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.