A Shot at Re-Relevancy For Education Law Center

What's going on at Education Law Center, N.J.'s preeminent advocate for poor urban schoolchildren? ELC’s ethos is educational equity and closing the achievement gap, setting up a seemingly seamless collaboration with the federal Race To The Top competition and the education reform movement. However, ELC seems to be positioning itself as anti- reform and pro-status quo. An article in the Star-Ledger two weeks ago cites cranky ELC Executive Director David Sciarra on N.J.’s RTTT prospects: "I think it is going to be a big challenge. We don’t have a lot of time to bring people together, lay out a substantive game plan and get the stakeholders to support it.” Implicit: we’re one of the stakeholders and we’re not on board.

Now, Sciarra’s right about Jersey’s ragtag efforts. The NJ DOE is way behind the eight ball on application completion for a host of reasons. (Take your pick: a) Lucille Davy and Corzine sat on the application after Corzine lost; b) Corzine wanted to offer a final sop to NJEA; c) Christie’s transition team told Davy to bag it since we’d never get in a competitive application by the Jan. 19th deadline.) But it’s more than timing. After all, there would seem to be no better poster child for education reform than N.J. After years of court-ordered cash compensation to economically disadvantaged urban school districts, the numbers are grim. Match up any Abbott district (ELC’s advocatees) and a wealthy district. Arbitrary example: East Orange and Franklin Lakes. At East Orange’s John Costley Middle School, 49% of 8th graders failed the ASK8 in Language Arts. At Franklin Lakes' Franklin Avenue Middle School, 5.8% of 8th graders failed the ASK8 in Language Arts. Our state is liberally peppered with such juxtapositions, and ELC has been fighting such inequity for more than a quarter of a century.

Yet ELC consistently allies itself with opponents of reform and puts itself in the odd position of defending a status quo that deprives educational opportunity to the children it's fighting for. Some head-scratching yields some possible explanations for the organization’s self-defeating animosity. Feel free to chime in.

1) It's All About Funding:
ELC is married to the mindset that funneling huge amounts of cash to our poorest urban districts leads to higher academic achievement for children, in spite of dismal test results and graduation rates. The passage of Corzine's School Funding Reform Act last year, which reverses the Abbott decisions and allocates funding regardless of zip code, was a big blow to ELC. It's now determined to prove, when SFRA is evaluated, that the loss of funds or, at best, flat funding of Abbott districts, is a constitutional and ethical violation. This fixation on funding, independent of accountability, has overtaken ELC’s more general mission of advocating for educational gains for poor children and ignited ELC's formal criticism of RTTT and its request (disregarded) that the Feds reject N.J.’s application for ARRA funding.

2) ELC is Watching NJEA's Back:
ELC seems to have a cozy relationship with executives at NJEA, who are not fans of RTTT. One of its Trustees is Vince Giordano, former Executive Director of NJEA, and many other members have ties to the union leadership. NJEA execs met with Arne Duncan two weeks ago to discuss "concerns" about RTTT, specifically provisions that tie data systems to teacher performance and mandate expansion of charter schools.

3) A RTTT purse will force N.J. to close many Abbott schools:
RTTT (not to mention NCLB/ESEA) clearly stipulates that chronically failing schools be restructured, closed, and/or replaced with charter schools. A long list of schools in Abbott districts are in their 6th, 7th, or even 8th years on NCLB's list of Schools in Need of Improvement. All would be vulnerable to closure if N.J. received an RTTT award.

Here's what's sad: ELC has a long, proud history of speaking out for poor urban kids stuck in chronically failing schools. This morally-centered organization has become spin-centered. It’s website features a press release emblazoned “N.J. Sweeps the Educational Oscars” that echoes NJEA’s innumerate defense of NAEP test scores. (Tell that to the kids in East Orange.) Another press release touts New Brunswick High School (construction just wrapped up at $180 million) where half of 11th graders fail the standardized test in math. Isn’t it time for ELC to concede that N.J.’s noble experiment in cash-driven school reform has failed and that RTTT offers some exciting educational opportunities for our neediest kids? Such a shift in rhetoric and strategy could make ELC relevant again.

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