Thursday, December 22, 2016

Newark Employs More Ineffective Teachers Than Any Other District in New Jersey

On a related note, the Partnership for Educational Justice just released a press release on the status of a motion, HG v. Harrington, pressed by six Newark parents in the NJ Supreme Court. The motion asks the state to retain the Abbott rulings, which send compensatory aid to thirty-one poor districts. The parents also oppose the State’s proposal to the Supreme Court that the “enforcement of New Jersey’s “last in, first out” teacher layoff law (LIFO) should be left to the discretion of the State Commissioner of Education, a political appointee.”

In the realm of retaining effective teachers, LIFO is a monkey wrench, forcing districts, when enduring fiscal duress, to lay off teachers without regard for quality, even as poorly measured by NJ’s current implementation of tenure law.

From the press release:
Earlier this month, the New Jersey State Department of Education released state and district level educator evaluation data from the 2014-15 school year. The data revealed that Newark employs more ineffective teachers than any other district in the state and more than five times the number of ineffective teachers in Camden, the district with the second highest number. In the 2014-15 school year, 2.4 percent of New Jersey teachers taught in Newark, but in the same year: 
More than half (53.3 percent) of the state’s ineffective teachers were in Newark
Less than one percent (0.9 percent) of the state’s highly-effective teachers were in Newark. 
Additionally, 12.4 percent of Newark’s teachers received a less-than-effective rating, which was nearly eight times the statewide average (1.6 percent). 
To better understand the effect that LIFO layoffs would have on Newark’s overall teacher quality, Newark Public Schools ran the numbers in 2014 on a hypothetical teacher layoff scenario. Under the quality-blind LIFO layoff mandate, 75 percent of the teachers laid off would have been rated effective or highly effective, and only 4 percent of the teachers laid off would have been rated ineffective. Under a performance-based system, only 35 percent of teachers laid off would have been rated effective and no teachers rated highly effective would lose their jobs.

Also see this op-ed in the Star-Ledger from Ralia Polechronis, Executive Director of Partnership for Educational Justice.

New Jersey's Retreat from Teacher Effectiveness Ratings; Out With the New, In With the Old

Charlotte Danielson, the doyenne of teacher evaluations, says that when schools use her highly-regarded rubric to gauge teacher effectiveness, the label of Highly Effective is “a place you visit” while the label of Effective “is where most teachers live.”

Not in New Jersey. Here, one in three teachers (33.8%) reside in Highly Effective Land, at least according to the just-released Educator Evaluation Implementation Report, the second iteration since the passage of the state’s 2012 teacher tenure reform law.  In fact, 98.6 percent of teacher received ratings of Effective or Highly Effective, a 1.6 percent increase from last year.

That’s a feature, not a bug. Just like in New York City, where fewer than 1% of teachers earned ineffective ratings because evaluations are almost entirely subjective and student outcomes play a minimal role, just like in Connecticut where Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher called the state’s current teacher evaluation system “little more than cotton candy in a rainstorm,”  NJ’s highly-vaunted teacher evaluation reform system, as currently implemented, is just so much fluff. The bipartisan legislation promised realistic differentiation of teacher quality in contrast to the former practice where seventeen teachers among a cadre of over 100,000 were fired for incompetence over the course of a decade. But it seems we’re right back where we started.

This may change. Right after Labor Day (terrible timing, to be sure) the New Jersey Department of Education released new regulations to districts that raise the infusion of student academic growth data into teacher evaluations from ten percent back to thirty percent, which was the original plan.  This announcement has aroused strident protests from school boards, superintendents, NJEA leaders, and other stakeholders.

The widespread resistance raises several questions.
  • Were the vast efforts expended by school districts, the Legislature, and the Department of Education to implement the 2012 teacher tenure law a waste of time and money, given that there’s little difference between evaluative outcomes under the old system (completely subjective) and the new system (mostly subjective but salted with a meager dash of data)?
  • Is the lack of differentiation among teachers in the most recent Implementation Report a result of the DOE’s concession -- after pressure from NJEA and intervention by Legislative leaders -- to lower the incorporation of student growth data measured by standardized tests from 30%, per initial regulations, to 10%? And did the DOE decide to jump back to 30% because the results are, at best, embarrassingly silly?  (Find another profession where 98.3% of practitioners are uniformly good or great.)
  • Given the backlash, will the DOE cave in again and leave Jersey mired in an evaluative system that lacks the professional accountability promised by the 2012 reform law? 
  • Would there be less push-back if the DOE had given school districts sufficient notice, i.e., not after Labor Day when plans were set for 10%? Or does the current educational zeitgeist render meaningful teacher evaluations a pipedream, flipping a proud bipartisan consensus among educators, NJEA leaders, legislators, and school districts into a flash in the pan?
Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education, is a firm believer in local control and state rights. During the next four years (perhaps eight, God help us) the federal government will abandon accountability efforts to states,, already a feature (not a bug) of the new federal education law, ESSA.. States' diminution of empirical teacher evaluations -- one jumpstarted, by the way, through  a federal program called Race to the Top -- bodes ill for students, especially low-income ones already disproportionately taught by ineffective teachers, and also for efforts to elevate the teaching profession. 

I understand the fear of data-infused evaluations,  And, certainly, there is no perfect data-infused teacher evaluation system. But our subjective system is worse and the current trend of states returning to facile assessments of teacher effectiveness in order to protect adult jobs hurts children. That 's one data point that everyone can understand.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Anticipated Confrontation at Tonight's Camden School Board Meeting Ignores Student and Teacher Needs

"All Camden High alumni should be proud of what is taking place here. It's for our children. It's not about us."
That’s Camden County Sheriff Gilbert “Whip” Wilson, a 1965 Camden High School graduate, musing about a small albeit noisy stink from a clique of about half a dozen people who oppose recently-approved plans to raze the 100-year-old crumbling Camden High School -- nostalgically known as the “Castle on the Hill” -- and construct a $133 million state-of-the-art facility that will include four small learning communities, two gymnasiums, two cafeterias, a modern media centers, science labs, and top-notch student and staff resources.

What’s not to like?

Plenty,  according to members of the “Save Camden High School” cadre, who have rebranded themselves under the New Jersey Communities United banner and are planning a confrontation tonight at the Camden Board of Education meeting. Instead of following Sheriff Wilson’s example of placing children’s academic needs on top, this group has decided a years-old, dead-end debate will be its issue du jour, even if it’s to the detriment of students. More broadly, the group’s members represent a microcosm of those who masquerade as social justice warriors while placing adult-centric politics over systemic school improvement.

Eight years ago the Star Ledger described the debilitated state of the “Castle on the Hill”: “emergency scaffolding protects students entering and leaving the school from pieces of plaster and masonry falling off the decaying high school. A new chain-link fence keeps pedestrians clear of other portions of the wall, and broken windows dot the three-story facade.” More recent problems--as shown in the school district’s own video-- include cracked steps, crumbling infrastructure, leaking pipes, “indoor vegetation growth,” and an ancient boiler that has required over a million dollars in chewing gum and bailing wire.

Camden is an Abbott district (very poor) and, appropriately, school construction costs are borne by the state.  Camden High School has been on the state’s list of construction projects forever (well, at least eight years) but that’s government work for you, especially after Chris Christie’s de-funding of the till. Architects and engineers tried mightily to find a way to renovate the building and preserve the tower, but that would have added at least $70 million to costs. (Preliminary drawings of the new building include a similar tower.)

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, recognizing the sensitivity of the issue, held multiple meetings where, according to spokesman Brendan Lowe, “hundreds of community members weighed in on the Camden High plan, including alumni, parents, community leaders, and more. Since the announcement of the state’s commitment to rebuilding,” he continued, “the district has held four meetings with students, three meetings with staff members, three meetings with families, and two community meetings.” The district press release specifies “the creation of three community-led committees”  which will be filled with “alumni and Camden residents.”

Sheriff Wilson articulated the consensus: “We understand the historic, iconic aspects of Camden High. We don’t want to eradicate history. But the school is beyond its useful life.”

But not according to our noisy clique, led by Emily Devenney, a young person of pallor who attended the private Holy Cross Academy in Delran, the University of Massachusetts, and is currently a paid organizer for the union-allied New Jersey Communities United.
It’s worth noting that since Superintendent Rouhanifard’s arrival the graduation rate has leapt from 53% in 2013 to 70% this past June. The drop-out rate is down to 12%, from 21%. Students proficiency in both math and language arts is up. Camden Public Schools, long a symbol of academic malfeasance, is truly improving.  Now it’s time for the infrastructure to improve too. The “Castle on the Hill” was a symbol of ascendency. Time for the real deal.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Newsflash: Bruce Baker Analyzes Charter School Expansion and I'm Impressed

I am typically a fierce critic of Professor Bruce Baker but this week I find myself in the delightful position of praising his scholarship. Not all of it, mind you, and I’ll get to that.  But in his new analysis, “Exploring the Consequences of Charter School Expansion in U.S.Cities” published by the Economic Policy Institute, Prof. Baker arrives at several clear, data-driven conclusions about the impact of charter school growth on traditional districts with only the occasional nod to anti-choice agitprop.

The report covers eight large and mid-size urban school districts and focuses on the “loss of enrollments and revenues to charter schools in host districts and the response of districts as seen through patterns of overhead expenditures.” One of those districts is Newark, the site of much sturm und drang among anti-choice folk because the charter sector in this north Jersey city now educates 35% of students with compelling results.

While there’s been much written by the usual suspects (NJEA, Save Our Schools-NJ, Mark Weber aka Jersey Jazzman, Bob Braun) about charters desiccating district finances, Baker’s analysis contradicts this meme. Here’s Baker:
While total enrollment in district schools (the noncharter, traditional public schools) has dropped, districts have largely been able to achieve and maintain reasonable minimum school sizes, with only modest increases in the shares of children served in inefficiently small schools. 
While resources (total available revenues to district schools) have declined, districts have reduced overhead expenditures enough to avoid consuming disproportionate shares of operating spending and increasing pupil/teacher ratios.

Wait! What happened to those blood-sucking privatizing profiteers of pristine traditional schools?

They don’t exist. It’s not happening.

This from WHYY Newsworks on Baker’s report:
The study... failed to substantiate a central critique of the charter movement, namely that charter growth handcuffs traditional school districts because it saps them of resources and forces them to use remaining money inefficiently. 
For years, charter skeptics have claimed that charters harm traditional public schools by draining them of students and resources, ultimately creating a system of winners and losers. 
Curiously, however, Baker didn't find any evidence of this phenomenon in his latest study. In fact he uncovered some data that suggest the opposite. Baker's research found that traditional school districts manage to keep overhead, administrative costs, school size, and teacher-student ratios fairly constant — even as those districts lose thousands of students to new charters.  
"I found for the most part,” says Baker, “that the districts I was looking at on those particular issues adjusted reasonably.”
This is a brave and honest conclusion from an academic researcher closely associated with (and often funded by) teacher unions and allied groups. For charter supporters like me, Baker’s credibility has spiked.

But then, of course, there’s more to the report than this one conclusion. (It’s a long report.)   Baker appears to regard Newark's charter sector relatively highly, describing it as a  “more modest and more regulated case of charter expansion.”  But he errs mightily when charging that Newark’s charter sector spends far more on "administrative costs and overhead" than the traditional sector. He says his data comes from NJ’s annual “Taxpayer Guide to Education Spending”  but there’s no category there for “overhead" and he  neglects to point out that pesky detail that N.J.’s charter school law leaves charter schools on their own when purchasing, building, or renovating facilities, an item that comes free to low-income urban districts where most charters cluster. (Also, the state data on administrative costs is questionable at best.) There's an offensive subtitle, " From Portfolios to Parasites," but maybe his editor put that in.

Baker also mourns the loss of “a career-oriented, professionally trained teacher workforce” to  “a temporary workforce,” an evolution he blames on charter schools. But either he doesn’t have teenage or young adult offspring or he’s not paying attention: the world is flat and millennials are mobile. They change jobs readily; the concept of the “company man” (or woman) who remains in one location or career for a lifetime is passe. Shift happens.

Greg Richmond of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, interviewed for the WHYY article, is most bothered by a different presumption:

"The whole report was written through the lens of how does this affect school districts, as if the whole purpose of education is the health of school district,” says Richmond, who adds, "you can't even have a conversation about financial efficiency unless it's in relation to academic outcomes.”

And, in fact, Baker never mentions student outcomes or parent preference. It’s all about preservation of traditional districts, preservation of traditional lifelong educators,  preservation of the good old days when men were men and teachers were teachers and schools were schools.

Yet,formaldehyde aside, I'm struck by the comparatively fair and measured tone of this latest report/  It's a welcome change from a respected professor who appears to be moving away from what Richmond calls a "political agenda in search of anecdotes" to meaningful analyses that can help old-timey districts make the inevitable shift to diverse educational landscapes.

How Hard Is it To Dismiss Ineffective Teachers in Newark?

Analysts at the Fordham Foundation created a rubric for gauging the difficulty of firing ineffective teachers based on these three metrics:
  1. Does tenure protect veteran teachers from performance-based dismissal?
  2. How long does it take to dismiss an ineffective veteran teacher?
  3. How vulnerable is an ineffective veteran teacher’s dismissal to challenge?
Look below (way below) to see how Newark Public Schools rates. For the full report go here.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Latino Parent Voices Are Ignored in Red Bank as NJEA Muffles Expansion Plans

Leaders of the New Jersey Education Association often profess disdain for public charter schools. But how far will they go to stop expansion of a popular school that, in response to parent demand, seeks to double its enrollment?

For illumination, look no further than the public school wars in Red Bank, a small town by the Navesink River in Monmouth County. This is the home of Red Bank Charter School, founded in 1997, just two years after N.J. passed its first charter school law. Last year the school  proposed to expand capacity from 200 to 400 students. That proposal kindled the full fury of NJEA union representatives who made it their job to foment community dissent through a campaign that charged the tiny charter with deliberately increasing school segregation.

NJEA won. The Christie Administration rejected the expansion proposal. Now NJEA is gloating about its role in the theatrics. And the celebration  hardly ends there: two groups, one called “Fair Schools Red Bank” and the other called “Latino Coalition” have filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice requesting forced closure of Red Bank Charter School (RBCS) on the grounds that its presence is producing segregated schools.

Red  Bank is a relatively diverse town (according to the 2010 census, 63% of residents are white and 35% are Latino) but the K-8 school district is mostly Latino and low-income. In fact, only 9.3% of  Red Bank Middle School students are white. The rest go to  Rumson Country Day School, where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy sends his kids, Ranney School (tuition at both is about $30K per year) or parochial school. In fact, twenty years ago when RBCS first applied to the State for a charter, one premise was to reduce“white flight." Currently 11% of traditional district students are white and 50% of RBCS students are white; Black student distribution is even (between 10% and 11% at both) and Latino students comprise 78% of district students and 40% of RBCS. Many more students in the two district schools qualify for free and reduced lunch than in the charter.

To address this economic disparity, the charter expansion application proposed a weighted lottery that would increase the number of economically-disadvantaged students so that charter demographics would eventually mirror Red Bank's school-age population.

In spite of this remedy proposed by RBCS -- which has already been implemented even though the expansion was rejected  --  NJEA leaders went full bore, lobbying legislators, organizing opposition, and spending member dues money. .Here are a few quotes from an NJEA article boasting about the union triumph.

  • "NJEA UniServ Field Representative Lorraine Tesauro supported RBBEA [Red Bank Borough Education Association] involvement, bringing NJEA resources to bolster the local association’s needs."
  • "The PTO, administration, and the local association paid for lawn signs with the inspirational message “Dream Big – We’ll help you get there.'
  • Members of RBBEA attended events in force and provided support to parent groups as well as creating and implementing association-led actions. 

Much of the action appears orchestrated by the president of RBBEA President Carol Boehm. “She and her members,” the article notes, “organized a rally with police escorts...chanting ‘Charter expansion, what do we say? No way, we won’t pay.’ Each week,brought a new action orchestrated or supported by Boehm and her members.” Here’s Boehm:
We needed to be very careful about how many teachers were speaking, and how many teachers were out in the forefront. We didn’t want the political nature of this to be perceived as teachers just looking out for their jobs. We strategically placed members as a silent majority. Fifty to 100 members were present at parent run meetings as well as holding their own.” 
But of course  this is all about union leaders looking out for jobs, or at least union leaders looking out for stable dues revenue. Why else fight against an alternative public school that is committed to repairing student demographic disparities? Why else fight against choices for the many families who sit on RBCS’s waiting list?

Now that expansion prospects are quashed, the endgame appears to be to shutter the school in order to achieve integration. But this premise is flawed when one considers the actual demographics of Red Bank Borough and Red Bank Charter School.

In other words, shutting down RBCS wouldn't change district demographics.

Here's another way to look at it:

RBCS Principal Meredith Pennotti invited the Latino Coalition Director Frank Argote-Freyre to visit and talk directly to Latino parents but he never responded.

However, a publication called Red Bank Green reported this:

Felipa Pastrana, a Mexican immigrant who has twin daughters in second grade at Red Bank Charter School, said “I want it to be known to the entire Red Bank community that the many Latino parents at Red Bank Charter School fully support the school.”
 Lourdes Hernandez, who moved from Veracruz, Mexico, to Red Bank 16 years ago, said she “is thrilled with the education her four children received at Red Bank Charter School.”
And what of formal complaint? Ms. Pastrana said, “We have never heard of the Latino Coalition. I’m  insulted that they claim to represent Latinos in Red Bank when they are not even from here.” Ms. Hernandez says, ““This group has no right to speak for me or any of the other Latino parents at the charter school, or the many Latino parents who are on the waiting list to attend the charter school.”

NJEA hasn't formally weighed in on the civil rights complaint yet, those who worked closely with the NJEA to kill the charter expansion are also leading the fight to close the charter school. Perhaps a better use of their time would be to listen to the parents they pretend to represent.

(This piece was originally published at Education Post.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

N.J. Governor-to-Be Phil Murphy Proposes Insolvable/Insolvent Math Problem to NJEA Members

Accept my apology, dear readers, for forgoing my annual rant about the NJEA Convention, which takes place in Atlantic City on Thursday and Friday in early November. A gift to NJEA from the State Legislature in the form of statute, the Convention truncates one of the few school weeks during a month when students are also off for 2 ½ days during Thanksgiving week; in addition, many districts have several half days for parent-teacher conferences. If you’re so inclined, here’s last year’s post. I note for the record that only one other state teacher union in the entire country (Minnesota) cancels school for its annual convention. Those that have them at all -- research points to benefits of on-site, school-specific professional development -- schedule them during school breaks or over the summer.

This year NJEA’s keynote speakers were a teacher who no longer teachers and Mark Weber, aka Jersey Jazzman, a teacher in a minority-free district in Warren County where 1.1% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Weber, an NJEA-funded darling, Rutgers’associate of Julia Sass Rubin (founder of the anti-standards/accountability/school choice suburban group called Save Our Schools-NJ), and doctoral student of school finance guru Bruce Baker, helpfully tweeted out the remarks of the signature event of the Convention, an appearance by N.J.’s next governor, Phil Murphy.

Murphy is a former Goldman Sachs multimillionaire who has never held elective office, He originally had competition from legislative and city leaders like Senate President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop. But in a political coup, he neatly eliminated other Democratic aspiring governors (although today Democratic state Assemblyman John Wisniewski announced his campaign). For more on Murphy see here.

According to Weber, this is what Murphy, who sends his kids to private school (Rumson County Day and Exeter) told NJEA (with my snark in brackets):
“If there’s a big upside to state takeovers of school districts, I don’t see it.” [Has Murphy visited Camden lately?]
I’m for vocational education and against tracking. [Easy to say when your kids go to elite private schools.] 
SGO’s [Student Growth Objectives, used to gauge student growth and evaluate teacher effectiveness] are “insanity.”
“PARCC fails at many levels.” [Actually, PARCC provides realistic assessments of student proficiency, unlike N.J.’s artificially-inflated old assessments.] I’ll “scrap PARCC on Day 1” and “scrap its use as a graduation requirement and its use in teacher evaluations.” [Someone tell him that the Governor can’t “scrap” PARCC or its uses, any more than Donald Trump can scrap the Common Core or Obamacare with a stroke of a pen.]
I “will not renew Chapter 78” because it is “discouraging prospective teachers.” [Again, Chapter 78, N.J.’s 2011 teacher tenure and health care premium contributions reform bill, can only be set aside by an act of the Legislature. Also, Murphy might want to discuss his distaste for Chapter 78 with local school boards that are staying solvent only through teachers’ increased contributions.]
Murphy has also called for a “pause” in authorizing new charter schools, remarkably similar to NJEA’s desire for a moratorium. (Newark Inc. reported, however, that he voted against the NAACP endorsement of a charter school moratorium.)

In remarks outside of the NJEA Convention -- hat tip to Jeff Bennett at “New Jersey Education Aid,” who transcribed part of an interview by Larry Mendte of “Jersey Matters” with the prospective governor -- Murphy also proposes to provide free full-day pre-kindergarten to an additional 45,000 children at a cost of $607.5 million a year (N.J. state-run preschool costs $13,500 per child per year) and to fully fund the state’s school funding formula known as SFRA, despite the fact that many districts are either over-funded or under-funded. Fully funding SFRA would cost taxpayers, already burdened by some of the highest property tax rates in the country, another $2 billion a year. He gave no suggestions for how the state would come up with the money. He also promises to “fully fund pensions”: if you’re keeping track, that another 3 billion a year.

This year N.J.’s total state school funding is $13.3 billion.  Murphy is promising NJEA members that he will find an extra $5.6 billion a year, effectively increasing the state’s contribution to districts by almost 40%. And that’s not including the hypothetical reversal of Chapter 78. Where is that money coming from? He doesn’t say.

Now, let’s be fair. NJEA did, after all, endorse Murphy exceptionally early, perhaps taking a cue from AFT’s early endorsement of Hillary Clinton. (We know how that turned out.) But surely Murphy, a highly-respected hedge fund manager and diplomat, as well as NJEA officials, many of whom are former teachers, can do the math.

Will the last person to leave New Jersey please turn out the lights?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Guest Post: Hoboken Voters Should Elect School Board Members Who Respect Parent Choice

Dear Friends,

I’m writing to you, not in my capacity as President of the Board of Trustees of HoLa (Hoboken Dual Language Charter School) but rather as a private citizen, a fellow Hoboken resident, to express my personal views about the importance of voting in tomorrow’s school board election.  The opinions expressed here are my own, not those of the Board of Trustees, and the information is accurate and not confidential.   In sum, I want to remind you to vote in the school board election when you go vote tomorrow because it’s incredibly important to Hoboken and to my children.

If you’re like me, you hate local politics. I thought twice about writing this. But as a private citizen, I wanted to share with you—for whatever it’s worth—my own thinking on who the best candidates are for school board.  I truly believe that the Parents United slate (3-6-5—Nelson, Benway, Rossini) are a better option for Hoboken schools—which matters to all of us as residents and/or homeowners. And when I say that I think they are the better option for Hoboken schools, I mean ALL of Hoboken public schools—including public charter schools.  Public charter schools have been in existence in Hoboken for nearly 20 years and are well established as part of the fabric of the public school system in Hoboken.

I want a school board that recognizes that families have a right to choose the school they want to send their child to and that if that happens to be a public charter school, that right should be respected. We currently have a board that, apparently, so dislikes parent choice that they sued HoLa to stop it from growing from a K-6 school to a K-8 school two years ago. The school board’s lawsuit has failed at every legal juncture and our students have already matriculated to 8th grade and will be the first graduating class of HoLa in June of 2017. And yet, the school board continues to press this meritless but costly lawsuit against HoLa’s expansion to include 7th and 8th grades.

Just last week, the state released the annual state PARCC exam results, and HoLa came in as the top performing public school (district or charter) in Hoboken in both math and English language arts.  In fact, HoLa ranks in the top 15% of over 2,200 public schools in New Jersey, and surpassed the performance of districts like Livingston, Princeton, Montclair and Summit. Our current elected school board should be championing that kind of performance, and congratulating the students and teachers of HoLa for their hard work. Instead, the current school board is continuing the lawsuit that seeks to undo HoLa’s 7th and 8th grades—a lawsuit that has already cost taxpayers more than $200,000. The case is now before the Appellate Court awaiting oral arguments.

The 3-6-5 (Nelson, Benway and Rossini) candidates have vowed to put an end to this costly, ill-conceived lawsuit against one of Hoboken’s most effective schools and focus resources instead on where they are needed—in the classroom. That’s good not just for the students who attend the district schools, but good for residents and taxpayers. Sending my educational tax dollars to lawyers is not how I want my money spent. And limiting educational choices for families in Hoboken hurts our property values, and is just wrong.

Please vote for 3-6-5 to help the school board focus on what matters most: the classroom, not the lawyers.

Thank you for considering,
Barbara Martinez
Concerned Citizen for 3-6-5 (Nelson (3), Benway (6), Rossini (5))

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Newark Parents Fight New Jersey's Unjust and Immoral Teacher Lay-Off Law

The son of Newark mother Noemi Vazquez is one of 10 plaintiffs in a lawsuit called HG v. Harrington that was filed this week in Superior Court in Trenton, New Jersey.  Ms. Vazquez’s son, referred to in court documents as “E.P.,” as well as  nine other students who attend traditional public schools in N.J’s largest school district, are asking the Court to allow Newark Public Schools to bypass the state’s seniority laws and dismiss teachers based on classroom effectiveness. Defendants are N.J. Acting Education Commissioner Kimberly Harrington, the State Board of Education, and Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf.

The suit was organized by the advocacy group Partnership for Educational Justice.

Seniority-based lay-off decisions are arbitrary: there is little evidence that instructional excellence is tied to years on the job. How arbitrary? One of  the ten states that still cling to this archaic practice is Minnesota where school districts create their own methods for layoff decisions if two teachers started working on the same date. Milaca School District flips a coin; at Lakeview Schools, the teacher with the smallest last four digits in their social security number gets to keep their job.

Despite many studies that show that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor affecting student learning, N.J.'s tenure law forces schools to make staffing decisions without regard for classroom effectiveness  Teacher union leaders (including NJEA's) argue that without LIFO (last in, first out) districts would summarily fire older teachers in order to save money. This premise ignores the fact that school districts are intently and appropriately focused on student outcomes and would never fire an effective teacher. In an article today in NJ Spotlight, Superintendent Cerf, well-acquainted with the damage done to student learning through the practice of LIFO, said, “this is one where I am going to get on my soapbox, because there is no moral justification for this. This is an act of political cowardice and giving in to interest groups. It's no more complicated than that.”

New Jersey has recently battled over LIFO. At a Senate Education Committee hearing in March of 2012 legislators debated a new teacher tenure reform bill, During public comment, then-Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who is now a U.S. Senator, called the maintenance of LIFO “monumentally absurd” but legislators bowed to teachers union heads, including Joseph del Grosso, president of the Newark Teachers Union, who claimed that eliminating seniority-based layoffs would turn teachers into “serfs.” The final bill that Chris Christie signed extended the granting of tenure from three years on the job to four but left LIFO untouched.

Legislators’ fears of losing union support has had a disproportional impact on districts like Newark that face decreasing enrollment—and hence, decreasing revenue—as more parents opt for seats at public charter schools. Fewer students means fewer teachers. But the perpetuation of LIFO, according to the court filing, creates an unequal system, one that renders districts like Newark incapable of providing N.J. students with their constitutionally-mandated “thorough and effective education.”  LIFO, the lawsuit says:
forces Newark and similar districts to wrestle with two untenable options that damage every child in the district: either (i) lay off effective teachers pursuant to the mandates of the LIFO statute, while leaving ineffective teachers clustered in an already under-performing school district, or (ii) refuse to institute reductions-in-force (even when faced with decreased funding), retain ineffective teachers to save the effective and highly effective teachers, decline to hire new teachers, and cut spending elsewhere in the district’s budget. 
In Newark's long-troubled district schools, 15 percent of teachers receive “ineffective” ratings yet can’t be fired. In fact, a lay-off simulation performed by Newark Public Schools (documented in the court filings) showed that 75 percent of teachers facing layoffs would be effective or highly effective, while only four percent of those laid off would be ineffective.

The lawsuit notes that Newark has its own “rubber room,” a warehouse for teachers designated unfit for teaching but still on the payroll during the long tenure removal process. The term was brought to public attention in a 2009 New Yorker article by Steven Brill on New York City’s “Temporary Reassignment Center,” which costs the city over $100 million dollars annually. Brill quotes then-NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein: “you can never appreciate how irrational the system is until you’ve lived with it.”

During the 2013-2014 school year, Newark’s “Educators Without Placement Site” (EWPS), maintained 271 teachers who performed clerical tasks or teacher aide duties and cost the district $22.5 million. In 2015,  Superintendent Cerf, laboring under intense budget constraints, had no choice but to“force-place” ineffective teachers in classrooms without principal consent.

The plaintiffs’ “prayer for relief" from quality-blind layoffs is a logical outgrowth of New Jersey’s highly-lauded Abbott rulings, which deemed that the state’s fragmented school system— 591 districts, more per square mile than any other state in the country—was so rife with inequities that 31 poor urban districts, including Newark, qualify for compensation in the form of free preschool, supplemental services, and extra money.

The elimination of LIFO in Newark, according to the plaintiffs, would be one more form of Abbott compensation.

The suit also notes a new development in the state’s education arena: Governor Christie’s appalling proposal to overturn the Abbott rulings by flat-funding all school districts at $6,599 per student, regardless of economic disadvantage. (For context, the State Department of Education lists Newark’s cost per pupil at $17,184). This proposal, which has as much chance of passing as Donald Trump being knighted by the Queen of England, would give the Commissioner of Education, a political appointee, the power to waive LIFO for the state’s neediest districts.. It would also cut Newark’s budget to crumbs, decimating a district already under fiscal distress. The parents of the plaintiffs in HG v. Harrington reject the governor’s proposal not only for fiscal reasons, but also because it would subject teacher layoff rules to political whims.

What does LIFO mean someone like Ms. Vazquez's son E.P.?

At the school E.P.  attends, East Side High School (one of the district’s higher-performing schools), 13 percent of students reached proficiency targets in language arts and 6 percent met proficiency targets in math. Seventy-five percent of students failed the (relatively easy) state biology test. Sixteen months after graduation, only half of the school’s graduating class was enrolled in two or four-year colleges.

Superintendent Cerf recently noted that “for over 50 years, states — far from being laboratories of reform — have far too often been laboratories of stasis, interest-group politics and inaction, with truly tragic and deeply immoral consequences for the overwhelming majority of our urban poor, who, not coincidentally, are mostly children of color.”

He wasn’t just speaking of Newark and LIFO, but he could have been. With a guarantee of effective teaching, E.P. and his schoolmates would most likely demonstrate higher levels of achievement.  The plaintiffs argue that this pronounced lack of assurance is morally and legally wrong. Now it’s a question of whether the court buys the premise that teacher quality matters as much as money.


Monday, October 31, 2016

NJEA's Math Problem: New Jersey Will Never Be Able to Fully Fund Pensions Without Concessions

It’s just so Jersey. Senate President Steve Sweeney, gubernatorial-hopeful, makes the fiscally responsible decision to delay a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment that  would require the state to fully fund teacher pensions. Irate NJEA leaders, still clutching a grudge over Sweeney’s involvement in the state’s 2011 pension/health benefits reform law, hang the eminent legislator out to dry and make an early endorsement of Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs multimillionaire who makes fantastical promises about fully funding pensions yet surely knows better..

Hence, New Jersey continues its long history of making promises to retired teachers that it will never keep.

For some insight into the history of N.J.'s pension miasma, read the new report by Mike Lilley called “Pensions, Politics, and the New Jersey Education Association."

For context, N.J.'s current unfunded pension liability comes to $95 billion. If you add in health benefits, our unfunded liability is $160 billion. The entire annual state budget is about $35 billion. And all the hoopla about a "millionaire's tax"? Jeff Bennett points out that enacting this tax would bring in a whopping $565 million per year.

The math is impossible.

Lilley explains that this fiscal disaster is why "the Mercatus Center ranks New Jersey dead last among states in long-term fiscal solvency and why New Jersey has the second-lowest bond rating of any state (above only Illinois). Passing the amendment without any reform would condemn the state and its citizens to a bleak future.

Read the whole thing, but here’s a few highlights:
  • "The average teacher puts in $195,000 over the course of a 30-year career and gets back a total of $2.6 million in benefits. The 2005 Benefits Review Task Force, created by Acting Governor Richard Codey to analyze New Jersey’s pension and benefit system, reached a similar conclusion."
  • "New Jersey’s broken pension system is a direct consequence of the NJEA’s enormous political power. The only thing the NJEA did not receive was full funding. Politicians, keenly focused on self-preservation and presented with the choice of pleasing the NJEA or keeping taxes down, did both—they gave the NJEA what it wanted on pensions but did not spend the money to fund them. Sure, the NJEA made a lot of noise at rallies and in the press, but until recently, the NJEA never punished lawmakers for not funding pensions the way it punished them for trying to shift pensions to local districts, cutting state education aid, or reducing benefits. Instead, during the time that pensions were being shortchanged, both incumbents and NJEA-endorsed candidates were elected at extremely high rates."
  • [T]he amounts required to adequately fund current pension liabilities even after Christie’s reforms are simply unsustainable. As the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission found, the state would need to spend $4–6 billion every year for the next 20 years to close the funding gap.13 That is more than 12 percent of the current $35 billion budget, which is money the state does not have. Yet that is what the NJEA wanted to lock into the constitution.  
John Bury, a pensions expert, notes that “the NJEA might be able to pick its puppets but until they locate one who can make money magically appear those pensions they thought they bought will disappear.”

NJEA's Math Problem: New Jersey Will Never Be Able to Fully Fund Pensions Without Concessions

It’s just so Jersey. Senate President Steve Sweeney, gubernatorial-hopeful, makes the fiscally responsible decision to delay a Senate vote on a constitutional amendment that  would require the state to fully fund teacher pensions. Irate NJEA leaders, still clutching a grudge over Sweeney’s involvement in the state’s 2011 pension/health benefits reform law, hang the eminent legislator out to dry and make an early endorsement of Phil Murphy, a Goldman Sachs multimillionaire who makes fantastical promises about fully funding pensions yet surely knows better..

Hence, New Jersey continues its long history of making promises to retired teachers that it will never keep.

For some insight into the history of N.J.'s pension miasma, read the new report by Mike Lilley called “Pensions, Politics, and the New Jersey Education Association."

For context, N.J.'s current unfunded pension liability comes to $95 billion. If you add in health benefits, our unfunded liability is $160 billion. The entire annual state budget is about $35 billion. And all the hoopla about a "millionaire's tax"? Jeff Bennett points out that enacting this tax would bring in a whopping $565 million per year.

The math is impossible.

Lilley explains that this fiscal disaster is why "the Mercatus Center ranks New Jersey dead last among states in long-term fiscal solvency and why New Jersey has the second-lowest bond rating of any state (above only Illinois). Passing the amendment without any reform would condemn the state and its citizens to a bleak future.

Read the whole thing, but here’s a few highlights:
  • "The average teacher puts in $195,000 over the course of a 30-year career and gets back a total of $2.6 million in benefits.11 The 2005 Benefits Review Task Force, created by Acting Governor Richard Codey to analyze New Jersey’s pension and benefit system, reached a similar conclusion."
  • "New Jersey’s broken pension system is a direct consequence of the NJEA’s enormous political power. The only thing the NJEA did not receive was full funding. Politicians, keenly focused on self-preservation and presented with the choice of pleasing the NJEA or keeping taxes down, did both—they gave the NJEA what it wanted on pensions but did not spend the money to fund them. Sure, the NJEA made a lot of noise at rallies and in the press, but until recently, the NJEA never punished lawmakers for not funding pensions the way it punished them for trying to shift pensions to local districts, cutting state education aid, or reducing benefits. Instead, during the time that pensions were being shortchanged, both incumbents and NJEA-endorsed candidates were elected at extremely high rates."
  • [T]he amounts required to adequately fund current pension liabilities even after Christie’s reforms are simply unsustainable. As the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission found, the state would need to spend $4–6 billion every year for the next 20 years to close the funding gap.13 That is more than 12 percent of the current $35 billion budget, which is money the state does not have. Yet that is what the NJEA wanted to lock into the constitution.  
John Bury, a pensions expert, notes that “the NJEA might be able to pick its puppets but until they locate one who can make money magically appear those pensions they thought they bought will disappear.”

Monday, October 24, 2016

Here's Why Charter Schools Aren't "Laboratories of Innovation"

John Holland Charter School in Paterson just announced its most recent PARCC scores for 6th graders in language arts:  68.4% received scores indicating either proficiency or advanced proficiency, compared to 52.3% throughout the rest of New Jersey. Reason to celebrate, right? After all, 93% of Holland Charter’s students are economically-disadvantaged. (Almost all are students of color.) Yet here was the reaction (h/t: Pete Cook), via the Paterson Press, of “veteran” school board member Jonathan Hodges:
[P]arents in charter schools sometimes “are more engaged” in their children’s education. “As such, those parents are going to work more with their kids and they’re going to do better,” Hodges said.
Why aren't district representatives applauding the effective instruction of Holland’s teachers and administrators, as well as the hard work of students? Why aren't Paterson's administrators hounding Holland teachers for suggestions for best practices to improve student achievement in the traditional sector?  After all, isn’t that what we hear all the time – that charters are supposed to be “laboratories of innovation” and that successful experiments then get transported into the rest of the sector?

But those successes don’t get transferred, which is why parents flock to charters. A + B = C.

 Holland’s principal and founder  Christina Scano appears willing to collaborate, explaining in a press release that she "attributed the high score to staff’s ability to provide individualized attention to students as well as parent involvement/
"Our educational model focuses on working with students individually and with their families to build a framework that gives students the confidence to exceed.
Perhaps this model is something to emulate, not disparage. Meanwhile, Paterson Public Schools has yet to release its PARCC scores, although districts have had the information for over a month.  But,  for context, last year  22% of 6th graders at School 5, an elementary school in Paterson,  reached proficiency or advanced proficiency in language arts.

There are three other charters in Paterson. The Paterson Press requested PARCC scores from them. Paterson Charter School for Science and Technology didn’t respond.  Community Charter School of Paterson and Paterson Arts and Sciences Charter School surpassed the traditional district’s student achievement levels in all subjects and grades.

Friday, October 21, 2016

QOD: Chris Cerf Goes to Washington

On Wednesday Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf gave a speech at the American Enterprise Institute in which he reflected on the “pejorative connotations” of traditional school systems reforming themselves. As proof of this misconception, he points to Newark Public Schools, where “reform strategies implemented by the district have produced great academic gains for its inner-city students,” including a 74% graduation rate, up from “the high fifties” in 2010. “I do think the arrow is clearly and unambiguously pointed up,” he said.

The chief impulse for implementing reform strategies that led to higher student achievement? Pressure from the federal government in the form of NCLB and Race to the Top.  Cerf said, “In my view, these pressures were instrumental, in fact, necessary conditions for change. It was so easy to say, ‘Whether or not you like it, the feds are saying we have to do it."

In this coverage by Naomi Nix at The 74, he elaborates:
In my view, for over 50 years, states — far from being laboratories of reform — have far too often been laboratories of stasis, interest-group politics and inaction, with truly tragic and deeply immoral consequences for the overwhelming majority of our urban poor, who, not coincidentally, are mostly children of color...The general despair about the futility of reform is not entirely warranted. With sufficient courage, stick-to-it-ness and discipline, the reform playbook can make a difference.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Lauren Wells Has it Wrong: Parent Choice IS Collective Power

In an editorial in NJ Spotlight this week, Lauren Wells, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s former chief education officer, praises the NAACP’s resolution for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.  In doing so, she confirms the fears of  school choice advocates expressed by Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, who wrote that the NAACP "is an acronym for the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People. It is conspicuously not for the advancement of the millions of Black families trying to escape failing systems and schools.”

We can all agree that public schools should serve the needs of public school children and families. So, what do Newark parents want? Ms. Wells answers this question herself:
 In Newark from the 2013-2014 to the 2015-2016 school years, charter school enrollment increased 55 percent from 9,334 to 14,501 students.
Clearly, many Newark families -- more than the sector can provide (10,000 children sit on waiting lists) --- want their children to enroll in public charter schools. Yet Ms. Wells would stymie student need in order to preserve a long-failing bureaucracy.

Of course, the flight of families from long-failing schools to  educational hope is a fiscal drain on the Newark Public Schools district. Ms. Wells correctly notes that “NPS charter school payments increased to $225 million, representing 27% of the NPS [one billion dollar per year]  operating budget.”  This shift from one public sector to another is burdensome for an institution with huge overhead and under-enrolled buildings. That’s why last Spring the State gave NPS an additional $27 million to compensate for the burden.

But Ms. Wells is precisely wrong when she posits (as she did a year ago in an editorial posted at Save Our Schools-NJ),
A market-driven public education agenda has been passed off as school reform that is in the interest of the black and brown children often living in poverty and educated in Newark's public schools. 
Politically well-connected wealthy people have used their power and resources to impose educational policies on our community, our schools and our children. Individual interests have been manipulated to diminish collective power.
“Impose” educational “policies”? Manipulation” of “individual interests” to “diminish collective power”? She’s got it backwards. Parent choice is collective power. Parent choice is the triumph of people living in poverty over political bureaucracy. Parent choice is the repeal of manipulation over children’s academic freedom.

Newark Public School district must evolve to fit a shifting public education landscape. That's hard. But denying "the interests of black and brown children often living in poverty" doesn't trump difficult adjustments. Ms. Wells should rethink her thesis.


Monday, October 17, 2016

An Apology to Phil Murphy, N.J's Next Governor, Who Boldly Voted Against the NAACP Charter School Moratorium

On Saturday the NAACP voted for a resolution urging an indefinite moratorium on the expansion of charter schools. This was no surprise: everyone had predicted that the erstwhile civil rights organization, now apparently headed by old-school union-panderers, has, as the Wall Street Journal opined today, outlived its original “moral purpose.”

Last week I tore into New Jersey’s prematurely-anointed next governor Phil Murphy on the mistaken assumption that he shared the troglodytic views of his fellow board members of the NAACP. But I was wrong. According to an article published last night in Newark Inc., Murphy, whatever you think of N.J.’s Soprano-like process of choosing elected officials, had enough backbone to defy the NAACP consensus and vote against the resolution.

The article offers a behind-the-scenes lens into the Saturday morning board meeting, the first I’ve seen. Murphy told reporter Mark Bonamo that “he found it difficult to support the NAACP resolution with such deep divisions on the resolution.”
Communities may disagree as a matter of opinion, but leadership requires a careful examination of all facts and a shared goal of arriving at a consensus, when possible. I could not support today's resolution without having such clarity. As I have said publicly, the resolution as presented went too far from my own position. A 'time-out' to gather facts would have relevance to policy, but an immediate defunding of charter schools would put kids at risk.
Murphy appears to have doubts about the process used by the leadership of the NAACP, specifically its failure to listen to the pleas from the growing community of parents who rely on charters as an alternative  to long-failing traditional schools. However,
I am encouraged that the board agreed to the formation of a task force -- a path I recommended and vigorously supported -- to move us away from talk of 'us versus them' and bring together both sides of this contentious debate in a search for fact-based common ground and a path forward. This is vitally important especially given the impacts of getting the district-to-charter school balance right in communities of color. I look forward to being part of this discussion.
He concludes, “"I remain committed to bringing both sides of this issue together in New Jersey to figure out what works, what hasn't, and how district schools and charter schools can best coexist in our communities.”

That’s really the point. In New Jersey cities like Newark, Camden, and Trenton, public charter schools are a permanent part of the educational landscape. They already co-exist with traditional public schools, despite distortions from anti-charter lobbyists who include NJEA (which recently endorsed Murphy as Christie’s successor and supported the NAACP resolution)..

The next step is for public charters and public traditionals to co-exist without antagonism.

Those who harken back to the original conception of charters as “laboratories of innovation,” experimenting with different strategies to best serve public school students and then transporting successful experiments back into traditional schools, ignore reality.  For example, one of the most successful experiments that many charters incorporate into their programming is extended school calendars. Children gain months of extra achievement through additional learning time. But teacher union leaders disdain longer days and years and so this innovation is rarelytransported into traditional schools.

Charters are here to stay. They now serve 10% of the New York City schoolchildren (the largest district in the country), and will eventually serve half or more of public schoolchildren in Newark and Camden.

Pardon the crudeness, but the NAACP is pissing into the wind. That’s hardly a dignified stance for a storied civil rights organization. All the Board has done is alienate itself from the parents and students whom it pretends to represent. Murphy got this vote exactly right.

Friday, October 14, 2016

QOD: Tom Moran asks, "Why is Phil Murphy Hostile to Charter Schools?" Answer: NJEA

Riffing off my piece earlier this week (hey, Tom, how about some attribution?) the editor of the Star Ledger notes that "the expansion of these [charter] schools is one the great success stories in New Jersey over the last decade." Moran continues,
So why is Phil Murphy, the likely Democratic nominee for governor, ready to tap the brakes on this success story? 
Murphy is a board member of the NAACP, the sclerotic civil rights organization, which is considering a resolution on Saturday to freeze the expansion of charter schools nationwide. As of Thursday evening, Murphy would not say where he stands on it. 
That's not the first bad sign. Murphy said earlier this year that local school boards should be granted more power to block the establishment of new charter schools. That's like giving General Motors the power to block Chrysler from building a new plant. In most school districts it would be tantamount to a moratorium... 
The most charitable explanation is that he is searching for common ground in the charter wars, and wants to establish himself as a neutral arbiter. It could be that he doesn't know the issue well, a sign that his lack of political experience comes with a cost. 
But there is a darker possibility. Murphy could be selling out to the state's largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association, which recently endorsed him. The NJEA is hands-down the most powerful special interest group in the state, always in the top ranks in lobbying and campaign spending. And it has done all it can to kneecap the charter school movement, which relies mostly on non-union labor. 
Murphy filled out a questionnaire to get the union's endorsement. But he will not release his answers, bowing to the confidentiality request of the union. 
That is a rookie mistake. The union is not his master, and he is free to discuss his views on charter schools, with or without union permission. His refusal to do so says, in effect, that the union has a right to know his views but the public does not.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Camden Parents"Thrilled" By Mastery Charter School's New Building; "This is the Most Hopeful We've Ever Been About Camden"

On Tuesday Mastery Schools of Camden, a partnership with the Camden School District serving nearly 1,600 Camden families in five hybrid charter/traditional neighborhood schools, held a “beam-raising ceremony” to celebrate the construction of a new state-of-the-art elementary school at State Street and River Avenue in Cramer Hill.  The event attracted over 200 students and parents, who helped hoist a steel beam that is an emblem of a brand-new Mastery Cramer Hill Elementary School,

Facilities include 43 light-filled classrooms, a separate gym and cafeteria spaces, new safe and secure outdoor recreational spaces, a library and digital resource center, and a robust after-school program. The community will have access to the outdoor recreational spaces, and access to the library and digital resource center for community meetings, and adult and continuing education on site.

The new school will open in time for the 2017-2018 school year.

“I have lived in Camden all my life.  I am the product of the Camden School system.  But a few years ago I had no hope.  My daughter was struggling in school and not getting the support she needed.  That’s when I found Mastery.  My daughter started liking school for the first time and I had hope again,” said Sharell Sharp, a parent of a seventh grade student at North Camden Elementary. “Now for me and for hundreds of other families who live in Cramer Hill, North Camden and East Camden, this is the most hopeful we have ever been about Camden and our children’s future.”

“When my son Nathan was turning five I was searching for a school that would give him a firm educational foundation.  Honestly, I was not expecting to find it up the block from my house, but I did at Mastery,” said Phillip Lopez, a parent of a first grade student at the current Mastery Cramer Hill Elementary School located at the former George Washington Elementary School.  “Now I’m thrilled that a new building will build new memories for future generations, and most importantly, Mastery will be here in Camden for our children from elementary school through high school to prepare them for college and to become productive members of society.”

The press release notes that “under the Urban Hope Act, Mastery Charter Schools along with the other renaissance schools in Camden were required to build or substantially reconstruct and then operate new public schools. In February 2014, the City of Camden Redevelopment Agency approved Mastery’s proposal to redevelop the now former city-owned roughly 3.9 acre parcel at State Street and River Avenue in Cramer Hill into an approximately 85,000 square foot, three-story charter elementary school building.”

Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard added,
Camden students deserve to attend school in safe and modern learning environments that support learning, and Mastery’s building is a critical next step in a process that is building momentum.With one building recently completed and a handful of new construction, reconstruction, and renovation projects now underway, thousands of Camden students and staff are set to benefit. I appreciate Mastery’s commitment to serving Camden students and doing everything they can to deliver an excellent educational experience.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Meet NJ's Next Governor Who Will Vote For a National Charter School Moratorium on Saturday

Allow me to take a wild guess: New Jersey’s newly-anointed next governor Phil Murphy has never stepped foot in a charter school. Yet on Saturday, he, along with the rest of the NAACP National Board, will vote to call for a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools.

Now allow me a wish: that Mr. Murphy had spent an afternoon last week, as I did, with a young man named Chris Eley. Chris grew up in one of Newark’s southward low-income housing areas, sharing a three-bedroom, one-bathroom  apartment with nine other people, including two loving parents and two brothers. In the winter his extended family had no hot water; they first had a working shower when he turned twenty years old.

 As a young boy Chris attended Camden St. Elementary School, a traditional Newark public school  where 17% of third-graders read at grade-level. He was in the gifted and talented program, spending afternoons in the public library reading about paleontology and was bullied for being a “nerd.” “School felt like a prison,” he told me. “It didn’t have anything to do with learning.”

Chris’s parents were effective, resourceful advocates. When he was ready for 8th grade they filled out an application for TEAM Academy, a Newark public charter school run by KIPP. Despite having to repeat 7th grade in order to catch up with his classmates, he recounted to me the sense of “immersing myself in a community, in a whole new world” where “the academics were challenging.”

For Chris and his family, KIPP was a life-saver.  For many education advocates I've spoken to, NAACP’s anti-charter position is counter-intuitive.  More than 160 African-American education leaders have signed a letter opposing the call for a moratorium.  Parents are outraged. Chris Stewart reports that “every day more people are signing on and becoming more resolute about not allowing a retail civil rights organization to sell us down a river. But, to date, the NAACP has shown no interest in meeting with black people that disagree with them — even after repeated requests.”

Derrell Bradford writes today in The 74 that “NAACP’s long-standing resistance to empowering families with school choice remains antiquated and deeply wrongheaded.” Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter School Shoemaker in Philadelphia, calls the vote “alarming and unjust”; he suggests that those puzzled by the anti-choice leanings of this once-proud organization “follow the money,” which leads to anti-charter teacher union leaders who fund NAACP. (For more reactions from African-American leaders, see Education Post’s round-up.)

And here’s another  riddle: how did governor-designee Phil Murphy end up as one of the Deciders?

Murphy is white. He went to Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He worked for twenty years at Goldman Sachs, retiring as a Senior Director with a multi-million dollar net worth. He lives in Middletown, NJ on a 6-acre riverfront estate with an estimated value of $9.6 million. He and his wife exercised a form of school choice available to (very) high-income parents: his children went to a N.J.  private school called  Rumson Country Day School (annual tuition: $29,000) and then to private Phillips Academy Andover boarding school (annual tuition: $54, 000).

Yet Murphy gets to decide whether the powerful NAACP takes a position about whether kids like Chris Eley get to go to public charter schools that offer challenging academic programs or whether they remain “in prison” in chronically-failing traditional schools. What’s wrong with this picture?

Maybe it’s as clear as day. Some of you non-New Jerseyans may be wondering why we’re all so sure who will succeed Chris Christie a year from now. That’s because most of the time the Garden State, at least in gubernatorial elections, practices an arcane form of democracy where party bosses, not real people,  decide who wins primaries.  As Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger wrote this weekend, after the other top Democratic contenders for governor abruptly dropped out of a race that officially hasn’t started yet and NJEA made an early endorsement,
Murphy won this thing because he spent a ton of money out of the gate, lending his campaign $10 million and funding a "think-tank" to punch out policy ideas. And the party bosses know he's willing to spend tons more, including writing big checks for them. 
"We saw it with Corzine, and we're seeing it now," says Brigid Harrison of Montclair State University. "On a gut level, that tells me something is seriously wrong.”

Similarly, the NAACP top bosses will disregard real people -- Chris Eley’s parents, for example -- when on Saturday they decide to bend to the will of union funders and lobby for the extinction of a form of school choice that non-millionaires can afford.

I wish that Murphy would consider spending an afternoon with Chris Eley who, at the ripe old age of 23, is a budding entrepreneur, real estate agent, motivational speaker, artist, and philanthropist. (If he or Chris is pressed for time, Murphy can go to Chris’ website or read his forthcoming book Become What You Seek.) Is that too much to ask for the privileged few who will cast a vote on Saturday for real people who don’t live on riverfront estates and send their kids to private school?

On a gut level, something is seriously wrong.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

New NJ Spotlight Column: In Lakewood, the "Tyranny of the Many"

It starts here:
“There’s nothing fraud hates more than a spotlight,” says Tom Gatti, head of the newly incorporated Senior Action Group (SAG) in Lakewood. The fraud he references is an utter lack of compliance with a newly legislated program, Senate Bill 2049, that awards $17 million a year to a private consortium representing Lakewood’s burgeoning sector of 130 ultra-Orthodox Jewish day schools. The bill mandates an oversight committee. None exists. And no governmental entity — the Christie administration, Department of Education, local school board, or bill sponsor Senator Robert Singer (R-Ocean, Monmouth) — seems to care. 
So here’s some illumination.
Read the rest here.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Hold On To Your Hats: N.J.'s Next Governor is Already Elected

News broke this week that Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, long-rumored to covet the state’s top office, was bowing out of the 2017 gubernatorial race. While there is are several other Democratic hopefuls the spotlight’s on Phil Murphy, a multi-millionaire Goldman Sachs ex-exec and U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

Political prospects can flip in a nano-second. But if Nate Silver was placing odds and weighting heavily for teacher union support, you’d be best off betting on Murphy. Is that good or bad for public education? Depends if you prefer fairyland instead of reality.

First, a little background.

Just a few months ago the top contenders to fill Christie’s shoes were Senate President Steve Sweeney and Mayor Fulop. Then Sweeney got into fisticuffs with NJEA honchos because he exercised common and fiscal sense by declining to put an amendment on the November ballot that would require the state to allocate non-existent money to pensions. That wasn’t  seen as a deal-breaker for him: while NJEA holds a grudge against him because he helped usher through the 2011 pension and healthcare reform bill that requires public workers to contribute more to their premiums. he’s an officer in the Iron Workers union. Pretty good labor union cred.

However, today PolitickerNJ reports that the people who really run New Jersey -- county bosses and powerbrokers -- are lining up behind Murphy, in part because of internecine disputes over who would replace Sweeney as Senate President. (It's complicated. Go to the link if you care.)

And last week in a surprising turn,  Fulop announced that he would not be running for governor in 2017.There are several reasons for this about-face; one of them is probably that he’s likely to have to take the stand in Bridget Kelly’s Bridgegate trial because there’s some evidence that Fulop may have had some knowledge about the plans to cause some traffic problems for mayors who didn’t endorse Christie.

Or maybe he just got advance word that the fix was in for Murphy. Heck, even Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who less than two months ago announced that he would do “anything” to get Fulop elected, just endorsed Murphy. Max Pizarro puts it pricelessly:
That last squirming, spastic shoulder just got pinned to the mat and laid still, as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the son of a poet, enacted a touch of poetic touch to the gubernatorial contest and shook hands on endorsing Phil Murphy, Goldman Sachs veteran.
Enough about politics. Let’s talk about education. Murphy’s platform is so fantastical that it practically floats away on fairy dust. Here’s what he would do:

  • Fully fund the state pension system with nary a reform, even though he told the Star-Ledger that this makes him “nervous.” Ya think? According to Jeff Bennett at New Jersey State Education Aid, Murphy, during an interview, “refused to directly answer...how he would pay for things and instead said that a budget is a statement of a society’s values, so the dollars and cents of costs can be figured out later.” I’m sure that will go over big at Standard and Poor’s.
  • Fully fund NJ’s inequitable and unsustainable school funding formula. Again, Jeff Bennett: Murphy’s “major omission” is that he  “doesn’t acknowledge that fully funding the K-12 component of SFRA would cost $2 billion (without redistribution) or give any pathway at all to where he is going to get that money
  • End all standardized testing, i.e., PARCC: ““The era of high stakes, high stress standardized tests in New Jersey must end, and I will see that it does,” said Murphy. “We must get back to the simple premise of letting teachers use classroom time to teach to their students’ needs, and not to a test.”
  • Eliminate the current requirement that high school graduates demonstrate proficiency in Algebra 1 (usually taken in 8th or 9th grade) and 10th grade reading. 
  • “End student and teacher stress.” (What’s not to like?)

So, pre-ordained Governor Phil Murphy will eliminate educational accountability, eliminate fiscal accountability, teach students to meditate instead of learning math, and fully fund a prelapsarian pension system that is, in fact, unfundable as currently written.

I know, I know. The election’s a year away and Murphy has to solidify NJEA’s support. But as a lifelong Democrat I want a candidate who at least dabbles in fiscal reality, acknowledges the shortcomings of the state’s pension and school funding system, and understands the importance of standards and accountability. Maybe I’m the one who’s inhaling too much fairy dust.

Hold On To Your Hats: N.J.'s Next Governor is Already Elected

News broke this week that Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, long-rumored to covet the state’s top office, was bowing out of the 2017 gubernatorial race. While there is are several other Democratic hopefuls the spotlight’s on Phil Murphy, a multi-millionaire Goldman Sachs ex-exec and U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

Political prospects can flip in a nano-second. But if Nate Silver was placing odds and weighting heavily for teacher union support, you’d be best off betting on Murphy. Is that good or bad for public education? Depends if you prefer fairyland instead of reality.

First, a little background.

Just a few months ago the top contenders to fill Christie’s shoes were Senate President Steve Sweeney and Mayor Fulop. Then Sweeney got into fisticuffs with NJEA honchos because he exercised common and fiscal sense by declining to put an amendment on the November ballot that would require the state to allocate non-existent money to pensions. That wasn’t  seen as a deal-breaker for him: while NJEA holds a grudge against him because he helped usher through the 2011 pension and healthcare reform bill that requires public workers to contribute more to their premiums. he’s an officer in the Iron Workers union. Pretty good labor union cred.

However, today PolitickerNJ reports that the people who really run New Jersey -- county bosses and powerbrokers -- are lining up behind Murphy, in part because of internecine disputes over who would replace Sweeney as Senate President. (It's complicated. Go to the link if you care.)

And last week in a surprising turn,  Fulop announced that he would not be running for governor in 2017.There are several reasons for this about-face; one of them is probably that he’s likely to have to take the stand in Bridget Kelly’s Bridgegate trial because there’s some evidence that Fulop may have had some knowledge about the plans to cause some traffic problems for mayors who didn’t endorse Christie.

Or maybe he just got advance word that the fix was in for Murphy. Heck, even Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who less than two months ago announced that he would do “anything” to get Fulop elected, just endorsed Murphy. Max Pizarro puts it pricelessly:
That last squirming, spastic shoulder just got pinned to the mat and laid still, as Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, the son of a poet, enacted a touch of poetic touch to the gubernatorial contest and shook hands on endorsing Phil Murphy, Goldman Sachs veteran.
Enough about politics. Let’s talk about education. Murphy’s platform is so fantastical that it practically floats away on fairy dust. Here’s what he would do:


  • Fully fund the state pension system with nary a reform, even though he told the Star-Ledger that this makes him “nervous.” Ya think? According to Jeff Bennett at New Jersey State Education Aid, Murphy, during an interview, “refused to directly answer...how he would pay for things and instead said that a budget is a statement of a society’s values, so the dollars and cents of costs can be figured out later.” I’m sure that will go over big at Standard and Poor’s.


  • Fully fund NJ’s inequitable and unsustainable school funding formula. Again, Jeff Bennett: Murphy’s “major omission” is that he  “doesn’t acknowledge that fully funding the K-12 component of SFRA would cost $2 billion (without redistribution) or give any pathway at all to where he is going to get that money.


  • End all standardized testing, i.e., PARCC: ““The era of high stakes, high stress standardized tests in New Jersey must end, and I will see that it does,” said Murphy. “We must get back to the simple premise of letting teachers use classroom time to teach to their students’ needs, and not to a test.”


  • Eliminate the current requirement that high school graduates demonstrate proficiency in Algebra 1 (usually taken in 8th or 9th grade) and 10th grade reading. 


  • “End student and teacher stress.” (What’s not to like?)


So, pre-ordained Governor Phil Murphy will eliminate educational accountability, eliminate fiscal accountability, teach students to meditate instead of learning math, and fully fund a prelapsarian pension system that is, in fact, unfundable as currently written.

I know, I know. The election’s a year away and Murphy has to solidify NJEA’s support. But as a lifelong Democrat I want a candidate who at least dabbles in fiscal reality, acknowledges the shortcomings of the state’s pension and school funding system, and understands the importance of standards and accountability. Maybe I’m the one who’s inhaling too much fairy dust.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

QOD: Checker Finn is Missing Al Shanker, One of the "Founding Parents" of American Charter Schools

Checker Finn, Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, bemoans what AFT President Albert Shanker brought to the table in our never-ending public school battles: his“restlessness with the status quo,” “boundless creativity,” “statesman-stature,” and a“capacity to fight you fiercely over issues of disagreement while also teaming up on shared causes.” (h/t: Erika Sanzi)

Finn recalls  a 1989 summit in Charlottesville that included the first President Bush and various state governors, “only the third time in history that a U.S. president had convened the governors in this way."
Al urged an agenda for it that rings as true in my ears today as it did nearly three decades ago—an agenda that the summiteers followed in part. “The top of the agenda,” Shanker wrote, “should be the issue of national goals and standards and a system of assessments to go along with them. We’ve had a school reform movement going for six years now, and we still haven’t decided what our students should know and be able to do....[I]t’s possible to set national goals and standards—even establish a national assessment program—and still leave a tremendous amount of flexibility for states and local school districts.” 
He got the accountability part exactly right: “For the first time, people in a community would really have some firm basis for evaluating their schools; they would know how their students were doing compared with the students in the next county or state.”
And that wasn’t all. He offered two more “top-priority items for the summit agenda.” One was “how to get schools to engage in the constant self-examination that allows successful organizations to renew themselves and change as problems change.” The other was “how to prevent and deal with the problems increasing numbers of our kids bring to school with them.”
Right, right, and right.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Dissecting the Opt-Out Bubble: A Thorough Analysis

The Consortium for Policy Research in Education has just released a working paper called “The Bubble Bursts: The 2015 Opt-Out Movement in New Jersey” (h/t: Pete Cook). This analysis of the origins, gestalt, politics, and scope of test refusals during the state’s first year of PARCC testing is both granular and expansive, well worth reading in its entirety.  Here are a few highlights.

  • “There was a positive correlation between higher district opt-out rates and wealthier districts.” And, "in high  schools... districts with higher socioeconomic status had significantly higher opt out rates."
  • While the state calculated the opt-out rate at 19%, analysts discovered that the actual opt-out rate was 11%.  Why the discrepancy? “The data provided by the state...had a substantial amount of missing data – almost 40 percent of the districts did not report data to the state on the number of students registered to be tested, which made it difficult to produce an accurate picture of opt-out rates across the state. When we replaced these missing registered to test numbers with enrollment data reported elsewhere, we found that the average opt-out rate across the state declined to about 11 percent. Therefore, ironically, the incomplete data reported by the state in its accounting of opt-out rates resulted in inflated estimates of students not tested. On the other hand, the replacement of the missing data with enrollment data revealed a strong correlation between district socioeconomic status and opt-out rates across elementary, middle and high schools – with higher DFG districts having significantly higher opt out rates across the board.”
  • In fact, districts with the lowest opt-out rates were among those not reported to the state, which explains the inflated percentage cited by the DOE.
  • “Several factors contributed to these [opt-out] trends,” including “an accumulated skepticism with high stakes testing in general and the new PARCC assessment in particular, concerns from the Common Core State Standards rollout, teacher union opposition to premature teacher accountability, and confusion in the messages of state policymakers about graduation requirements. These explanatory factors were based upon interviews with over 30 state policymakers, professional education association representatives, advocacy group leaders, school administrators, teachers, parents, and students.” The researchers also mention concerns about federal overreach due to misunderstandings about the creation of the Common Core State Standards and “widespread cynicism” about high-stakes testing.
  • The growth of the opt-out movement was fostered by NJEA, with help from Save Our Schools-NJ.  In particular, there was “concerted teachers’ union opposition to the use of student growth techniques as measures for teacher accountability."
  • The paper explores the national and local climate that fueled the opt-out movement. On a national level there was “partisan hyperbole surrounding education policy.” Ironically, the Common Core was specifically developed by governors and state officers “to avoid the charge of federal intrusion.” But Race to the Top’s requirements of teacher accountability and college and career-ready standards were viewed by opt-out enthusiasts as “coercion.”
  • In New Jersey, the state won $38 million in the third round of Race to the Top after the Legislature adopted teacher evaluation and tenure reform, a bill supported by NJEA. “However, the teacher evaluation requirement that was part of RTTT alienated the state’s teachers’ union, The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), and resulted in strong NJEA opposition to the PARCC test.”
  • “In response to the state’s testing and evaluation plans, the NJEA launched a multi-million dollar ad campaign against the PARCC. The NJEA’s strategy was to use television, radio, billboard, print, and online advertisements, as well as social media, to raise awareness and concerns with parents and the public about the PARCC exams. Members of the NJEA were also active in the winter of 2014 and spring of 2015 in attending town hall events, rallies, and board meetings across the state and voicing their views.”
  • A PTA member in a high-poverty district explained, “All the negative press that the test was getting from the NJEA, which had that whole ad on TV, really impacted people. I was getting calls and text messages in response to the ads,” she said. 
  • State officials disclosed misleading statements made by NJEA and allied lobbyists. One ad featured a first-grader crying about taking a PARCC test. But first graders don’t take PARCC tests.
  • “The three groups advocating opting out that were mentioned most frequently in our interviews were Save Our Schools New Jersey, United Opt Out New Jersey, and Cares About Schools. Many participants identified Save Our Schools as the most involved in leading the opt-out charge.”
  • Researchers analyzed the use of social media in pro-PARCC and anti-PARCC campaigns. Anti-PARCC  lobbyists were far more prolific on Twitter and Facebook than pro-accountability groups. “There was also evidence of coordination amongst the groups who advocated opting out. NJEA, Save Our Schools New Jersey, and Opt Out New Jersey retweeted and mentioned each other’s tweets and communicated with similar actors during the five-month time period that we examined. Both opt-out advocacy groups had the NJEA among its users most retweeted, mentioned, and favorited, which suggested that the these groups were disseminating messages from the teachers’ union to their followers. For the NJEA, Save Our Schools New Jersey was among the top ten users it retweeted and mentioned, so the teachers’ union also appeared to have shared messages from the advocacy group. This finding aligns with statements made by several interviewees who represented special interest groups, that the union and advocacy groups were sharing messages on social media and working together to inform their followers."
  • Christie factor: “there was a political twist to the dynamic of state testing, as the state’s governor, Chris Christie, was running for president and sought to shore up his Republican candidacy by publicly opposing, and eventually dropping the CCSS, while maintaining state support for PARCC.”