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1-10-12 In the News - Reflections and Reporting on Education Reform Issues in the Last Legislative Session and the Forthcoming Legislative Session
MyCentralJersey.com - NJ education reform: School budget election changes, private urban charter schools OK'd…Private urban charter schools OK'd

NJ Spotlight - The State of the Governor's Education Agenda…Christie was not short on ambition when it came to education, but how did he fare on his own promises?

MyCentralJersey.com - NJ education reform: School budget election changes, private urban charter schools OK'd…Private urban charter schools OK'd


6:44 AM, Jan. 10, 2012 |

TRENTON — Two Democratic proposals for education reform overwhelmingly passed the Legislature late Monday, heralding what could become a spring full of new initiatives aimed at changing public education.

State Sen. Donald Norcross, D-Camden, brother of longtime South Jersey Democratic boss George E. Norcross III, sponsored both bills.

The first would eliminate school budget votes for any school districts that have their annual elections moved to November and if the district’s budget does not exceed the state’s property tax cap.

Ending statewide school budget elections would end what has been a political tradition in New Jersey for more than a century. The bill passed with a 34-3 vote in the state Senate and a 62-11 vote, with two abstentions, in the state Assembly.

Gov. Chris Christie had not taken a position on the school elections bill by late Monday.

The second measure, called the Urban Hope Act, allows for up to four privately operated public schools to be authorized and built each in Newark, Trenton and Camden. In Camden, officials are specifically targeting the new Lanning Square School, to fall under the program.

The bill permits school districts to allow a nonprofit to build and operate schools. The nonprofit will be paid nearly all of the per-student costs associated with each student.

The Urban Hope Act passed the Senate on a 35-3 vote and the Assembly 56-17 on Monday night. Christie is expected to sign it.

The bills may be the beginning of a series of education reform bills.

Gov. Chris Christie declared 2011 as the Year of Education Reform, but he was stymied in attempts to pass teacher tenure and other measures in the two-year state legislative session which ended Monday. He is expected to press hard for more education reform in Tuesday’s State of the State address.

The nonprofits may purchase land from or contract with for-profit businesses in order to build the schools. They must provide financing and are exempt from public bidding requirements.

Donald Norcross said the bill helps the state continue to experiment with ways to improve schools in cities.

“Today is about re-creating the way we’ve had education delivered,” Norcross said. “The program is limited in scope — only three towns — but open enough to invite new ways for education.”

Republican State Sen. Robert W. Singer of Ocean County said he hoped the program was eventually expanded to Lakewood, his home town.

He noted an Asbury Park Press article that highlighted the fact that only 37 percent of Lakewood High School students graduate.

Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, voted against the bill. She said in an interview that she objected to a provision that would allow the state or school district to give land to the nonprofit.

The school elections bill, if signed into law, allows school districts, municipalities or a petition of 15 percent of the registered voters in the last presidential election to move school elections from April to the November general election.

Districts that move their elections must keep elections in November for at least four years.

The bill received wide support from education organizations and the state’s largest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association.

Critics of the current system say that many school elections, which have low voter turnout in April, are dominated by teachers unions and their allies. But others argue that school districts face potential takeover by political parties if elections move to November.

School officials and teachers have long said that it is unfair for school budgets to be the only fiscal measures on which taxpayers can vote. They say many taxpayers simply take out their anger at high property taxes with their vote.

The Urban Hope Act, if it becomes law, faces a potential lawsuit by the Education Law Center in Newark, which has successfully sued the state to gain billions of dollars in additional state aid for 31 low-income school districts.

The bill is controversial because it circumvents the state's School Development Authority, which had been charged with constructing schools in the designated low-income school districts which are protected under two decades worth of state Supreme Court rulings.


NJ Spotlight - The State of the Governor's Education Agenda…Christie was not short on on ambition when it came to education, but how did he fare on his own promises?  

By John Mooney, January 10, 2012 in Education|1 Comment

On the last day of its session yesterday, New Jersey's state legislature passed one pilot bill to open up a dozen "renaissance schools" and another to allow districts to move school elections to November.

It was an anticlimactic end to a year that Gov. Chris Christie said would bring sweeping changes to public education.

Still, pension and health benefit reform and a 2 percent cap on school taxes are no small accomplishments, and the governor helped drive the debate over issues like tenure reform, merit pay, charter schools, and school funding -- all of which are yet to be resolved.

Today, the governor launches the second half of his term with his State of the State address and what are sure to be new calls for education reform.

NJ Spotlight uses this opportunity to take a look at the first half of his term -- especially the past year -- and his record so far at least fulfilling his own promises.

School Choice

For a governor who came in pushing charter schools and private school vouchers as a fix for failing school districts, it's hardly a banner term so far. He has seen nearly 30 additional charters approved in the past year alone, but has also put the once-popular charter movement on the defensive in the face of severe pushback from local communities, especially in the suburbs.

The school vouchers plan, as outlined in the Opportunity Scholarship Act, also continues to languish, closer than ever but still sorely lacking a consensus, even among its supporters. 2012 could prove more fruitful for both proposals, but that's what was said about 2011.

The Urban Hope Act to open up new privately run "renaissance schools" did pass yesterday, albeit watered-down from Christie's first version. The new program for Camden, Newark, and Trenton will allow nonprofit and for-profit companies to build schools outside of district management, similar to charters but with more flexibility in financing. And inter-district public school choice was expanded in the past year, opening up a system for children to attend public schools outside their towns that in the end may have just as lasting impact in providing choice to families.

School Funding and Taxes

The property tax cap and the pension reforms have fulfilled most of Christie's promises to change the culture of how schools spend money. Caps on superintendent pay added a zinger to the conversation, angering districts and forcing scores of retirements but certainly accomplishing his goal of stunting high administrative pay. But he suffered a clear setback with the state Supreme Court's rebuff of his arguments in Abbott v. Burke for rewriting how poor schools are funded, forcing him to spend more than he wanted and leaving uncertain what he’ll do next in coming state budget.

Christie's 2010 state aid cuts inflicted real pain and hardship on public schools, but his restoration of at least some of the money last year eased some of the sting. Christie and his administration promise still more changes to come in funding, including in the membership of the high court that has driven the issue. But rewriting a school funding law that much of the Democratic leadership supports is a long shot.

Teacher Quality and Tenure

This has been one of the governor's biggest promises, but while making solid headway, it remains a work in progress. Christie was able to lay out a rough outline for a new system for teacher evaluation and launch a pilot program in 10 districts that has relatively strong buy-in, even from his old nemesis, the New Jersey Education Association. If other states having trouble with tenure reform are any indication, even Christie's limited progress is notable. But the state is still a long way from Christie's promises of ending tenure and seniority; creating merit pay for teachers; and cleaning up the teacher evaluation system to reflect whether students are learning. 2012 could be the watershed year for this, with the Democrats now leading the legislative effort, and chief sponsors remain confident. But it probably needs to happen soon, before the politics of the impending gubernatorial election put real progress on most issues in peril.

The Intangibles

With this governor, it's a lot about the intangibles: the tone he sets, the ideas he proffers, the people he puts in place. In his first year, Christie's battles with the NJEA were well chronicled, as was the saga of the Race to the Top application and the commissioner fired along the way. But over the past year Christie has started to tone things down -- at least his broadsides fired against the NJEA are less frequent. His appointment of Chris Cerf as his second education commissioner has brought some outcry and argument, but by and large, Cerf appears to be gaining footing. The same can be said for his appointment of Cami Anderson as superintendent of the state-run Newark schools. But while Newark was to be his trophy for education reform, especially in the wake of the $100 million Facebook gift, the future of Newark schools under his watch remains an agenda item far from realized -- like much of the rest of his education platform.

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