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12-14-15 Education in the News

The Record – Obama signs education law rewrite shifting power to states

DECEMBER 10, 2015, 11:40 AM    LAST UPDATED: THURSDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2015, 3:49 PM



WASHINGTON — Calling it a "Christmas miracle," President Barack Obama signed a sweeping overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law on Thursday, ushering in a new approach to accountability, teacher evaluations and the way the most poorly performing schools are pushed to improve.

Related:  A new plan for U.S. schools; testing likely to remain key in New Jersey

Joined by lawmakers, students and teachers in a White House auditorium, Obama praised the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind for having the right goals. He said that in practice, it fell short or applied a cookie-cutter approach that failed to produce desired results. Under the new law, the federal government will shift more decision-making powers back to states.

"With this bill, we reaffirm that fundamentally American ideal that every child— regardless of race, gender, background, zip code — deserves the chance to make out of their lives what they want," Obama said. "This is a big step in the right direction."

The overhaul ends more than a decade of what critics have derided as one-size-fits-all federal policies dictating accountability and improvement for the nation's 100,000 or so public schools. But one key feature remains: Students will still take federally required statewide reading and math exams. Still, the new law encourages states to limit the time students spend on testing and diminishes the high stakes for underperforming schools.

The long-awaited bill to replace the 2002 law easily passed the Senate on Wednesday and the House last week, in a rare example of the Republican-controlled Congress and Obama finding common ground on major legislation. Obama held it up as an "example of how bipartisanship should work," noting that opposing sides had compromised to reach a deal.

"That's something that you don't always see here in Washington," Obama said. "There wasn't a lot of grandstanding, a lot of posturing, just a lot of good, hard work."

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., who chairs the House's education panel, said under the new approach, American classrooms will no longer be "micromanaged" by the Education Department in Washington.

"Instead, parents, teachers, and state and local education leaders will regain control of their schools," said Kline, part of the bipartisan quartet that spearheaded the bill.

Here's how the major stakeholders fare:



The new law eliminates the federal mandate that teacher evaluations be tied to student performance on the statewide tests. Teachers' unions hated that idea, saying the high stakes associated with the tests were creating a culture of over-testing and detracting from the learning environment. States and districts will still be able, but not required, to link scores or consider them as a factor in teacher performance reviews.



Don't start applauding yet, kids. The nation's 50 million students in public schools will still have to take the federally mandated statewide reading and math exams in grades three to eight and once in high school — so parents, teachers and others can see how they are doing against a common measuring stick. But the law also encourages states to set caps on the amount of time students spend on testing.

More children from low- and moderate-income families will have access to preschool through a new grant program that is to use existing funding to support state efforts.



No more Common Core — maybe.

The law says the federal government may not mandate or give states incentives to adopt or maintain any particular set of academic standards, such as Common Core.

The college and career-ready curriculum guidelines were created by the states but became a flashpoint for those critical of Washington's influence in schools. The administration offered grants through its Race to the Top program for states that adopted strong academic standards for students.

Already, some states have begun backing away from Common Core.



The law provides for more transparency about test scores, meaning parents and others in the community will get a better look at how students in their states and in local schools are doing. It requires that test scores be broken down by race, family income and disability status.

Parents also will be able to see how per-pupil funding breaks down by state, district and school.



States and districts will now be responsible for coming up with their own goals for schools, designing their own measures of achievement and progress, and deciding independently how to turn around struggling schools. Testing will be one factor considered, but graduation rates and education atmosphere could also be factored in.

To make sure all children get a fair shot at a quality education, states will be required to intervene in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, in high schools with high dropout rates and in schools with stubborn achievement gaps.



The measure substantially limits the federal government's role, barring the Education Department from telling states and local districts how to assess school and teacher performance.

The measure also ends the waivers the Obama administration has given to more than 40 states — exemptions granted around the more onerous parts of No Child when it became clear that requirements such as having all students proficient in reading and math by 2014 would not be met.

Associated Press writers Darlene Superville and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.


Star Ledger - Sweeney's pension plan is a giveaway to unions | Editorial

PrintEmail  By Star-Ledger Editorial Board 
Email the author | Follow on Twitter December 13, 2015 at 7:45 AM, updated December 13, 2015 at 9:51 AM

It is a surprising and disappointing turn for Sweeney, a centrist Democrat who has been a hero on this issue up until now. He was the first major political figure to focus Trenton's attention on this crisis back in 2006, and he risked his political neck by embracing tough reforms in a bipartisan deal with Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. Since then, he has pushed smart health care reforms that should save about $300 million a year more.

With this proposal, Sweeney has abandoned that sensible middle ground. As he prepares for a likely campaign for governor, he is now siding resolutely with the public workers. He holds open the possibility of future cuts in benefits, but says they have sacrificed enough for now.

"They're making less money than they did seven years ago, and now we're going to put them even further back?" he asks.

Why should the average New Jersey resident care about this? Because we faceenormous increases in health and pension costs over the next several years. Without a second round of cuts in benefits, that will force big tax increases and meaty spending cuts in core areas like education.

Sweeney is right about public workers. They are not the villains. The reason pension costs are rising so fast is that the state, under governors of both parties, has consistently failed to make payments into the funds. So we are playing catch-up now.

The union took a hard blow in 2011. The reform forced them to contribute more to both pensions and health care, while cutting benefits. Pay freezes and small salary increases have left many with less take-home pay, as Sweeney notes.

But public workers continue to receive health benefits that are far more generous than those enjoyed by the typical taxpayers. The cost is about 50 percent more than the average plan in the private sector, according to Tom Byrne, a former Democratic state chairman and member of the governor's bipartisan reform commission.

The problem with Sweeney's amendment is that he answers the key demand of the unions – to fully fund the pensions – without asking for cuts in health spending in return. 

Gov. Christie: I’m Ready To Continue This Fight TogetherGovernor Christie speaks at NJBIA Public Policy Forum in East Windsor, NJ

That's a missed opportunity. Sweeney's staff estimates that the amendment would eventually force the state to invest nearly $4 billion a year more on pensions than it does today. For perspective, the annual budget this year is $34 billion.

How will the state cover that cost? Sweeney believes it can be done by devoting most of the new revenue generated by a growing economy to this cause, and by adding revenue from a millionaire's tax, which would yield just under $700 million annually.

But what if he's wrong? What if that's not enough? And why should New Jersey devote so much of its budget to this cause without seeking health cuts in return?

Without doubt, New Jersey needs to stop shorting its pension funds. The Supreme Court has ruled that workers are entitled to their promised benefits, but that the state is under no obligation to set aside money for that cause. In other words, we are legally entitled to be completely irresponsible.

It is the governor's job to find consensus and get a deal done on this, as he did in 2011. But he's gone now, paying no attention to New Jersey except to occasionally insult Democrats and the unions. Count this as another cost of his presidential campaign.

MORE: Christie's presidential hopes a hurdle to pension reform.

Sweeney is trying to fill that vacuum. But his plan is flawed. And by giving the unions all they want, and asking nothing in return, he is surrendering the taxpayer's best bargaining chip for free.

More Star-Ledger editorials

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Garden State Coalition of Schools
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