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10-24-11 Education Issues in the News
Star Ledger editorial - NJEA, Democrats wrongly balk at new push for schools reform … and…Star Ledger column - Hedge fund manager readies for battle with NJEA to reform NJ schools

The Record - Proposed charter school expects to run surplus…and… The Record – Virtual charter school plan prompts review of laws

Njspotlight.com - New Jersey Schools' Open Door Policy…With the state's Interdistrict School Choice program, Garden State students can become traveling scholars

Star Ledger editorial - NJEA, Democrats wrongly balk at new push for schools reform … and…Star Ledger column - Hedge fund manager readies for battle with NJEA to reform NJ schools

The Record - Proposed charter school expects to run surplus…and… The Record – Virtual charter school plan prompts review of laws

Njspotlight.com - New Jersey Schools' Open Door Policy…With the state's Interdistrict School Choice program, Garden State students can become traveling scholars

 

Star Ledger editorial - NJEA, Democrats wrongly balk at new push for schools reform

Published: Sunday, October 23, 2011, 6:09 AM

By Star-Ledger Editorial BoardThe Star-Ledger

It’s fascinating to see the nervous response of establishment Democrats to the arrival of David Tepper on the political scene in New Jersey.

Tepper is a hedge fund manager from Livingston worth about $5 billion, and he’s promising to throw a good chunk of that into a political fight over school reform with the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has long been the colossus of Trenton.

Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), the former governor, is hostile, saying he doesn’t believe rich guys should be able to buy influence, a line many Democrats echo. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) is suspicious, suggesting that Tepper and his partner in this effort, Alan Fournier, are seeking to impose "social engineering" on unsuspecting black and Latino students.

And several Democrats whisper the line pushed by the operatives of the New Jersey Education Association, who say this is a plot by Tepper and Fournier to enrich themselves by turning public schools over to private investors such as themselves.

For our part, we look forward to hearing the bombs explode when these two launch their offensive, and we hope they win. If they are able to break the grip of the NJEA, children in our poor cities will be much better off.

Take tenure reform. It is supported by roughly two-thirds of New Jersey voters and has been blocked until now, mainly by the political muscle of the NJEA.

The union has spent roughly $25 million in the last two years, $15 million on direct political spending and another $10 million in goodwill messages about the public schools and the union. No other group puts as much money or volunteers into statewide elections.

Why do Democrats make no objection when the NJEA spends lavishly to block the will of the majority, but balk now when Tepper and Fournier work to promote it?

And why did so few Democrats complain when Jon Corzine was shoveling cash into their campaigns? (In defense of Codey, he was a rare Democrat who did.)

Oliver’s charge about social engineering is more serious. Ultimately, the success of this group hinges on the grass-roots effort to mobilize hearts and minds. But this group’s agenda is popular in failing school districts and heartily embraced by people such as the Rev. Reginald Jackson of the Black Minister’s Council. In the face of the crisis in our urban schools, does it not make sense to try something different?

The charge that Tepper and Fournier are trying to make money is beyond ridiculous. They know how to make money. They have not suggested turning schools over to private investors. By fanning such a silly conspiracy theory, the NJEA is only confirming that it has no shame. The union is making noises now about supporting tenure reform, but the danger is they will offer window-dressing as a substitute for real reform.

Yes, in a perfect democracy, rich people would have no more influence than others. We are all for strict limits on political donations and believe the final answer is public financing of campaigns.

But here on Earth, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, we are charging in the other direction.

Tepper is a Democrat and Fournier is a Republican. The agenda they are pushing encompasses all the common ground between President Obama and Gov. Chris Christie: tenure reform, merit pay, charters schools, a relentless focus on student achievement and more power for parents. Tepper favors only a small pilot program to experiment with vouchers.

This is not radical stuff. It’s the meat of a reform movement that is spreading across the nation, and is the one area where bipartisan agreement is both common and growing.

Tepper and Fournier are not the right-wing Koch brothers, using money to fortify the power of America’s elites. They are philanthropists trying to get poor urban kids a shot at a better life. In the fight ahead, we wish them luck.

 

Star Ledger - Hedge fund manager readies for battle with NJEA to reform NJ schools

Published: Sunday, October 23, 2011, 6:01 AM Updated: Sunday, October 23, 2011, 10:49 AM

By Tom Moran/ The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

Imagine you are David Tepper, a 54-year-old guy with $5 billion in the bank. You’ve played the Wall Street game all your adult life, and you’ve scored huge wins, over and over.

Now what?

Tepper, a hedge fund manager who lives in Livingston, has found his answer: He is jumping into the political game in New Jersey, promising to spend huge bucks over the long term to change the state of play on school reform, starting with tenure.

“I’m tired of making money and am now trying to figure out the best way to give it away,” he says.

Tepper’s views on education put him on a collision course with the state’s teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association. And that’s why his entry could reshape state politics in this decade as much as Jon Corzine did in the last decade.

The NJEA has been bloodied by Gov. Chris Christie, but not bowed. Its officials are shifting tactics now, trying to sound more conciliatory. And the bottom line is they still put more money and volunteers in the field on Election Day than anyone else. The governor may win the YouTube fight, but legislators are still scared of the union.

BIG SPENDERS

Jon Corzine
$140 million

Corzine spent $62 million on his U.S. Senate race in 2000, and another $69 million on his two campaigns for governor, in 2005 and in 2009. He also donated roughly $7 million to Democratic organizations from 1999 to 2009.

Mark Zuckerberg
$100 million

The donation from the co-founder of Facebook is a matching grant, so it’s hoped this gift will generate another $100 million. At last count, the matching grants amounted to $48 million. The money will be devoted to school programs in Newark.

David Tepper
???

Tepper won’t be pinned down on how much he’s willing to spend, but he and other wealthy donors say they won’t hesitate to match spending by the New Jersey Education Association, which totaled $25 million the past few years. If the union keeps its promise to stay at it through several election cycles, the total could top $100 million.


Now, Tepper is promising to match the NJEA — at least. Not just with an air war in the media, but with a grass-roots network in cities with failing schools.

Already, his group has handed out 40,000 backpacks stuffed with school supplies, a move that lets them collect names and build good will.

He’ll need that good will. The mood now is resentful of big money in politics, especially here, after New Jersey’s sour experience with Corzine.

“With all due respect to Mr. Tepper, I am not interested in what he thinks,” says state Sen. Richard Codey, an Essex County Democrat. “I don’t think he has any clue what’s going on in the classrooms. Other people should be making these decisions, not hedge fund people. We’ve seen too much of this. It’s like buying public policy. Enough is enough.”

Tepper is like the cocky new kid on the playground, picking a fight with the bully on his first day.

“I’m committed to getting this done,” he says. “And we have some other folks on board, all of them pretty substantial people.”

His co-pilot on this is Alan Fournier, of Far Hills, another hedge fund manager who used to work for Tepper.

“We will spend as much as necessary for as long as necessary to help the kids in New Jersey,” Fournier says. “The NJEA is focused on protecting the status quo for adults. Our effort is to help the kids. We do intend to be a counterweight.”

Which party will benefit? That depends on how Democrats respond to this.

Tepper’s views at a glance

Tenure: This is his priority by far. “Most teachers are good teachers. But if 75 or 80 percent are good, that’s not enough.” He wants struggling teachers to get help and bad ones to get pink slips. His main concern: Tenure Light, a reform that only nibbles at the margins.

Charter schools: “I am not, and never have been, a huge charter person. They can be good. But people kid themselves if they think they can change the system with just charter schools. The solution is in the regular public school system.”

Vouchers: He supports a pilot program in failing districts, as envisioned in the pending Opportunity Scholarship Act, but believes it should be tried in only a few districts at first. “It’s a good idea that got out of hand.”

Merit pay: He supports extra pay for great teachers and principals, but not if that means good teachers and principals get less. “You have to be very careful how you put it into practice,” he says.

Parent power: Parents should have access to teacher evaluations, and pretty much any data the school has. “What I’d really like to see is what they have in Florida, where you have to get permission from the parent to put their kid in a class with a (poorly rated) teacher.”

Tepper is a Democrat, but his school agenda lines up neatly with Christie’s. He wants tenure reform first, but also supports merit pay, more charter schools and small pilot programs in failing districts that would let parents use public money for tuition at private schools.

Here’s the twist: President Obama backs all of that, too, except the idea of vouchers. The broad areas of agreement make education reform the only ripe ground for bipartisan agreement in America today.

“How is this not a Democratic issue?” Tepper asks. “It really is a civil rights issue. And I think there are a lot of Democrats in the state that know things have to change.”

* * *

Let’s talk numbers. Tepper won’t be pinned down, but he says he’s willing to keep pace with the teachers union, at least. That’s about $25 million over the past two years, all in. He and Fournier promise more, if it’s needed.

And the teachers union, of course, will punch back.

“We don’t rattle too easily,” says Vince Giordano, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association. “I hate to make it a dollar-for-dollar duel in the middle of Dodge City, but they’re not going to outspend us.”

The chest-thumping has begun. But the fact is that the NJEA can’t keep pace if Tepper opens the spigot.

And so far, he’s making smart moves. He’s hired a dream team of top political consultants from both parties who are advising him on the best time and place to start this fight.

Judging from the questions he’s asking, he’s an alert student of the Jersey game.

“Can I trust people when they tell me something, or are they just going to screw me?” he says. “We want to play this like Muhammad Ali, dancing and jabbing. But I assure you, if people promise us and don’t deliver, we won’t be Muhammad Ali; we will be General Patton in the next election. That will be that. I’ve committed to getting this done.”

So who is David Tepper? What does he really want? And should he be taken seriously?

* * *

Tepper works in a nondescript brick office building across the street from the Mall at Short Hills. It’s nice, but not billionaire-fancy.

What strikes any visitor is the Pittsburgh Steelers helmet that greets you when you walk in.

Tepper grew up in a middle-class family in Pittsburgh, attending a city public school that was half-black and half-white, a place where the dirt playing field had to be oiled down to prevent dust clouds.

His extended family was full of public school teachers, including his mother, who taught in a city school that served the housing projects.

“When I say I love teachers, I mean I love teachers,” he says.

This is not a child of privilege. After working his way through college and business school, he went to Wall Street with the ambition of becoming a millionaire by the age of 30. He was late, but he got there, and then some.

His style is to take huge risks. His firm, Appaloosa Management, made a killing after the financial crash by investing billions in failed banks. After the government bailouts, the value of the shares skyrocketed and his firm made $7.5 billion.

One of his prized possessions today: an oversized set of brass testicles given to him by Fournier.

When Tepper hit it rich, he bought a share of the Steelers, his team since he was a boy.

“What would every middle-class kid who becomes a billionaire want?” he asks. “There it is.”

Another indulgence: He bought a $50 million house on Long Island that had been owned by Corzine, then razed it to the ground and replaced it. Corzine had been in charge when Tepper lost his shot at a partnership at Goldman Sachs, and the wound is still visible.

So did tearing down the house help? “He was not exactly a fan of mine at Goldman,” Tepper says. “But did that make a difference? No. The house was dated. But does it bother me that I knocked it down? No.”

* * *

Tepper and Fournier’s first big decision is how to handle this year’s election. Republicans, many of them former allies of the NJEA, are all supporting his reform agenda because Christie, their lord and master, is on board.

So while Tepper and Fournier want to signal their arrival with a bang, the only way to do that now is to kill Democrats in the few swing districts. And the last thing they want to do is infuriate Democrats, who control the Legislature, and be seen as a surrogate for Christie.

“We may want to fire a warning shot,” Tepper says. “We’re trying to decide that.”

One possible target would be Sen. Robert Gordon, a Democrat from Bergen County, in one of the only competitive districts. His views line up with the NJEA’s almost exactly, and he sounds nervous.

“I would think they’d want a legislator who would be ready to sit down with them and hear them make their case, as opposed to just opening up with heavy artillery and carpet-bombing,” Gordon says. “I take pride in being that kind of legislator.”

More likely, the reforms will come up in the lame-duck session after the election, and Tepper and Fournier will launch a media blitz in support, while engaging the grass-roots operation to pressure legislators.

The bigger fight could come in two years, when Tepper can avoid the partisan problem by sponsoring primary challenges to Democrats who are not on board. That could loosen, or even break, the NJEA’s grip on the party. And it could change the Democratic Party by knocking out incumbents who oppose these school reforms.

* * *

In the meantime, Tepper faces a growing resentment against the outsized power of the rich in our politics. Some of the reception, from Democrats at least, has been hostile. And it’s not just Codey. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) is suspicious as well.

“This is about urban districts that are primarily black and Latino,” she says. “And from the 1960s until the present, there has been suspicion on the part of disadvantaged communities when people who are not from their community seek to impose, in a very paternalistic way, some sort of social engineering.”

Leaders of the teachers union are doing what they can to fan these suspicions. And true to form, they are swinging wildly, suggesting that Tepper is pushing for private control of schools so he can make money.

“The real purpose is to turn New Jersey’s public schools over to private companies and corporations,” says Giordano. “I guess $5 billion is not enough, and he wants to make more money.”

But NJEA officials seem to realize they blew it by taking a hard line against Christie’s call for a pay freeze and benefit reforms. They can read the polls. And they promise a reform agenda of their own, including tenure.

“This label that we are the organization of ‘no’ I don’t think is accurate,” Giordano says. “We’ve turned a corner. We understand our role. We want to be part of the solution.”

After the decade of Corzine, Tepper understands that people are wary of a big-money guy tromping into state politics.

But he sees the NJEA’s money as corrupting the process now, blocking tenure reform despite overwhelming public approval.

“This is just charity, only I don’t get a deduction,” he says. “And there really is no other way. If there is, tell me what it is.”

The Record - Proposed charter school expects to run surplus

Friday, October 21, 2011 Last updated: Friday October 21, 2011, 7:43 AM

BY LESLIE BRODY    STAFF WRITER

A new proposal for an online charter school for 1,000 children statewide comes with an unusual twist: After its first year, the public school expects to have nearly $4.7 million left in the bank.

The Garden State Virtual Charter School, to be based in Teaneck, would not have many of the expenses of running a bricks-and-mortar school, from buses and nurses to sports. Its plan estimates roughly $15.4 million in state and local funding and $10.7 million in expenses. The charter's spokesman said it was not clear what the school would do with the surplus.

There are no online charters currently operating in New Jersey, but two have been approved to open next fall. Virtual charters for K-12 students have raised questions about their effectiveness and accountability as many districts wrestle with budget problems.

The Garden State Virtual Charter School filed its application with the state Monday. Its lead founder, Teaneck parent and lawyer Jason Flynn, referred calls for comment to David Schmidt, vice president of Connections Academy, a for-profit company named as the school's curriculum provider.

"The board didn't want to have its hands tied about what it will do with the surplus," said Schmidt, who is not on the charter's board but said he was asked to speak for it. He said the surplus might go toward hiring more teachers, adding face-to-face tutoring sites, field trips or staff training.

The charter aims to put a small drop-in center in Teaneck where 36 teachers will lead classes by Web conferencing and coach students who come in for extra help, the application says. It wants to serve children who are struggling, gifted, disabled or need flexibility.

3,500 pupils

In four years, the charter hopes to serve 3,500 students statewide, with a staff of 107. Schmidt said a "small share" of students would come from Teaneck, but he declined to predict how many. In New Jersey, a charter is supposed to get taxpayer dollars for each student equal to 90 percent of per-pupil spending in the district where the student resides.

Barbara Pinsak, superintendent of Teaneck schools, said the proposal raised a slew of questions, especially how much of the charter's funding would come from her budget.

"I'm reeling from the shock,'' said Pinsak, whose district already pays for students to attend charters in Teaneck and Englewood, and faces the opening of Shalom Academy Charter in the area next fall. Further, she asked, who would supervise children learning at home while their parents were at work? How could special-needs students be included, she asked, when many require one-on-one aides?

"What about the whole child?" she asked. "There is a benefit to extracurricular activities, sports and interaction with peers."

The state Department of Education expects to decide on this round of applications in January.

Move alters figures

Schmidt said the Garden State Virtual Charter's anticipated budget surplus resulted in part from the fact that New Jersey districts spend different amounts per pupil. When a charter seeks to open, the state tells the applicant the local per-pupil rate to form a revenue projection.

The virtual charter devised its budget when it applied last spring with a base in Jersey City.

That bid was rejected, and the charter moved to Teaneck, which spends more per pupil. Schmidt said the charter used the same expense figures as before, but a higher reimbursement rate, creating a surplus.

An Education Department spokesman, Justin Barra, declined to comment on a pending application. He said the state expects charters to have surpluses to cover unexpected expenses, but "there would be a point where that balance is so high we would say, 'Wait a second, why aren't you using that on instruction?' "

Virtual schooling is a fast-growing business nationwide, and 27 states allowed virtual charters in 2010. Connections Academy is part of Connections Education, an online learning firm whose purchase for $400 million by Pearson, an educational media company, was announced in September. Connections Education has shown revenue growth of more than 30 percent in each of the past three years and expects revenues of about $190 million in 2011, Pearson said. Connections Academy runs virtual schools in 21 states for 40,000 students.

The charter's application included a range of statistics showing that Connections Academy boosted students' test scores and often achieved higher proficiency rates than the average in their host states. The charter pledged to give students laptops, workbooks and other supplies, and to administer annual state tests to track their progress.

Charters, which are publicly funded but independently operated, have long sparked opposition from those who say they drain resources from traditional schools. The Christie administration and other charter supporters say they are laboratories for innovation and expand families' choices.

Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, said in an e-mail that virtual charters are a "new concept" in public education and require a thoughtful approach.

"The DOE needs to determine the most appropriate and fair way to fund these schools to ensure they have the resources to provide a high-quality education to their students," he said.

E-mail: brody@northjersey.com

The Record - Virtual charter school plan prompts review of laws

Saturday, October 22, 2011  BY LESLIE BRODY  STAFF WRITER

A proposal for a virtual charter school based in Teaneck that would end its first year with $4.7 million of taxpayer money left in the bank has sparked concern and calls Friday for deeper scrutiny.

State Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, said the proposal sounded like a "business, plain and simple."

"With all the people out of work, there are going to be more applications for this … to get rich real quick," he said.

A proposal for the Garden State Virtual Charter School, filed with the state on Monday, seeks to serve 1,000 K-12 students statewide at first. It would have a drop-in center in Teaneck for those who want extra help in person, but would not have many of the expenses of running a bricks-and-mortar school, such as buses, nursing and sports. Its 36 teachers would do most of their instruction by web conferencing.

The school's budget anticipates state and local funding of $15.4 million and expenses of $10.7 million in its first year. In New Jersey, a charter is supposed to get taxpayer dollars for each student equal to 90 percent of per-pupil funding in the district where the student resides.

Change of rules

David Schmidt, spokesman for the Garden State Virtual Charter School, said Friday his board understood the virtual charter's costs would be lower than that of a traditional school, and state rules should be changed to reflect that. The surplus "underscores the need for New Jersey to come up with an equitable statewide funding average for virtual school children," he said.

He also stressed the board would spend any surplus on enhancing instruction. "I'm sure the board will do anything it can to direct that money toward improving student outcomes,'' he said, perhaps by adding tutoring sites, staff or field trips. The charter hopes to grow to teach 3,500 students.

Education Department spokesman Justin Barra said that after a charter is open for one year, a district that sends children there can ask the commissioner to approve a lower tuition rate if the charter does not spend as much per pupil as it receives.

Governor Christie has proposed legislation that specifically includes charters that "focus on online learning as the primary component of its educational model," and a lower reimbursement rate for such schools.

The virtual charter proposal comes as the Christie administration seeks to expand quality charters, calling them havens for innovation and escapes from failing schools.

Critics say they drain resources from the traditional system. Many on both sides of the issue say New Jersey needs to update its laws to boost oversight and accountability for charters, which are publicly funded but independently operated.

David Sciarra, attorney for the Education Law Center, said virtual charters don't fit the intent of New Jersey's 1995 charter law, written when lawmakers didn't contemplate that children might attend school online full time. He said if the administration wanted to approve online charters, it needed to pass an updated law.

"The charter law is clear, you have to have a physical facility" that is more than a small drop-in center, Sciarra said. "It is deeply problematic for the department to approve any virtual charter school at this point."

Decision in January

The Department of Education expects to decide on this application and 41 others in January. Last January, the department approved two virtual charters, slated to open next fall. "I don't know how those two were allowed," Sciarra said.

Barra, at the Education Department, said the current charter law did not explicitly prohibit virtual charters.

One such school that has been approved is the New Jersey Virtual Charter, to be run by the Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission.

It would focus on remediation and credit recovery for 150 dropouts in Paterson, Camden, Perth Amboy and Neptune. Its application projects a $118,364 surplus in its first year.

The other is the New Jersey Virtual Academy Charter, based out of Newark, for 1,200 K-12 children. Its budget was not immediately available.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, who is pushing for a complete review of the state's 16-year-old charter law, said there should be deeper public discussion of the proper role for online charters before any are approved.

"The current law is too broad and doesn't anticipate this," she said. She said she did not oppose online learning in certain circumstances, such as credit recovery, but there should be guidelines for virtual charters. "Questions need to be answered about all the different services and activities we expect in our public schools," she said.

E-mail: brody@northjersey.com

 

Njspotlight.com - New Jersey Schools' Open Door Policy…With the state's Interdistrict School Choice program, Garden State students can become traveling scholars

By John Mooney, October 24 in Education|Post a Comment

With 70 New Jersey school districts now opening their doors to outside students, nearly 2,000 students chose to leave their hometowns for their education this fall, according to preliminary figures from the state.

Related Links

For the schools, it's an opportunity to fill seats and pick up extra money from the state -- as much as $11,500 per student. For the students, it's a chance to participate in programs not offered by their own schools.

The biggest takers continue to be the dozen districts that have pioneered New Jersey's Interdistrict Public School Choice program for the past decade, with 275 students from across Bergen County attending Englewood's high school academies and close to 200 attending Folsom's lone elementary school.

But with Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature's move last spring to expand the program to virtually any willing district, twice as many students are now participating overall in communities scattered across the state.

For instance, Alexandria in Hunterdon County is taking 18 students, and Runnemede in Camden County has six. Morris School District has 14 students, and Clinton Township 45. Deal Township has 98 students this fall, the largest number of any of the new districts.

And in a program that had seen slow growth in its first decade, the interest only seems to be growing, with more than 3,000 seats being offered for next fall.

The first round of applications for next fall are due Nov. 1, and the state this week will be stepping up its promotion of the program. Details on the application process are available online.

Earlier this month, the state Department of Education held an open house for Camden City families who wanted to learn more about the program in that county, where 12 districts are participating.

The chief sponsor of the legislation expanding the program said it seemed to have hit a "sweet spot" of interest.

"It sounds like we're meeting a need," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex). "It's allowing districts to be creative and expand their outreach."

"I think we need to get past the parochialism," she said. "Students can benefit when going to school in other communities and with other children."

The state's numbers indicate that the greatest interest in the program is in the southern and western parts of New Jersey. In addition to Camden County, Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May and Gloucester also have at least three districts accepting outside students. Still, not all areas of the state are joining in; no Essex, Mercer, or Middlesex districts are involved as yet.

The top 20 districts in terms of Choice students enrolled this fall are the following: (Those marked with asterisk are new to the program this year.)

·         Englewood Public School District – 275 students

·         Folsom Elementary School – 183

·         Kenilworth School District – 143

·         Cumberland Regional High School – 107

·         Deal Elementary School* – 98

·         Brooklawn School District – 80

·         Lower Township School District – 64

·         Mine Hill School District – 58

·         Hoboken School District – 50

·         Pittsgrove Township School District* – 50

 


Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608
609-394-2828



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