Friday, January 27, 2017

What's Wrong With N.J.'s Teacher Pension System? Ask Your Nearest Millennial

A new teacher’s pension is supposed to be a perk. The truth is that for the majority of the nation’s new teachers, what they can anticipate in retirement benefits will be worth less than what they contributed to the system while they were in the classroom, even if they stay for decades.
That’s from Fordham Foundation’s new analysis, “(No) Money in the Bank,” which grimly casts a spotlight on Newark Teacher Union's  pension system. It's important to note that NTU's fiscal distress closely mirrors NJEA affiliates, who comprise almost all the rest of N.J. school districts. Despite empty promises by glad-handers like prematurely-anointed Governor Phil Murphy and theatrics from NJEA, anyone who can do math must come to the conclusion that N.J.’s teacher delayed compensation system is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.  No constitutional amendment, no millionaire’s tax, no surge of economic growth and return on investments, no tax incentive, can salvage a state pension system that has $95 billion in liabilities and another $65 billion in retirees’ health-care obligations. (Remember that our annual state budget is about $35 billion.)

And, as long as we’re on the topic of education costs, fully funding our state’s school funding formula (SFRA), another empty promise of Phil Murphy’s, would costs an additional $2 billion per year.

It’s unfair. Teachers accept lower salaries for great benefits, including deferred compensation in the form of pension payments. Yet the pension fund will be drained dry in eight years.

The only salvation is meaningful pension reform which would require a major revamping of the way we pay teachers -- converting deferred compensation to real-time compensation; allowing districts to pay teachers more for hard-to-find specialities like science and special education and less for dime-a-dozen specialities like elementary ed and gym; moving from defined benefits to defined contributions like 401K plans. But try inserting reality into NJEA/Phil Murphy pipedreams. Senate President and erstwhile gubernatorial front-runner Steve Sweeney tried and looked what happened to him.

Here’s an excerpt from Fordham’s analysis of Newark Teacher Union’s pension system in which teachers don’t actually receive more that they put in until they have completed 18 years of service. Fordham call that point the "crossover."
A Newark teacher who leaves after five years of service (or at any point before the vesting point of 10 years) is not eligible to receive pension benefits at all, because she has not vested.. Her pension wealth is zero, and at five years she has contributed $18,893 into the retirement system. 
If she leaves the system with at least 10 years of service, she has now vested and is eligible to start receiving pension benefits once she reaches age 65. Say she separates from the system after 15 years—the average experience of a teacher who leaves the profession.7 Her pension wealth is $65,606, but at this point she has contributed a total of $84,310. Not only has she not yet reached the crossover point, but her pension benefit is worth approximately $19,000 less than her cumulative contributions. 
 After 18 years, a Newark teacher finally reaches the crossover point—meaning her benefits are worth more than her contributions. At that point, she will have contributed a total of $116,767 into the system and can expect lifetime pension wealth accrual worth $117,808. Her net benefit becomes positive, though small ($1,041). 
A 25-year career is longer than most teachers’ careers—fewer than one out of four teachers nationwide stays more than 20 years.8 After 25 years, a Newark teacher’s net benefit is a modest $42,423. (Said another way, the red and green lines in Figure 1 remain close together even after the crossover point.)
The bottom line, says Fordham analysts, is that teachers who begin teaching in Newark Public Schools at age 25 must wait "18 years to reach the crossover point. Teachers who exit the New Jersey retirement system early are financially disadvantaged compared to teachers who remain teaching under the same system much longer—in this case, at least 18 years."

Tell that to mobile  millennials, who will have 15-20 jobs over their lifetimes. If we want to make teaching an attractive career choice for the new generation, we could start by getting rid of old-school pension systems.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Let’s Avoid “Alternative Facts” When We Talk About School Choice and Charter Schools

Over the weekend, Americans were introduced to a new meme: “alternative facts,” Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s awkward rationalization of the president’s reality-challenged worldview.
Well, this may be great shtick for Saturday Night Live but it’s usefulness ends there. So, on this third day of School Choice Week, I’m reminded of the importance of sticking to verifiable facts.
Here’s one: I’m tired of the charter school wars, particularly the skewing of reality on both sides of the battlefield. For example, in New Jersey we have Mark Weber (aka Jersey Jazzman) who claims that charter operators represent “profit-taking, corruption, lack of transparency.” There’s Princeton-based Save Our Schools-NJ, whose lobbyists insist, contrary to data, that New Jersey charters “performed somewhat worse than comparable public schools.”
I’m equally tired of those who insist that charter schools, which gain greater flexibility in exchange for greater accountability (I’m not touching vouchers here) are the answer to all ills that afflict our public education system.
Those committed to improving student outcomes—and I include all of the above in this category—need to find common ground, a goal made more difficult in the current polarizing environment. But we can locate areas of agreement by respecting the most important stakeholders—families in chronically-failing districts—and searching amidst the flummery for reality-based positions.
Here are a few suggestions specific to New Jersey.
  1. Acknowledge that charters are here to stay. Despite calls by New Jersey’s teachers unions and beholden legislators for a moratorium on new charter school approvals, let’s stipulate that this alternative public school sector will expand in response to student demand. Try telling parents in poor cities that their children will be relegated to, say, Camden High School, where last year 2 percent of students reached proficiency in English language arts and 0 percent reached proficiency in math. Would you send your child there?
  2. Help the traditional public schools too. Let’s also agree that the majority of New Jersey students will always be educated in traditional districts and that, while we have some great schools, student outcomes aren’t good enough. (Fact: Only 42 percent of New Jersey students who took the ACT last year met college-readiness benchmarks.) District and charter collaboration offers a strategy that remains untested in this state. Isn’t it worth a try?
  3. Charters need to serve more kids with special needs. Let’s stipulate that most New Jersey charter schools enroll fewer students with severe disabilities and fewer English-language learners, a practice that must end. But let’s also recognize that this is complicated: As the mom of a son with multiple disabilities, I know that in most cases it takes a large school to muster enough students at similar developmental levels and similar educational needs to create appropriate self-contained or inclusive classrooms and New Jersey charter schools tend to be small. District Child Study Teams, at least initially, steer children towards traditional schools. Also, parents of children with disabilities have the option of enrolling, at district expense (but don’t call them vouchers!), in one of the many private special education schools across the state.
    Nonetheless, charter schools must increase enrollment of special needs children. Some are already doing this and others must do so as well. In fact, the New Jersey Education Commissioner recently approved a charter school in Lakewood specifically for children with behavioral disabilities.
  4. Don’t block sensible ideas. New charter regulations proposed by the Christie administration are sensible: allowing the highest-performing charters to hire teachers and principals without traditional certifications, requiring districts to include charter school students on sports teams and permitting weighted lotteries. No charter school leader would hire or retain ineffective teachers, charter schools aren’t big enough to have their own teams, and weighted lotteries advance precepts we all share.
Let’s eschew Trumpy “alternative facts” and, instead, emulate role models like KIPP-New Jersey parent Tafshier Cosby, who recently noted that “parents of traditional public schools and parents of charter schools agree to disagree, yet they recognize that we’re all in this for the same reason: We want the best for our children.”
After all, that’s why we’re here, right?

Friday, January 20, 2017

Fear Not the Four Horsemen: Newark Traditional Schools Are Improving!

Newark Public Schools just announced some news that may startle those who view the expansion of school choice as apocalyptic for children who remain in traditional district schools: student outcomes are improving. According to Superintendent Chris Cerf, NPS administrators are “very encouraged by results that show our students continue to make steady progress.” In fact, according to data released by the district, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding expectations across the district is up six percentage points in English Language Arts and two and a half percent points in math, based on the last round of Common Core-aligned PARCC assessments.

Cerf, however, isn’t ready to celebrate. He cautioned in the district press release that,
many of our schools still have a long way to go. That is why we gathered recommendations from the public last year to determine ways the district can make further progress and are sharing how we are implementing those recommendations. We think it is important we are all on the same page about how we are using this information to continue to improve student learning.
In addition to the improvements in students outcomes, NPS notes that:

  • The vast majority of schools are making progress. PARCC data reveals that 48 of 57 schools are showing improvement in ELA, and 40 of 57 schools are showing improvement in Math.
  • 3 NPS high schools and 5 NPS elementary schools beat the state average in either ELA or Math, or both.
The data should buffet confidence in the strategic plan designed for New Jersey’s largest school district. For more data, see here.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Letter from Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf to Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon

This letter, copied in full below, is from Newark Superintendent Chris Cerf to John Abeigon, President of the Newark Teachers Union. I did not receive this letter from the NPS central office but from someone who wishes to remain anonymous. In this letter Cerf  itemizes his frustrations with Abeigon’s allegedly irresponsible leadership, including manipulating perceptions of union members to improve his chances of winning re-election, failing to bargain the next contract in good faith,  maligning security staff,  lying to the media, being less than transparent about personal compensation, and fighting tenure charges against a teacher who called students “monkeys” and “stupid.”

Superintendent Cerf is clearly passionate about repairing relations with NTU leadership and finalizing a fair contract. I welcome a response from Mr. Abeigon and, if received, will publish it in full.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

My Take on the Betsy DeVos Hearing: Paging Blanche DuBois

I’ve tried to be open-minded about Trump’s nominee for Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos. Many people I respect view her as a potentially powerful voice for school choice and, I reasoned, at least she’s no Jeff Sessions. But last night just slayed me. Senator Al Franken’s elicitation of her lack of understanding between growth and proficiency, her disdain for gun-free school zones (in front of a Newtown representative, no less)), her view of sexual assault on campuses, her refusal to assure Sen. Tim Kaine that she would hold all schools that receive public funds -- traditional, public charter, private, parochial -- to the same standards of accountability: Shall we count the ways she equivocated on civil rights, equity, safety, and basic comprehension of pressing educational matters?

But the killer for me was DeVos’ complete ignorance of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA.

Now, to be clear, I’m a special pleader. My younger son has multiple disabilities stemming from a genetic mutation called Fragile X Syndrome.  Without IDEA -- a 1975 federal law that mandates that every state must provide every child eligible for special education services with a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” -- my son’s school district, under the canopy of local control, could have shut him out. Without the federal oversight and state accountability inscribed in No Child Left Behind and its offspring the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA), my son’s potential for academic growth could have been ignored because he wouldn’t count in annual reports of student proficiency.

DeVos’ limited understanding of IDEA seems to presage a global ignorance of the role of the federal government in ensuring accountability for special needs kids, as well as other traditionally-disenfranchised groups like low-income students, students of color, and English Language Learners. To borrow Tennessee Williams’ tagline for Blanche DuBois, DeVos would leave them dependent on the kindness of strangers.

From Politico’s summary of last evening’s hearing:
DeVos shocked some education policy wonks tonight when she suggested that states should decide when schools must comply with requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. 
DeVos later she said she “may have” been confused about the federal law. 
The discussion began when Sen. Tim Kaine asked DeVos whether all schools that receive taxpayer funding should be required to meet the requirements of special education law. 
“I think that is a matter better left to the states,” DeVos responded. 
The exchange prompted gasps from some watching the confirmation. Sen. Maggie Hassan then followed up, noting that IDEA is federal law and “federal law must be followed where federal dollars are in play.” 
“Were you unaware that it is federal law?” Hassan asked. 
“I may have confused it,” DeVos said.
“I may have confused it”? Seriously? I almost felt sorry for her, sent into the lion’s den of a Congressional hearing without (apparently) any preparation for answering basic questions about how she would lead the U.S. Department of Education.

I keep flashing on a scene from the movie Game Change, adapted from the book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann about John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.  Nicole Wallace, who is assigned to manage Sarah Palin, confronts Steve Schmidt, John McCain’s Senior Campaign Strategist, after she discovers that Palin is grossly ignorant about basic foreign and domestic policy. Schmidt admits that Palin wasn’t properly vetted and is, in fact, a disaster for the campaign.

DeVos isn’t a disaster for Trump. She’ll almost certainly be confirmed and, remarkably, is one of his more moderate nominees. I don’t care that she’s rich or that she sent her kids to private school. I assume that someone will enlighten her on educational policy, the role of the federal government, and her responsibility for upholding ESSA and other federal mandates like IDEA.

But, yet, I can’t help but think about my son and his grim prospects without the role of federal intervention. I can’t help but think about DeVos’ evangelism for states’ rights and local control. Do we really want to live in a country where one state can opt to stick special needs kids in the attic while another state embraces them, a world where children with disabilities are dependent upon the kindness of strangers?

Not me.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Guest Post:The Taxpayer-Funded One-Percenters of NJEA

At an August 8, 2016, protest in Trenton organized by New Jersey’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the public union Communications Workers of America, stood in solidarity with the NJEA and declared that “we don’t just stand for our members, but for the 99 percent who demand an economic system that doesn’t give all the benefit to the one percent.”

The assembled NJEA members cheered.  Little did they know they were condemning their own leadership.  That’s right: according to NJEA’s latest tax filings, the highest compensated employees of the NJEA have an average compensation that puts them well into the top one percent of New Jersey earners.

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute determined that in 2013 a worker would have to earn $548,000 to be in the top one percent of earners in New Jersey.  The other 99% earned an average of $57,000.  Nationwide, it took $389,000 to be a “one-percenter,” while the average for the 99% was $46,000.

According to NJEA’s 2013 federal tax filings, the 11 highest compensated NJEA employees averaged total compensation of $582,000 for the year.  All but one of the 11 are in the top one percent nationwide (the one outlier barely missed at $358,000), and five are in the top one percent in New Jersey.  Each of those five had compensation of $658,000 or more and averaged $760,000, placing them even higher among New Jersey’s one-percenters.

(Click on image above for full view. Or look yourself here on page 80.)

Also revealing is the fact that in 2013 the elected officers of the NJEA — the president, the past-president and the vice president — were among the lowest paid of the NJEA leaders. The top five were all on the NJEA professional staff in the Executive Office or in UniServ (a network of state-level NJEA political professionals providing services to local affiliates). Vince Giordano, a past Executive Director led the pack at $899,000. Rounding out the top five were Edward Richardson, the current Executive Director, at $704,000; Rich Gray, Assistant Executive Director, at $721,000; Zella Felzenberg, Assistant Director of Uniserv, at $658,000; and Information Systems manager Bruce Ionno at $818,000. The fact that all but Ionno are political pros tells all you need to know about NJEA’s priorities.

To put those earnings in perspective, on average, the 11 highest compensated NJEA employees earned over 10 times what a New Jersey “ninety-nine-percenter” earned.  The top five earned over 13 times more.  The average New Jersey teacher earned about $69,000 in 2013, so the 11 NJEA bosses averaged almost 8.5 times what the average teacher made and the top five averaged over 11 times more.

So when NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer decries “income inequality” in New Jersey, does he mean the inequality between NJEA leadership and New Jersey teachers and citizens?  When he criticizes policies that benefit the wealthy over “the needs of the middle class,” does he have his “one-percenter” NJEA colleagues in mind?

The combined 2013 compensation for all 11 of NJEA’s highest compensated employees came to $6,400,000.  That’s a lot of union dues out of the pockets of hard-working teachers averaging over 11 times less than their top bosses — teachers whose dues are automatically withheld from their paychecks by local districts.  And that’s a lot of taxpayer dollars from the 99% of New Jersey citizens who average over 13 times less.

The fact is that middle-class New Jerseyans are footing the hefty bill for the NJEA’s “one-percenters.” Maybe that helps explain why New Jersey teachers pay the third-highest dues in the country and New Jersey taxpayers pay the highest property taxes.

So the next time a teacher sees her paycheck take a big cut to pay her dues or a citizen bemoans his sky-high property taxes, remember that $6,400,000 of them are going to NJEA’s own “one-percenters.”

Mike Lilley is an Adjunct Scholar with the American Enterprise Institute and former Executive Director of Better Education for New Jersey Kids.This piece was originally posted at AEIIdeas.

Friday, January 6, 2017

White Suburban Parents Protest Educational Rights of Black Urban Parents

Look at this picture. What do you see? A group of (almost all) white suburban people in front of the New Jersey Statehouse protesting the expansion -- indeed, the existence -- of public charter schools. As a white suburban N.J. resident I’m a bad proxy for urban parents of color, particularly those relegated to long-failing school districts who rely on (or wait for) seats in high-performing charter schools. So let them speak for themselves.

First, a little context.

The N.J. Board of Education is considering several regulatory changes to the state’s twenty-two year old charter law. These changes would allow the highest-performing charters to hire teachers without traditional certification who have Bachelor’s degrees, 3.0 GPA’s, demonstrate content knowledge and/or have classroom experience. Principals wouldn’t need Master’s degrees and hiring requirements for Business Administrators would be relaxed. In addition, some charter school students would be able to join sports teams in traditional schools and charters would be allowed  to hold weighted lotteries to give economically-disadvantaged students better odds of enrollment.

That’s the original purpose of charters, right? To serve as “incubators of innovation.” Why not try this out?

Well, you can imagine how NJEA and its allied organization Save Our Schools-NJ feel about this. Hence, the rally pictured above. According to NJ Spotlight,  those who oppose these new regulations came “from suburban communities like Highland Park [61% White/Asian] and Princeton [81% White/Asian]."

Media coverage focused on the voices of the protesters. So, in the interest of equal time, here are some of the voices and testimony of pro-charter parents who can’t afford to buy their way into districts like Highland Park and Princeton, as well as a few voices of teachers and administrators who work in NJ charter schools. These quotes come from NJ Spotlight, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Facebook page of Hands Off Our Future Collective.

Nicole Appice Davis, mom of two children in the HoLa Hoboken Dual Language Charter School, a school with a weighted enrollment for low-income and special needs kids. She "countered the claim that the school was causing more segregation in her city." (Irony alert: a primary talking point of the Princeton/Highland Park contingent is that charter schools increase segregation in communities they'd never live in and districts they'd never send their kids to.)
HoLa Hoboken has changed my life and for my children in the best way possible. Please take serious consideration into seeing the school for yourself and speaking with us before making drastic decisions to shut us out. The public schools in Hoboken are more segregated than they will admit. I've seen with my own eyes, and I'm friends with a lot of the disadvantaged kids who attend the public schools and sad to say, they are far from diverse as ours is.
Natasha Levant, Newark charter school mom:
I need her to be in a safe environment and receive a good education. She’s in ninth grade now. I still can’t send her to her neighborhood school and feel that she is in a safe environment and receive a high-quality education so I sent her to North Star [an Uncommon School].
Lunedar Girault, Newark charter school mom: 
To say that charter schools are segregated is disrespectful to the historical facts and to the whole community. We are not segregated Our children will actually be well-educated. They’ll learn. They’ll go to college. As far as what the Board is proposing, I support everything.
Karen Johnson, Newark charter school mom:
I drafted why I choose a Charter School, sent a few text messages, silently prayed. I know and understood the importance of advocating for my child’s education BUT at the school with the teachers and school leaders. My first time speaking in front of NJBOE. I was NERVOUS and SHAKEN. 
Haneef Auguste, Newark charter school dad: 
I have a son right now who is in college with a full scholarship. As far as being segregated, it’s not true. I went to school in Newark. I never saw any white kids. The problem isn’t segregation. The problem is that the traditional school wants to be able to do what our charter schools do. But they can’t because of the bureaucracy.
Cynthia Leger, administrator at North Star:
Less than 10% of low-income students graduate from college. Our students at North Star graduate at five times that rate.
Ian Fallstich, administrator at STEM charter school in Jersey City:
He “told board members the school was struggling to find qualified candidates and needed to move quickly to hire qualified candidates, some of whom have Ph.D.s or have taught at community colleges, but don't have certification to teach in public schools.”
Kyle Rosenkrans of KIPP NJ: 
 I'm glad people are seeing the disgusting garbage that gets said about charter school teachers.
Crystal [last name unknown], charter school mom:
“Awesome North Star mom talking about how important her school is to her and her community. She is disappointed in suburban parents trying to curb her children's access to a great education.”

 Altorice Frazier, Newark charter school dad: 
I’m a parent of two children who go to charter schools. I’m on the KIPP NJ Board. It gets emotional because we keep coming down here listening to everyone else who knows the answers to what our children need.  I work with average kids every day. I know the prison pipeline and I  know black education and I know the kids and I know how they feel about their schools and their community. To see experts tell us how it is -- I’m emotional and I’m mad right  now -- and listening to people call us names...Who’s our kids’ first teachers? We are our kids first teachers. I’m confused about how this is going. We’re not puppets. I’m an involved parent. Look, man, I served thirteen years in prison. I’m no one’s follower.  I’m a parent who’s not going to be told what to do and how to do it. I’m finished.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

NJEA Front Office Staff Pensions Are Secure. Regular Teachers? Not so Much.

The New Jersey Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) will be drained dry on June 30th, 2027, about eleven and a half years from now. This means that younger teachers who have been  faithfully making their mandated contributions towards deferred compensation funding will be kicked to the curb. No politician or economist -- looking at you, Phil Murphy -- can possibly contrive a scheme to replenish TPAF without dramatic reforms, including concessions from beneficiaries.

But conditions are not nearly as dire in New Jersey Education Association’s s front office.

The numbers for post-2027 retiring teachers out in the field are grim. Experts concur that healthy pension funds should be funded at about 80% of liability but the TPAF  is currently funded at 28.7% of its total liability of  $55.4 billion. You can’t lay this quagmire solely at the feet of Chris Christie because  the history of NJ’s pension disaster is far longer than two terms, dating at least as far as 1992 when Governor Jim Florio rashly overestimated returns on investments in order to balance the budget, to 1994 when  Governor Christine Whitman  borrowed money to make pension payments, to 2001 when Governor Donald DiFrancesco gifted a 9% increase in pension pay-outs to state employees by inflating the value of available funds. And so on.

But how about the pensions of  teacher union leaders? You’d think they’d be at the mercy of TPAF, just like those they represent,  but -- surprise! -- they’re not. According to a guest post up at John Bury's blog  Bury Pensions, the head honchos at NJEA protect their own pensions through a far more reliable source than TPAF. Here’s an example, courtesy of Mr. Bury.

Edward Richardson is Executive Director of NJEA and, according to Column D of  NJEA’s 2015 990, made $233,688 the previous year. But Column  F, the last column of NJEA's 990, adds additional compensation, which the IRS says is “compensation other than reportable compensation, including deferred compensation not currently reportable on Form W-2, box 1 or 5 or Form 1099-MISC, box 7, and certain nontaxable benefits, as discussed in detail in the instructions for Schedule J, (Form 990), Part II.”

Mr. Richardson’s Column F totals $470,239, which Bury concludes is a combination of “the value of benefit accruals under the Defined Benefit Plan and contributions under the 401(k) Plan that the NJEA maintains for its employees."

How healthy is the fund that will supply retirement benefits for Mr. Richardson and his colleagues? It is funded at almost 130% of liabilities. Compare that NJEA members’ 28%.

To paraphrase George Orwell, all educators are equal but some educators are more equal than others.