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4-21-15 Education Issues in the News

U.S. News and World Report - 'Opting Out' Into School Choice

The logical next step for the anti-Common Core 'opt-out' movement is opting out of entire schools.

 They should have the choice.

By Andrew J. Rotherham April 7, 2015 | 6:00 a.m. EDT + More

 What’s in this spring in public education? Apparently it’s students opting out of state standardized tests.

If you just read hysterical press accounts you might think parents are refusing state standardized tests at a fantastic clip. In fact, for the overwhelming majority of schools and students it’s business as usual. In a few affluent communities opting out of the new Common Core tests is a thing. “Everyone is talking about it at Whole Foods” says one disgusted New York education figure. But so far the opt out craze is more noise than signal.

Still, faced with even the possibility of an “opt-out” movement education officials are responding with force. This week Kentucky’s education commissioner said school districts cannot honor opt-out requests and student refusals would be counted as zeroes for school accountability purposes. That strategy seems more likely to fan flames than change minds.

When I asked my nine-year-old daughter about whether parents should opt kids out of tests, she responded, “Well, then how will they know how they’re really doing?” Fair enough, but the debate about testing is long past that sort of reasonableness. So if parents want to opt-out of tests and all this craziness, why not just let them?

[READ: Opt-Out Movement About More Than Tests, Advocates Say]

Let’s back up for a minute. To be clear, the opt-out movement is not some organic happening. National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García tried to claim it was during a discussion I moderated a few weeks ago at the Council of Chief State School Officers legislative conference. When I asked her about the millions of dollars some of her state affiliates are spending to encourage test boycotts she didn’t have a response. That’s not very grassroots. In New York the state teachers union is openly encouraging opt-outs and some PTAs are circulating warmed-over versions of union talking points. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten straddles the issue by saying she vigorously supports the right of parents to opt-out but isn’t urging it.

Meanwhile, parents are not boycotting all standardized tests. Parents in Brooklyn, New York, Montclair, New Jersey and other affluent opt-out hot spots are more than happy to opt their children in to the college gateway tests perpetuating privilege and status in this country. Boycotting the new Common Core tests is chic but at the same time millions of students are opting into the SAT and ACT tests while their affluent parents pony up big bucks for tutoring on these and other college gateway achievement tests like Advanced Placement. Education writer Chris Stewart has pointedly noted the cringe-worthy irony of a mostly white led effort to boycott state standardized tests that are arguably most important for low-income and minority students who are frequently denied a quality education in our nation’s public schools.

Unlike the SAT and other college tests the Common Core tests are linked to school accountability and teacher evaluations. The data are disaggregated to make sure some students, especially low-income and minority students, are not shortchanged. It’s probably just coincidental that these tests, which shine a harsh light on how well schools and school districts are doing, are the ones everyone is worked up about?

[READ: Atlanta Scandal Could Be the Tip of a 'Test Cheating Iceberg']

Of course it's not, which explains why after hundreds of millions of public dollars have finally been invested in a new generation of better tests – assessments that educators, the teachers unions and basically the entire education community said it wanted – these tests suddenly aren’t good enough either.

So why not just allow parents to opt-out? Think about it for a moment. If it were your child being asked to do something you objected to, for several hours, under the supervision of adults who in some cases you don’t even know, wouldn’t you want some freedom? Of course you would. I would, too. That’s why I don’t object to opt-outs even if I find today’s opt-out “movement” ridiculous, selfish and more than a little hypocritical.

Instead of escalating the opt-out fight, education leaders should channel this sudden enthusiasm for parental rights, parental choice and self-determination to address a broader basket of education issues. If parents are able to opt out of a test they ought to also be able to opt out of a specific teacher’s class or a school as well. The teachers unions could show some consistency by supporting the rights of parents to transfer to better public schools that don’t turn student tests into an unprofessional three-ring circus needlessly stressing out kids.

[SEE: Political Cartoons on the Economy]

Fundamentally, the call for opt-outs is a call for more parental freedom. In contemporary America, accountability is usually regulatory-based (think financial markets), choice and market-based (for instance clothes) or some combination of the two (like restaurants). It may well be that test-based accountability has run its course in public education. If so, the opt-out movement – ironically fueled by self-interested teachers unions – may be pointing us to what’s next: a lot more choice and unbundling of services in public education.

That might not be so bad. If it turns out we can’t come together around school accountability schemes that look after the poor – especially while the same elite progressives boycotting tests can’t stop talking about inequality – then we at least ought to give the poor real choice about the schooling of their children given how crucial education is to social mobility.

Where can I opt into that movement? It sounds less trendy but perhaps more impactful than just opting out of tests.

NJ Spotlight - Just 16 School Districts Hold Budget Votes Today Around New Jersey…Law enacted three years ago allowed switch to November – and no vote at all with 2 percent tax cap

John Mooney | April 21, 2015

Three years since a new state law made school-budget votes optional, voters in just 16 of New Jersey’s more than 550 school districts will be going to the polls today to vote on their local budgets -- more precisely, on the local property tax levy that funds those budgets.

These school districts – nearly half of them in Bergen County – have budget votes scheduled today:

  • Bergen County: Cliffside Park; Fairview; Garfield; Hackensack; Oakland; Palisades Park.
  • Cumberland County: Bridgeton
  • Essex County: Irvington
  • Hudson County: North Bergen and Weehawken
  • Middlesex County: New Brunswick
  • Monmouth County: Neptune
  • Morris County: School District of the Chathams and Riverdale
  • Passaic County: Passaic and Totowa

The districts are the last hold-outs from a massive wave of districts switched to November school board elections after a 2012 law allowed the shift, while also ending the century-old requirement for local budget votes -- as long as the levy stayed within the state’s new 2 percent cap.

The result: The 521 districts voting for their school boards in November do not hold budget votes at all. (However, those districts will be permitted to move back to an April vote on the budget after four years.)

The School District of the Chathams will be the only district holding a school-construction referendum in addition to the budget vote. The district has proposed a $24.8 million project that includes renovations at four schools. The date is one of five throughout the year when school-construction projects can be put up for vote.

NJ Spotlight - NJEA files motion to stop South Jersey Times - Camden's transfer of public schools to Renaissance

By Jason Laday | South Jersey Times South Jersey Newspapers
Follow on Twitter
on April 21, 2015 at 6:00 AM, updated April 21, 2015 at 7:38 AM

CAMDEN -- The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) has announced it has filed a motion with the state in hopes of preventing Camden's plan to convert four public schools into renaissance charter schools.

In a statement released Monday, the NJEA said its attorneys have requested that state Education Commissioner David Hespe "rescind his approval of the corporate takeover" of the four public schools -- Henry L. Bonsall Family School, East Camden Middle School, Francis X. McGraw Elementary School and Rafael Cordero Molina Elementary School.

According to the teachers union, the city's plan violates the Urban Hope Act and the state's No Child Left Behind Act waiver. The NJEA stated it believes the plan would violate a provision of the Urban Hope Act that mandates all renaissance schools open only in newly constructed or "substantially renovated" buildings.

"The school district is attempting to circumvent the terms and spirit of the Urban Hope Act to allow the corporate takeover of Camden Public Schools," said NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer in the statement. "The district is merely waiting until the end of the school year to do superficial renovations, at which time it will simply call these schools renaissance Schools so they can be turned over to private management companies."

The NJEA also accused the school district of moving forward with the plan without the input of parents, students and teachers.

"Parents deserve to have a say before their children are transferred to a Renaissance School, and students and teachers have the right to be treated with fairness and dignity," added Steinhauer.

Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard announced in March that Henry L. Bonsall Family School, East Camden Middle School, Francis X. McGraw Elementary School and Rafael Cordero Molina Elementary School will, in addition to receiving much-needed renovations and repairs, each be taken over by one of three Camden charter organizations.

Camden education officials also stated that the 105-year-old J.G. Whittier Family School will be permanently shuttered at the end of the academic year.

"Camden's kids can't wait any longer for the opportunity to attend a safe, successful, neighborhood public school," said Rouhanifard in at the time of the announcement, adding the plan addresses Camden's "lowest-performing schools."

Brandon Lowe, spokesman for the Camden superintendent's office, refuted both the NJEA's reading of the law, as well as the contention that officials acted without seeking ideas from the community.

Lowe pointed to four neighborhood meetings organized by the district with the superintendent in March, during which residents and officials discussed issues plaguing Camden's schools.

"The NJEA is mischaracterizing the law and diverting attention from the real issue, which is the need to improve our children's education," said Lowe in an email. "These improvements are focused on increasing student learning and renovating dilapidated buildings in a city that is sincerely in need of change.

"Through our continued community engagement, we've heard hundreds of students, educators, parents, and community members demand change in our most-struggling schools," he added. "We are confident these improvements will lead to better opportunities for thousands of young people in Camden."

According to the district's plan, Bonsall Family School, in the fall, will become Camden Prep Bonsall Elementary, under the Uncommon Renaissance charter system, serving all students entering grades K-4. Bonsall students entering grades 5-8 can remain at the school, under the tutelage of district teachers and staff.

According to Rouhanifard, only 9 percent of students at Bonsall can read or perform math at grade level.

Three schools will be absorbed by the Mastery Schools of Camden charter system. East Camden Middle School will become Mastery: East Camden, McGraw Elementary will be Mastery: McGraw, and Molina will become Master: Molina. All students currently enrolled to return to the schools next year can choose to remain with the charter system or other alternatives.

East Camden students can opt to transfer to the Catto Community Family School, as well as McGraw students to the Alfred Cramer College Preparatory Lab School and Monlina students to Cooper's Poynt School.

As for the Whittier school, where the front door is covered in caution tape, the district says its closing has been a long time coming. According to Rouhanifard, only one in 10 students can read or perform math at grade level.

Those students, come next school year, will be transferred to other facilities. According to the district, students in grades K-1 and 5-8 will have a guaranteed seat at the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy charter school in Lanning Square, which is slated to open in the fall. Students in grades 2-4 will attend a district school located inside the KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy.

According to the district, renaissance schools differ from conventional charter schools in that they guarantee a seat to every student living in its local neighborhood, and that they contract with the local school district.

Jason Laday may be reached at jladay@southjerseymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLaday. Find the South Jersey Times on Facebook.

Released 4-21-15   NJEA demands full pension funding

‘No further discussion’ with pension commission

Published on Tuesday, April 21, 2015

 “NJEA has notified the New Jersey Pension and Benefits Study Commission that our sole focus is on ensuring that our members’ current pensions are fully funded by the state, and that no further discussion will be occurring between NJEA and the Commission.

“The State Superior Court has ruled unequivocally that the law signed by Governor Christie – Chapter 78 of the Acts of 2011 – is crystal clear. It requires the state to make the full annual required contributions to the pension funds.

“Our members have complied fully with Chapter 78, paying millions of dollars more each year into their pensions and for their health insurance premiums, even while the law made deep cuts in their pension benefits. In fact, since the governor took office in 2010, our members have paid two-and-a-half times what the state paid into pensions, while also paying up to 35 percent of the cost of their health insurance.

“The law is the law. Governor Christie signed Chapter 78, and he needs to obey it by making the full annual contribution this year, next year, and every year beyond, as the statute explicitly requires.

‘Not a buffet table’

“As the governor stated during his recent town hall meeting in New Hampshire: ‘When you say you are going to do something, you do it.’ I couldn’t agree more, and that includes following the law he signed.

“We look forward to the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling on the governor’s appeal. Chapter 78 is not a buffet table, and Governor Christie cannot be allowed to pick and choose which portions of the law apply to him.

“We also call upon the New Jersey Legislature to place a budget on the governor’s desk that includes the full statutorily required pension funding, as they did last year, when the governor vetoed that funding. And we applaud the legislative leadership for joining the litigation challenging the governor’s actions.

“Last September, NJEA agreed to meet with members of the Commission after actuaries reported that the governor’s pattern of underfunding the Teachers’ Pension and Annuity Fund (TPAF) could lead to the fund’s collapse as early as 2027.

“NJEA and the Commission agreed there had to be a mechanism for guaranteed responsible pension funding. In its initial report, the Commission placed the blame for the dire condition of TPAF squarely where it belonged – on the state’s failure to meet its obligations over the past 20 years.

No consensus with Commission

“These factors formed a solid basis for our conversations with Commission members. However, as those discussions went on, it became obvious the Commission was going to make recommendations to which we could not agree: forcing employees to pay to repair their pensions with even deeper cuts in their health benefits; expanding the current statutory premium costs for employees; and undermining their collective bargaining rights.

“Ultimately, there was no consensus reached on any of the broad concepts we discussed with the Commission, and there are serious concerns about some of those concepts.

“Some positive things did result from our conversations with the Commission. Its work, and the research that drove it, have sensitized the entire state to the seriousness of the pension crisis in New Jersey. As a result, this problem has the attention of everyone from our members to the entire New Jersey Legislature.

Christie’s misrepresentation

“In addition, NJEA – in partnership with other unions, organizations representing physicians and nurses, and other partners – has also been able to advance new health care ideas that for the first time promise to contain the cost of health insurance long-term without further shifting costs to employees and their families.

“Those ideas could lead to significant savings for both our members and the state without diminishing benefits. The Design Committee of the School Employee Health Benefit Program is now considering these ideas, which is potentially great news for all New Jerseyans.

“Finally, if we had it to do over again, we would never have signed the memo describing concepts we discussed with the Commission.  It was misrepresented by the governor, and that distracted everyone from the real priority: requiring the state to fund the pensions for which our members have paid their share, on each and every payday throughout their careers.

“In the end, the only signature that is binding is Governor Christie’s signature on Chapter 78, and we call on the Supreme Court to order him to live up to the law by funding our members’ pensions.”

Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608

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