|8-29-12 Education Issues in the News|
The Record: School funding 101... The point of merging public services, whether it be in the realm of firefighting, sanitation or schools, is so that taxes, in general, will be held in check for everyone. The current school regionalization formula does not come close to meeting that standard.
Tuesday, August 21, 2012
THE CONCEPT of the regional education system for local school districts in New Jersey has been around for decades. But as a rift widening within one North Jersey district indicates, it is time to stop tinkering and to get around to the business of reshaping the law altogether.
What may have started out as a sensible plan with good intentions — to lessen the tax burden on residents of clusters of towns with shared geographic proximity — has descended, in many cases, into civil wars, pitting town against town and taxpayer against taxpayer.
The fairness of the current funding formula, based on property values and not student enrollment, is at the center of a legal confrontation between two Bergen County towns, Oradell and River Edge. Those two towns help form the River Dell Regional School District, created in 1956. As Staff Writer Rebecca O'Brien reports, that district is now embroiled in a legal battle between the two towns, the outcome of which could go a long way in determining the future of the regional system.
Certainly, many if not most of the state's 70 regional districts have managed to maintain, over the years, the same cohesive spirit with which they were formed. Yet you don't have to look far to find others that are seemingly at loggerheads that will not be overcome simply by negotiation between towns.
The River Dell district is an example of just how fast these regional education marriages can go bad. The fissure is most easily seen in the sheer numbers, dollar amounts each town currently pays into the system. Last year, Oradell, where property values are slightly higher, paid $20,360 for every student it sent to River Dell. River Edge, where property values were not as high, contributed $14,330 for each student.
That's in keeping with the statewide formula: Towns with higher property values are expected to carry a greater financial load for the district. On paper, it sounds fair enough, yet towns like Oradell are beginning to balk at what they perceive as an unfair burden. The Manchester Regional High School District in Passaic County is another district that's been locked in a similar dispute since 2004, when North Haledon, which also has the highest property values, tried to leave a district that also includes Haledon and Prospect Park.
Perhaps the most troubling example of the problems with the formula is down the Shore, where residents of Harvey Cedars this year will be expected to pay $240,775 for each of the nine students it sends to a combined district in Ocean County. Stafford Township, by contrast, will pay roughly $4,000 a head for its 2,300 students to attend the same school district.
If the formula can get so far out of whack within a single district, then it needs to be reconsidered by both the Christie administration and the Legislature. These mini-civil wars cannot go on. The controversies may also have served to sour other communities on the idea of regionalization altogether.
The point of merging public services, whether it be in the realm of firefighting, sanitation or schools, is so that taxes, in general, will be held in check for everyone. The current school regionalization formula does not come close to meeting that standard.
Investigations of teachers and administrators helping their students cheat on state achievement tests remain disconcerting and discouraging -- especially when they occur as close to home as Woodbridge and other local districts.
Some of these cases are relatively decisive. A high-profile investigation in Atlanta implicated dozens of teachers and administrators and ultimately took down the district superintendent.
But there are murkier outcomes. An investigation into New Jersey’s own Camden schools, where cheating was never proven outright, led to a settlement last year with the whistleblower -- a district principal -- and left lots of unanswered questions
Now comes the latest news that the state Department of Education is actively investigating more than a dozen districts, including those in Woodbridge, where this week five teachers and administrators were suspended by the local board. And the stakes seem to be rising for both the cops and the alleged perpetrators.
“The quality and integrity of data is of utmost importance to each of us educators across New jersey,” said Chris Cerf, the state’s education commissioner, in his release of the first investigative reports this month.
Of course, state commissioners have always said they takes test security seriously, and the security is indeed intense on state tests when they arrive and leave schools -- even shrink wrap to prevent tampering.
But New Jersey several years ago upped the stakes considerably through two actions: the hiring of a former state police investigator to be its compliance director and the long-delayed use of sophisticated analysis to scan for possible cheating.
The bulk of the cases involved in the latest sweep rely on so-called erasure analysis, in which computers can scan for answers changed from wrong to right at abnormally high rates. In 2011 the state’s first erasure report raised questions about more than 30 schools; this year's investigation implicated another 15 schools.
State officials stress that these tests are not determinants of guilt, and a dozen schools named last year were ultimately cleared this year. But specific indicators, such as when answers appear to be changed from wrong to right by as much as four times the average, raise a red flag.
From there, the state’s compliance office descends on a school and starts asking questions and checking procedures. Experts say it is often direct witnesses who then make the ultimate case.
At the Ross Street Elementary School in Woodbridge, one of those cited for abnormal erasures in its third grade class, other irregularities were soon uncovered and witnesses started talking, according to a detailed report released by the state yesterday.
For instance, one unusual testing strategy cited was what the school staff referred to as “active monitoring,” led by the school’s principal, Sharon Strack. Witnesses said she would coach proctors to tell students to go back over answers that they saw were wrong, according to the report.
Several of the witnesses said they refused, and others said they saw Stack herself take up the practice directly. “On one occasion, Ms. Strack was observed to look over a child’s shoulder and point to an answer, stating ‘go back and do that one again,' ” read the report.
That brings in the questions of the motivations of the adults being questioned, where state tests have long carried high stakes for schools in deeming them successful or not.
State officials have said it remains a question of ethics, and no matter the stakes, a vast majority of teachers and administrators would not step over the line under any circumstances.
But others wonder about the added pressure that will come as teachers and principals start to be judged individually on their students’ scores, where even their tenure could hang in the balance. The role of test scores in teacher ratings was a prominent debate in the recent revamping of the state’s tenure laws.
The New Jersey Education Association said yesterday that it would provide legal assistance to the three teachers in Woodbridge, and with more investigations to come elsewhere, their lawyers could be busy.
But an NJEA executive also said that the added weight of testing on educators’ fates has only helped contribute to the problem.
“We've seen story after story -- Washington, D.C. and Atlanta come immediately to mind -- where the obsession with higher test scores can lead to the wrong outcome,” said Steve Wollmer, communications director for the union.
“That's yet another reason why tying teachers' very careers to test scores is an ill-conceived public policy.”
Garden State Coalition of Schools