10-18-11 Education & Related Issues in the News
My Centraljersey.com – Poll…Unhappy with Legislature, many don’t know election coming

Asbury Park Press - Officials: Schools were left behind They highlight money problems to state education chief

Njspotlight.com - Newark Charter and District Schools Share Space and Visions -- But Not Technology...Collaboration and cooperation are the order of the day, but some inequalities remain

Njspotlight.com - School Vouchers: Out of the Spotlight, Not Out of Mind...A slimmed-down bill -- and pilot program -- may resurface in Assembly during the lame duck session

My Centraljersey.com – Poll…Unhappy with Legislature, many don’t know election coming…October 18 – Trenton

Michael Symons | Statehouse Bureau

 

TRENTON — Barely half of New Jersey voters know that the Legislature is up for election in three weeks, according to results of the latest Monmouth University/New Jersey Press Media Poll.

But, even though people are generally unhappy with lawmakers, voters appear unlikely to change control of the state Senate and Assembly, the poll found.

Overall, 33 percent of registered voters approve of the job the Legislature is doing and 45 percent disapprove.

Though Democrats run the Legislature, Democratic voters disapprove of the Legislature’s performance, 52-25, while Republicans approve, 49-33.

That disparity does not appear likely to translate to cross-party voting, as 88 percent of Democrats and 83 percent of Republicans said they would vote for their party’s ticket.

Independents leaned toward the GOP, with 36 percent saying they will vote Republican and 27 percent planning to vote for Democrats.

It averages out to a five-point edge for Democrats among registered voters and a six-point edge for the party among the most engaged — and thus most likely to vote — group of voters.

“Don’t be fooled into thinking that displeasure with the Legislature is going to lead to a change election,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

“Aside from the fact that the new legislative map protects nearly every incumbent, Democratic voters are actually more unhappy than Republicans, which may be due to how much the leadership has compromised with the governor. However, there is no indication they are willing to cross party lines in this election to express their dissatisfaction,” Murray said.

Fifty-five percent of voters said they are aware of the Nov. 8 legislative election.

Just under half said it matters to them which party is in control, and among those there is a 37 percent to 28 percent preference for a Democratic Legislature.

Robert Barry McDonough, 61, of Plainsboro said the legislators are “not doing anything positive.”

McDonough, who is unemployed, said he understands what the Legislature does and plans to vote next month.

 

“I think that the entire state of New Jersey is going down the tubes,” he said.

Amanda Davila, 23, of Branchburg, who also is unemployed, was upset with legislators and Gov. Chris Christie for passing and signing a bill that affects workers’ collective bargaining rights.

“It was anti-worker is what it comes down to,” she said.

Davila, a political science major, said she will vote.

A new redistricting map adopted in April that will govern legislative races for the next 10 years was adopted in April.

The proposal crafted by Democrats — who hold a 24-16 edge in the Senate and 47-33 edge in the Assembly — was adopted, making some districts more competitive but probably not enough to put control of the Legislature in play.

“It is pretty difficult to blame voters for not caring about something which they have little power to change,” said Murray, who had testified to the commission that drew the map in favor of more competitive races.

The Monmouth University/New Jersey Press Media Poll was conducted by telephone with 693 registered voters from Oct. 5 through 9.

The margin of error is 3.7 percentage points.

The poll’s newspaper sponsors include the Courier News, Asbury Park Press, Courier-Post, Daily Journal, Daily Record and Home News Tribune.

Just under half said it matters to them which party is in control, and among those there is a 37 percent to 28 percent preference for a Democratic Legislature.

Robert Barry McDonough, 61, of Plainsboro said the legislators are “not doing anything positive.”

McDonough, who is unemployed, said he understands what the Legislature does and plans to vote next month.

 Asbury Park Press - Officials: Schools were left behind

They highlight money problems to state education chief

 

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf was in the role of student Monday as two state legislators and school officials taught him how two Monmouth County schools districts fell through the funding cracks, receiving less money than the state considers adequate.

Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande and State Sen. Jennifer Beck, both R-Monmouth, brought Cerf on a tour of two schools in Red Bank and Freehold Borough, which are among 14 in the state that receive 20 percent less than the amount of funding the state recommends, which is a glitch they want corrected.

Perhaps the most telling examples of his trip to the Red Bank Primary School and the Park Avenue school complex in Freehold was the stage in the Freehold school cafeteria, which has been converted to a classroom, and the former library, which has been carved into a technology lab and other small teaching facilities.

Cerf was direct with school officials and legislators that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, but that the time to discuss school funding won’t come around in the legislative cycle until February.

“There are downright oddities in how we fund schools. They ought to be funded based on the number of kids and the need,” he said. “The courts will get the last word on this. At the same time, we can work together to talk about what it means to process a thorough and efficient education. Is it money? Is it policy?”

Beck and Casagrande argued that both districts would now qualify as “Abbott” districts, referring to the 31 poor school districts in the state for which state-funded education reform and assistance programs must be provided. Back in the mid-1980s when the Abbott vs. Burke suit was heard by the state Supreme Court, Red Bank and Freehold had a different demographic makeup than they do now. Both districts now have high numbers of students whose first language isn’t English and whose families live at or near the poverty line.

“There has to be some grant program to allow for districts like Red Bank and Freehold Borough,” Casagrande said. “We need some grant program tailored for places like these.”

Both Freehold and Red Bank also have nonprofit or government agencies making up about 16 percent of the local property tax base, for which neither borough receives tax revenue, Beck said.

She suggested bringing the 20 inadequately funded districts up by 15 percent as a first step.

But Cerf said it is hard to talk about doing something for specific communities in a state with over 600 school districts.

“We need to look at the (school) funding formula to make sure there is a reasonable equitable spending,” he said.

In Freehold the talk was a little more frank about the space problem, where Superintendent of Schools Elizabeth O’Connell detailed how the student population is growing annually, but the district has no room for the additional students and can’t finance upgrading the schools to meet current standards, nevermind building additional classrooms.

“We had an increase of 55 to 65 children this year, and we’re expected to stay on that path for several years,” O’Connell said, noting that some classes have 27 students in a room.

Cerf said he understood the relation between class size and the difference in student proficiency, with smaller classes yielding better academic results.

“The point is, I understand. … It’s simply a quirk of history that you’re not an Abbott district,” Cerf said.

A planned preschool program in Freehold was shelved after a state grant didn’t come through, meaning that of 300 eligible students, the district can only provide instruction for 40 students, O’Connell said. By contrast, Red Bank is part of a state pilot program that provides grants to fund a full preschool program in the borough.

Red Bank has to rent space for those students in four locations outside of the school system. And Superintendent Laura C. Morana said Red Bank also has no additional space.

Cerf also assigned some homework on the way out the door in Red Bank, telling officials that he wants to see reading proficiency levels among third-graders improve when he comes back for a return visit next October. In the 2010-11 school year, third-graders in the general education program had a 44.6 percent language arts literacy.

 

“Even this school, which is a great school, needs to continually get better and better,” he said. “I want to be back at this podium next October, and I want to see the number of children proficient (in reading) on the NJ ASK (test) progress by dramatic levels.”

Morana accepted.

“You’ll find we are up to the challenge,” she said. “We’ll contact your office for a (return) date.”

Red Bank’s tour was more academics and less facilities-oriented. Cerf dropped into prekindergarten, kindergarten, second- and third-grade classes, in addition to getting an overview of the district presented by Morana and Middle School students. Morana also detailed how the district has used grants and partnerships with universities, community organizations and two theaters to make up for the lack of funding.

Cerf also talked about proficiency levels in Freehold, questioning how reading levels could have declined. O’Connell said the district is doing its own assessments and using that information to identify individual students who need help and meeting with their parents to work on improving their involvement in academic performance.

He also posed a question to Freehold school officials about formulating a plan showing how the community would come up with a plan to provide a prekindergarten program in a year.

“Make this a major town initiative to execute in 12 months. How would we do this, who would pitch in and by the way, we need some help from the state,” Cerf said. “Show me you’ve got a plan and how I can help.”

Njspotlight.com - Newark Charter and District Schools Share Space and Visions -- But Not Technology

Collaboration and cooperation are the order of the day, but some inequalities remain

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By John Mooney, October 18 in Education|Post a Comment

 

The fight was fierce this winter, just at the idea of Newark district schools sharing space with charters. At times, ugly hearings revealed the sense of have and have-not that often mars debates about charters across the state.

Six months later, the new shared campuses in four Newark school buildings have opened. While the turmoil has faded -- some -- the challenges are just as real.

The issues were highlighted as Newark school and city officials, including Mayor Cory Booker, announced $350,000 in grants from the Newark Education Trust. The money is to encourage collaborative efforts across the city -- shared activities between students and parents or coordinated staff training.

The site picked for the announcement was the George Washington Carver Elementary School, where the SPARK Academy Charter School -- part of the KIPP network -- moved into the third floor this fall.

Carver and SPARK are a good match. The principals of both are at ease with each other and openly discuss shared programs and visions.

"I feel strongly about the other kids and not just those in our charter school," said Joanna Belcher, head of SPARK Academy. "We have between our buildings cousins, we have neighbors, we have siblings, and I want to do everything I can to support all of them."

But a quick tour of the schools also revealed the distinctions between each, ones that can fuel debate and tensions outside the building, if not inside.

There were some shared traits, to be sure. Students in both schools attended to their lessons in well-supplied, tidy classrooms, the kids dressed in their uniforms: Carver in white shirts, SPARK in yellow.

Yet the SPARK first grade had two teachers to Carver's one. Along one wall, a group of students sat working on a bank of laptops that had no match in the Carver classroom.

When asked about some of the differences, Carver principal Winston Jackson acknowledged that technology is the most obvious.

"It's a concern that district is working to alleviate," he said. "They have given us support with technology, actually both the district and the charter. It's a give and take. We know things are different, but we are working together."

And he said that has reaped some benefits, including additional attention for his school. Jackson said it hasn't been a worry with parents.

"Last year, they were asking what was going on," he said. "But this year, they have seen we are working together."

District superintendent Cami Anderson said she has worked hard to alleviate any inequities, and she credited the Newark Education Trust's grants as another step in helping to even the field. She said councils of parents and staff from both schools will also help.

"Shared campuses totally work, as long as you do the work that's needed," Anderson said. "It's why we spent so much time creating the building councils and the relationships between the two leaders."

She said the inequities are difficult to bridge entirely. For instance, SPARK Academy starts each day earlier and ends each later than does Carver, a product of contracts and staffing.

She cited another Newark elementary school that is sharing space with a charter that, she said, will also benefit from the experience.

"Say at 13th Avenue School, where 19 percent of the students are proficient in reading, this was an opportunity to lift up the whole school," she said. "It may not make it a high performing school alone, but it could be in infusing energy and new ideas."

But what about the technology and the computers, things the district can directly affect? Anderson said that was an issue before the charter schools ever arrived.

"We need a plan for better technology across the board, but that has been true for years," she said. "This may show the contrast, and it also could accelerate the solution, and it has already."

Belcher, the SPARK leader, said it is a slow and deliberative process, and one she and Jackson, the Carver principal, are committed to.

"We both acknowledge there are challenges and concerns, and our goal was to say what are we going to tackle first," she said. "So the first thing was building relationships between our staffs and the community organizations we work with.

"Now, we are moving on to do different things that go beyond the physical building, where staff are observing each other and sharing ideas. We know things have a while to go and we are here to work on them."

Njspotlight.com - School Vouchers: Out of the Spotlight, Not Out of Mind

A slimmed-down bill -- and pilot program -- may resurface in Assembly during the lame duck session

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By John Mooney, October 18 in Education|1 Comment

Tenure reform and charter schools have dominated education politics of late in New Jersey, but the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) is making a quiet resurgence in the halls of the Statehouse.

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People on both sides of the contentious proposal to provide tax credits for privately subsidized scholarships to low-income students have said that a slimmed-down version of the bill has a good shot of coming back in the lame duck session after the Nov. 8 election.

None are putting odds on its passage as yet, and talk of its fall and rise is nothing new. The bill was said to be close to passage at the end of June, yet never came to vote or committee in the Assembly.

But even state Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) -- considered the OSA's main obstacle at this point – was not ruling out its reappearance this year when contacted through the Assembly majority office yesterday.

A spokesman said Oliver would not specifically comment on its prospects, "other than reiterating her previous statements that she is interested in seeing a bill that provides a smaller pilot program for the most struggling school districts."

That is close to the work that has been underway in the Assembly's budget committee, the likeliest place the bill would surface. A Senate version has gained committee approval in that chamber, but faces its highest hurdles in the Assembly.

State Assemblyman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), chairman of the budget committee, would not speak to any deliberations, but repeated his own preference for a pilot program of "five or six districts," with tight restrictions on who could participate and how results would be tracked.

"I feel it should be in chronically failing districts where families have no choices and where children are prisoners of their own poverty," he said.

Greenwald listed among the likely districts Camden, Asbury Park, Passaic City, and Newark. He also repeated that he does not support opening up the scholarships, which could be as much as $12,000 each, to children already in private schools. He also opposes building in extra money to administer the program.

Another Democratic leader also backed off some long-time opposition. Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly's education committee, said he remains opposed in concept.

"But if we had a pilot that only applied to a couple of districts like Newark and Camden, it would clearly be more reasonable," he said.

A Central Issue

Others are keeping a close eye on developments, with the size of the program appearing to be the central issue. With other education reforms proposals before the legislature, questions have been raise about how -- or if -- the programs would all fit together.

Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly has said education reform will be his top priority of the lame duck session, including proposals for revamping how teacher tenure is granted and retained. Christie's spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.

But others are weighing in, with advocates on behalf of the OSA expressing optimism.

"We are continuing to be optimistic about the legislation's chances," said Norm Alworth, president of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a pro-school choice group that has led the voucher fight for more than a decade.

The issue of the program's size is a critical one, he said. Previous versions of the bill have ranged from only a handful of districts to as many as 30 or more. The bill coming out of the Senate includes 13 districts.

"At the end of the day, we need a program of size and scope that will fill out the desire to have a true pilot," Alworth said. "In order to measure results, it needs to be of sufficient size and scope."

Critics, too, are saying they are hearing more talk about the bill, and expect a hard push during the lame duck session. But they said the concerns have not lessened about using public funds to prop up private schools.

"We have heard it is a scaled down version that takes out some of the issues that derailed it before," said Ginger Gold Schnitzer, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey Education Association.

"You have to think they will push real hard, as they may never get this close again," she said. "Of course it has life, of course it has legs, and we are taking it very, very seriously."