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8-3-12 Education & Related Issues in the News Today

NJSpotlight - Ruiz Puts Special Education at the Top of Her Next Agenda…After tenure victory, senator concerned with ways to better serve the 200,000 children with disabilities in New Jersey schools

The Record - N.J.'s deputy education commissioner is stepping down

NJ Spot light - Opinion: Playing Politics - Politicizing the High Court…Over the past decade, the Court has been filled by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- not simply by Justices by Michael Aron

NPR - Documents Detail Christie Administration's Plan for School Reform



NJSpotlight - Ruiz Puts Special Education at the Top of Her Next Agenda…After tenure victory, senator concerned with ways to better serve the 200,000 children with disabilities in New Jersey schools


By John Mooney, August 3, 2012 in Education|1 Comment

Fresh from winning unprecedented passage of a new tenure reform bill for New Jersey, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz is next taking on an issue that is no less vexed: special education.

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Ruiz will hold a hearing next Thursday before the Senate education committee that she chairs, asking educators, advocates, and policy makers to discuss the system that now serves 200,000 children with disabilities in virtually every school in the state.

It’s a massive topic that spans everything from parental rights to racial segregation, and from classroom practices to taxpayer funding. And Ruiz said yesterday she wanted to learn as much as she can from the more than dozen guests she has invited.

“I’m looking for an open and frank discussion about special education in New Jersey,” Ruiz said yesterday. “What are we doing, what are we doing right, what can we be better about?”

One of the advocates who met with Ruiz and about a dozen others in July to prepare for the hearing said the senator had issued a challenge to those in the room.

“She asked for easy fixes to problems that are out there that will make a big difference on people’s lives,” said Brenda Considine, a longtime advocate and coordinator for a 15-year-old group known as the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform. It includes many of the major special education and disability rights groups in the state.

“Unfortunately, it’s a system that is so complicated and problems so deep rooted that we’re struggling to come up with easy answers,” she said.

Still, Considine said there are both short-term and long-term issues that could use legislative attention. One that her coalition has pushed is a moratorium on new public special education schools, an ever-growing sector -- especially the county and regional levels.

“Put a moratorium on any new ones, and let’s spend the money instead to help build capacity at the local level,” Considine said. “That’s a pretty quick fix.”

There is some limit as to the influence of the Legislature on special education policy in the first place, much of it driven by federal law and then regulations set by the state Board of Education.

Still, there are steps the legislature can take to make a big difference, from how state aid is distributed to the balance of power between parents and districts. In 2008, for instance, New Jersey’s Legislature passed a law that placed the so-called “burden of proof” in special education disputes on school districts, offsetting a federal court precedent that had placed it on parents.

Parental rights were one issue that Ruiz said she wanted to at least learn more about, with the hope of helping families who are sometimes overwhelmed by the system.

“I hear this directly from families, where they feel like they need to become attorneys for their children,” she said.

This is not the only stab that the Legislature is taking at special education, with Ruiz and state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) proposing a law to create a new 17-member task force to study a number of issues around the topic, including the financing and high expense of special education programs.

“Numerous inconsistencies have been uncovered in special education programs throughout the state,” Beck said earlier this summer in promoting the bill.

“Millions of dollars are being wasted every year on inefficient and ineffective special education programs,” she said in a press release. “Every student is valuable and deserves the best we can provide, but this can be accomplished in a much more efficient manner.”

The bill passed the Senate unanimously in June, but remains pending in the Assembly.

Such task forces are hardly new, but Ruiz’s new focus is still catching some attention, since she has proven herself the Democrats’ inarguable leader on education issues.

In June, she was chief architect of a new tenure system for teachers and principal that won a rare unanimous approval of both the Assembly and Senate. Gov. Chris Christie has said he will sign the measure, although has yet to do so.

Ruiz said there are also other topics she hopes to take on in the coming months, including improving, if not rewriting, the state’s charter school law.

Another new issue she said she wants to begin exploring is teacher preparation, which she called a natural offshoot of her tenure proposal. That will include what is required of teachers before they become teachers to the training required once on the job, she said.

“I don’t think anything is taking precedent over anything else,” Ruiz said, when asked about her top priorities. All of these issues need to be addressed.”

The Record - N.J.'s deputy education commissioner is stepping down

Thursday August 2, 2012, 5:57 PM



Almost as soon as New Jersey’s Department of Education got an official leader in the No. 1 spot, it lost its No. 2.

Deputy Commissioner Andy Smarick said Thursday he is stepping down next week to join Bellweather Education Partners, a non-profit group that aims to improve outcomes for low-income students. His announcement came days after his boss, Chris Cerf, was confirmed as commissioner after serving in that role on an acting basis for 18 months.

Smarick, 36, said he is leaving a job he loves because he needs more time with his family – he has newborn twins and his oldest child just turned 2. He was pulling some 70-hour work weeks, and while he was mulling how he would balance his duties at home with his responsibilities in Trenton, everyone around him was talking about a recent article by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” That essay caused a firestorm of debate about why many women feel compelled to curtail ambitious careers to tend to their families and whether employers should be more flexible.

“I was reading it at a time when work-life issues were at the front of my mind,” Smarick said. “Much more falls on women but I felt as a dad and husband and professional I was pulled in multiple directions as well. I’m a big believer in the saying ‘you can have it all,’ but you can’t have it all at the same time.”

He said his next job, doing research and policy analysis for the think-tank arm of Bellweather, is a “great opportunity.” His wife, who does research for the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, is home with their children now.

After joining the Department of Education two years ago, Smarick helped launch a pilot project to overhaul teacher evaluations statewide, revise accountability rules and expand charter schools. It was unclear whether anyone would be named to fill the deputy’s post.

Smarick came to New Jersey after serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and as an education aide at the White House. He said he stopped posting his views on Twitter when he came to New Jersey because the department should speak with a single voice. He pledged to start again on his last day in Trenton.

“The long national nightmare his over,” he tweeted Thursday. “I return to tweeting on Aug 10.”

Email brody@northjersey.com. Twitter @lesliebrody

NJ Spot light - Opinion: Playing Politics -- Politicizing the High Court…Over the past decade, the Court has been filled by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents -- not simply by Justices by Michael Aron

By Michael Aron, August 3, 2012 in Opinion

When I started covering New Jersey politics and government, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we didn’t ask what political party a state Supreme Court Justice belonged to. The person was a Justice; that’s what counted.

Today, anyone who follows the state scene can probably tell you that Stuart Rabner and Barry Albin are Democrats, Helen Hoens and Anne Patterson are Republicans, and Jaynee LaVecchia is an independent. Over the past decade or so, the Court has become politicized.

What does that mean exactly? To me it means two things: 1) we think of the justices more in terms of their party affiliation, at least as it existed in their backgrounds, and 2) we think that justices who have not yet achieved “lifetime” tenure are more likely to shy away from a particular position for fear of offending the governor or legislators and thus jeopardizing that tenure.

This is not all Gov. Chris Christie’s fault. But he plays a substantial role in it. His decision not to reappoint Justice John Wallace was like a body blow to the Court’s sense of itself as a tribunal generally free of politics and insulated from the power of the other branches.

Denied Tenure

Wallace was the first justice in the modern era to be denied tenure. Christie’s position was that while Wallace himself may not have been a liberal activist, he was part of a Court that had delivered liberal activist opinions, and the governor was sending a message that he wanted to remake the Court into something more moderate or conservative.

I remember being surprised to hear Christie say that he and Wallace had sat at a University of Delaware football game together, that both were Blue Hen alumni, and that he liked the man. He just didn’t like the Court the man was part of. It was a sign of how seriously Christie took the mission of remaking the Court. That Wallace was the Court’s only African-American justice only added to the reaction at the time of … “He did what?”

What happened next is well-known. The Senate, run by Democrats, refused to hold a hearing on Christie’s nominee to replace Wallace, Anne Patterson, for 15 months. Sweeney wouldn’t allow Patterson to take Wallace’s seat until Wallace’s 70th birthday, when it would have become vacant anyway. Only when Justice Roberto Rivera-Soto stepped down early did Sweeney agree to lift the ban on Patterson. She could take the Rivera-Soto seat if confirmed. Christie went along with that.

But then the governor nominated Philip Kwon and Bruce Harris to fill the Wallace seat and that of the soon-to-be-70 Justice Virginia Long. The Senate waited a long time before holding confirmation hearings, rejecting first Kwon and then two months later Harris. It was the first time in the modern era that the Senate failed to confirm a governor’s High Court nominee, and it happened twice in a season.

Kwon was rejected because of his family’s financial practices but also because Democratic senators felt he was a closet Republican masquerading as an independent. Harris was rejected because of a feeling that he wasn’t of sufficient stature for the Court but also because he was a registered Republican, and by this point the Senate was seeing partisan stripes on High Court nominees. Long and Wallace were Democrats. Kwon and Harris were “Republicans.” The Republican Patterson had replaced the Republican Rivera-Soto, so Democratic senators felt Christie was trying to pack the Court 5 to 2.

Suddenly, the status of Justice Jaynee LaVecchia became part of the argument. She’s an independent! cried the governor and his Republican allies. She was appointed by Governor Whitman, replied the Democrats, and served in two Republican administrations! We in the press corps were all seeing partisan stripes and writing about them.

Simultaneously, the entire judicial branch, led by the Supreme Court, was trying to have judges exempted from the new Pension and Benefits Reform Act. Instead of 3 percent of salary, judges would have to pay 12 percent toward their pensions and more also for their health coverage. It was a Superior Court judge, Paul DePasquale, who filed the challenge, but you had to believe Chief Justice Rabner either signed off on it or gave it his tacit blessing. When Judge Linda Feinberg sided with the judiciary at the trial level, Gov. Christie laid into her with all of the bile he is capable of, calling her self-interested and money-hungry like the rest of the judges.

Rabner recused himself from the decision released in July that upheld Judge Feinberg. Christie arched an eyebrow about that, as he had over Rabner recusing himself on last year’s school funding decision. The relations between these two would make a great story someday, if it could ever be learned. Fast friends at the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Christie recommending Rabner to Gov. Corzine as a chief counsel. Then each of them going their different ways and clashing as the leaders of the executive and judicial branches.

Constitutional Protection

The High Court ruling last month that said judges are constitutionally protected from higher pension and benefits contributions was 3 to 2. The two dissenters were the Republicans Hoens and Patterson. Neither of them has come up for tenure yet. They sided with the governor and legislature, who will determine whether they get reconfirmed. LaVecchia and Albin, who sided with the judges, both have tenure, and the third vote was by a temporary justice, Dorothea Wefing. It looked almost as if those who need to please the governor did so, and those who don’t didn’t. While I don’t believe that to be the case, the result could be construed that way.

So again, we are looking at the partisan stripes on our justices. Again, I don’t think this began with Chris Christie. It probably began with "Democratic State Committee v. Samson," the highly controversial case in 2002 in which the State Supreme Court allowed the state Democratic party to substitute Frank Lautenberg for Bob Torricelli on the November ballot after the statutory deadline had passed. That bred disenchantment among Republicans with Chief Justice Deborah Poritz, a Whitman appointee who had also served in two Republican administrations. She was already under GOP suspicion for her selection of Larry Bartels of Princeton University as tie-breaker in the legislative reapportionment following the 2000 census, and Bartels’ siding with the Democrats. Her Republican bona fides faded even more after the Supreme Court allowed Gov. McGreevey to borrow money without voter approval, outlawing it going forward but allowing it for one year more. Poritz was a closet liberal, most Republicans concluded. The Torricelli switcheroo came to occupy the same place in New Jersey political lore as Bush v. Gore occupies in the national story --a pivotal, consequential, and unforgettable ruling.

Now the governor has two more nominations to make, for the seats Harris and Kwon would have taken. It’s been reported that one of those will be Lee Solomon, former BPU President under Christie, former Republican assemblyman, currently and once before a Superior Court judge.


Politically this is a brilliant and unassailable choice. Solomon's been confirmed by the Senate four times before! Why Christie didn’t select him the first time around, one has to wonder; the only thing he doesn’t have that Harris and Kwon did is “diversity.” Christie believed he was fulfilling Steve Sweeney’s request for minority representation when he nominated a Korean and a gay black man (on the day before a big gay marriage vote in the senate, which added another “political” element to the stew). He would probably say that’s why he didn’t think of Solomon back then, that Sweeney hadn’t asked for another white guy or a Jew from South Jersey.

The big question is, will Christie also nominate a Democrat? Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Nick Scutari is insisting on that, as other Democratic senators appear to be. And will it be a package deal---two nominations at the same time? Christie is only saying that it’s his right two appoint two Republicans, because that would make the Court 4-2-and one independent, LaVecchia. Democrats are saying it’s got to be a Democrat because LaVecchia counts as a Republican and a 5-2 Court violates the tradition of party balance on the 7-person Court.

Back in 1986 when Gov. Tom Kean renominated Robert Wilentz as Chief Justice, and fought for him, despite having called Wilentz’s Mt. Laurel II decision “communistic,” no one was counting heads as they do today. Kean was a Republican, Wilentz a Democrat, but the fight was about where Wilentz lived and how he ruled, not about party affiliation.

Maybe I’m getting old, but it all seems more petty and slightly disrespectful now. Justices like Alan Handler, Stewart Pollock, Daniel O’Hern, Gary Stein, and Marie Garibaldi had the same backgrounds as today’s justices but somehow seemed less tainted by party affiliation. Okay, I’m definitely getting old, but the Court is also more “politicized,” as defined at the top of this column.

I guess that’s what happens when you try to remake an institution as respected but delicate as the New Jersey Supreme Court. Political tension is the byproduct.

More in Opinion »

Michael Aron is chief political correspondent of NJTV and vice president for news and public affairs at the Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting.


NPR - Documents Detail Christie Administration's Plan for School Reform

Thursday, August 02, 2012


The New Jersey Department of Education is moving forward with a reform plan for the state’s lowest performing schools by using private money from a California-based foundation.

The proposed plan calls for school closures, state operation of failing schools and elimination of union representation in schools that do not improve after sustained efforts to raise student performance.

Documents released this week by the Education Law Center in Newark detail what the Christie administration is planning to do with the schools that serve a majority of the state’s poorest school children. But the N.J. Department of Education cautions that the proposals are merely a work in progress that will all come before the legislature and an updated plan is a more accurate reflection of the direction it’s taking.

The documents were obtained through the state’s open public records law. They detail a grant proposal to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which promotes education reform through “entrepreneurial philanthropy” that favors charter schools, corporate-style management and increased competition.

“Schools will be freed from the district's collective bargaining agreement and the school's operator will have control over personnel decisions,” according to a draft document called School Turnaround Proposal. It says it’s pending legislation, and confidential.

The proposal also calls for private contractors to take over failing schools if initial efforts are not successful.

“For staff members not retained by the operator, the state will pay, for one year, the cost of those employees' salaries and benefits,” the draft proposal read.

But the N.J. Department of Education contends it has never tried to hide its plans and that the documents released are just proposals.

“The Commissioner has been vocal about his goal of turning around the lowest-performing schools,” said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the department. “It’s unfortunate that instead of the working with us on what would presumably be a shared goal, the ELC reverts to PR ploys about ‘secret plans’ and ‘privatization efforts.’”

Morgan says much of what was released by the ELC was in the state's No Child Left Behind and approved by the US Department of Education.

So far, the Broad Foundation has given the state $1.9 million. Most of the money is being spent on hiring mid-level managers and training staff for Regional Achievement Centers that are the cornerstone of the reform plan.


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