountability, create multiple authorizers (right now only the Ed. Commissioner can approve new charters), and perhaps address funding inequities. The bill does not, however, require local approval of new charters. In fact, Sen. Ruiz appears to take a dim view of this element, which represents the core of the Diegnan bill and SOS’s raison d’etre.

Is there really some sort of bill rivalry within the Legislature, Diegnan's bill against Ruiz's? Not so much. The only side fighting is the SOS/Diegnan side; Ruiz is pretty much giving them the hand.  After all, Sen. Pres. Steve Sweeney says he won't bring Diegnan's bill to the floor and Gov. Christie says he won't sign it because both agree that such narrow-minded legislation would stymie charter school growth.

SOS and Diegnan do have the support of gubernatorial hopeful Sen. Barbara Buono. In an article last year in Spotlight, Buono was asked why Diegnan’s bill had stalled. She replied, “ask the chairman of the Senate committee.” That would be Ruiz.
 
Let’s look more strategically at a bill that would give local communities or school boards the right to deny student enrollment in other public schools.

New Jersey school boards regularly pay for students to attend other schools at district expense, without any public vote. NJ’s successful Interdistrict School Choice Program,  with enrollment doubling in September for the second consecutive year, allows students to cross district lines without local approval. Sending districts pay the full freight, including transportation. NJ’s robust industry of magnet schools, which often operate under the umbrella of county vo-tech systems, allows students to attend out-of-district schools at the sending district’s expense, without a public vote. Of course, students with disabilities attend out-of-district schools at local district expense and nobody votes on that.

An article last week in the Record regarding Parsippany Public Schools profiled a recent school board meeting where one of the PTA presidents noted the "countless eighth-grade parents standing at their mailbox waiting to hear from the Morris County School of Technology (MCST) for an acceptance — like it’s a free ride letter from Harvard — so their child doesn’t have to attend Parsippany High School.” MCST is a magnet school, open to all kids in the county (or at least those who have the grades and test scores to get in. There's that segregation.) No community vote, by the way.

SOS’s lobbying efforts (and Diegnan’s bill) limit public voice to only one version of choice: charter schools. Do Diegnan, Buono, and SOS plan to craft legislation that  denies students the right to attend interdistrict schools or magnet schools unless everyone gets to vote on that choice? Why is their hostility reserved for the one form of school choice that offers the most promise for kids trapped in our lowest-performing districts?

Interim Superintendents: A Non-Conspiracy

The Star-Ledger thinks it’s unveiled a conspiracy among retired NJ school superintendents. In “an investigation by the New Jersey Watchdog,” the paper reports that these retired school administrators, while collecting generous pensions, proceed to “double-dip” by taking jobs as interim superintendents for up to two years. This sleazy practice is costing state taxpayers “millions of dollars” every year. Here’s an example in the Watchdog report:
“There are a lot of superintendents who are retiring and coming back to the work force,” said longtime South Jersey school chief Ralph E. Ross Sr. 
Ross collected $292,272 last year – $149,256 in salary as interim superintendent of Deptford Township schools in Gloucester County, plus $143,016 from pension as retired superintendent of Black Horse Pike Regional schools in Camden County.

“Of course, people are going to call it double-dipping because you get paid twice,” said Ross. “I don’t apologize for any money I get. My services are worthwhile and appreciated.” 
When Ross hit the two-year mark at Deptford, the 72-year-old retiree didn’t have to go far for his next post-retirement job. Ten miles away, the Monroe Township school district quickly hired him as its $136,500 interim assistant superintendent.
Let’s unpack this a bit. The analysis from the Ledger says that during this school year 45 districts in NJ hired interim superintendents. That’s less than 10% of districts, not that high given that the average tenure of a NJ superintendent is about 3 years. Superintendents don’t get tenure in NJ anymore, but instead are signed to 3-5 year contracts. This tends to increase mobility. Add on the salary cap and you’ve got a lot of movement from district to district.

A full-fledged search for a permanent superintendent takes at least a couple of months, and in rare cases longer than a year. Districts need someone at the top and interims fill that need.  In fact, interims often cost less than permanent superintendents because districts aren’t paying for health benefits, or awarding sick days and vacation days. It’s a per-diem arrangement.

Finally, it’s not a surprise that boards rely on a short list of competent and productive interim superintendents. Think of it as a niche business.

The issue is not the reliance of school districts on interim superintendents. (They also rely on other interim administrators.) The issue is that these itinerant professionals are collecting hefty pensions while also collecting salaries. On the one hand, they’ve earned those pensions. On the other hand, annual income of close to $300K (from the above example) seems like a lot of public money. 

Should the age for pension eligibility be higher? Should pension pay-outs only commence when someone stops working, or stops earning a certain amount of money?  Should interims be allowed one year at districts instead of two? Should retiring superintendents have to give longer notice to school boards?  These are regulatory questions, not moral ones.