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11-11-11 In the News- Costly: Virtual Charter Schools, NJEA on Education Reform, Trenton Leadership Analysis
Star Ledger -NJEA unveils school reform plan at annual Atlantic City convention

NJ Spotlight - At $15 Million, Virtual Charter Causes a Real Case of Sticker Shock…Teaneck's oversize bill for a proposed charter points out problems and loopholes in current law

The Record - Teaneck school officials urge public to join fight against charter school

NJ Spotlight - Democrats Vow to Fight, But Who’s the Boss?...Sweeney and Oliver discount influence of Norcross and DiVincenzo as power brokers

NJ Spotlight - At $15 Million, Virtual Charter Causes a Real Case of Sticker Shock…Teaneck's oversize bill for a proposed charter points out problems and loopholes in current law

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By John Mooney, November 11 in Education|2 Comments

With two virtual charter schools approved in New Jersey and a third proposed, legislators and advocates are pressing the state to bring its laws up to date with the technology.

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The latest development involves questions as to how the schools are to be funded -- and by how much, given the potential savings in brick-and-mortar costs.

The district of Teaneck would like to see both questions resolved ASAP. It received notice from the state this week that it should set aside more than $15 million to pay for up to 1,000 students who would attend the proposed Garden State Virtual Charter School housed in that community.

If the school is ultimately approved, the district would likely never have to pay anywhere near that much, since the school aims to draw students from across New Jersey. But through a quirk in the current law, the host community must at least budget for the fully enrolled, leaving the Teaneck superintendent with a bit of sticker shock.

"We were told it was purely for planning purposes, but to us planning means budget and programs and staff," said superintendent Barbara Pinsak. "That's 20 percent of our budget, that's a lot of money."

State officials have said the district is overreacting; the projection is only meant to help Teaneck with its budgeting. But Pinsak then asked why had the state sent a detailed notice with a precise figure, saying it will force her to commit funds that will be difficult to reallocate after the fact.

"You can't just rehire teachers in the middle of the year," she said, "and plug the money back in."

The situation has caused enough stir that some legislators are calling for revisions to the law to include clearer rules for all facets of virtual schools, from how students are recruited and enrolled, what facilities are required, and whether funding should match those of conventional schools.

"There remain some real questions of what's allowed and what's not," said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), primary sponsor of several prominent charter school bills now pending.

She has questioned whether two approved charter schools -- one in Newark, the other in Monmouth County -- can even open under the current law. But she said the Teaneck notice has also brought attention to whether virtual charters should be funded to the same level as others, given their cost savings.

"One of the attractions of virtual charters is they are less expensive, and certainly shouldn't be getting what the districts is spending," she said. "The Teaneck situation has helped bring that to light."

A proposed bill from the Christie administration seeks to add some flexibility to how virtual charters are paid for, but it has yet to gain much attention in the legislature. Among other things, it would allow for a district to petition the state to pay less than its per-pupil allotment if it could show school costs are lower. Districts can now petition, but must wait until the second year.

"Obviously there is interest in trying to address these things in the law, and we're trying to do that," said Justin Barra, communications director for the state Department of Education.

Carlos Perez, president of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association, has been working with the administration and legislators in rewriting the law in its entirety, but said the rules on virtual charters still need to be deliberated. He said there are few good models from other states.

"But the reality is virtual schools are happening, and we need to address this," he said. "If left untouched, we'll continue to have the same issues we are having right now."

And he said the outcry from Teaneck is only natural, and only leads to the continued tensions between charter schools and their host communities. "This is what creates the fear," he said.


Star Ledger -NJEA unveils school reform plan at annual Atlantic City convention

Published: Thursday, November 10, 2011, 8:15 PM Updated: Friday, November 11, 2011, 7:19 AM

By Jessica Calefati/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger
ATLANTIC CITY — The New Jersey Education Association has a new message for Gov. Chris Christie, the man who has relentlessly hammered the teachers union over the past year for opposing his education policy proposals.

"When it comes to education reform, educators are taking the lead," NJEA President Barbara Keshishian said today at the union’s annual convention in Atlantic City.

This week, for the first time since Christie took office and made education reform a top priority, the union released its own comprehensive set of reform proposals, such as increasing students’ access to high-quality preschools and making it harder for teachers to earn tenure.

"The NJEA is publicly calling for a broad range of research-based education reforms designed to improve student achievement," Keshishian said. "We are taking the lead on many critical and complex issues."

A spokesman for the governor said Christie proposed education reform legislation more than six months ago and intends to press on with these reforms in the lame-duck session of the Legislature.

"It is a long overdue, comprehensive overhaul that, among other things, ends antiquated tenure protections that protect poor teachers at too great a cost to our children and our taxpayers," spokesman Michael Drewniak said.

"While it is good to see the NJEA moving in the right direction, and basically admitting that change is coming, its proposals are, once again, far too weak and do not represent true reform."

In the coming weeks, Christie is expected to renew his focus on education policy and will again push to give the best teachers bonuses, end a practice that protects more experienced educators from layoffs and base teacher tenure partially on student test scores.

A Democratic Party energized by this week’s electoral victories and a teachers union with reform proposals of its own may make it harder for Christie to succeed without compromising, some teachers at the convention said.

"He has backed down," said Brenda Lawson, a veteran educator from Paterson. "We will no longer lie down and let him walk all over us."

Dorothy Cimo, a Jersey City elementary school teacher, said she was happy to see the union take a stand against the governor’s attacks rather than always being on the defensive. Christie has previously criticized union leadership for being intractable "political thugs."

"We’re finally coming back and responding in a positive way," Cimo said, speaking of the union’s reform agenda. "Everything he says is negative, but now we have a chance to keep the dialogue positive."

Perhaps the loudest advocate of the union’s new outlook is Diane Ravitch, an education historian and former assistant education secretary under President George H.W. Bush who addressed a few thousand teachers at the convention today.

"Teachers of New Jersey, you have a problem — you have a governor who doesn’t think much of you," Ravitch said to a standing ovation and loud applause. "New Jersey’s public schools are among the best in the nation. Hands off what’s working."

In a fiery address, Ravitch challenged the Christie administration to prove the efficacy of its proposals. She spoke against teacher accountability based on test scores, expanding charter school access and eliminating teacher tenure as it’s now known — proposals Christie supports.

"Facts and logic don’t count when you have so much political power and money on one side of the debate," Ravitch said. "The only thing they don’t have on their side is the truth."

Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said, "As usual, Diane Ravitch is long on talking points, but short on substance."

"New Jersey also has one of the highest achievement gaps in the country," he said, "and so we must continue to invest to make sure that every child, regardless of ZIP code, graduates from high school ready for college and career."

Cerf will address the 30,000 to 40,000 teachers in attendance this morning.

Last year, the state’s then acting Education Commissioner Rochelle Hendricks snubbed an invitation to speak at the convention, citing the union’s disinterest in working with the governor on "reforms that put results for our children first."

The Record - Teaneck school officials urge public to join fight against charter school Wednesday November 9, 2011, 10:23 Pm , By Denisa R. Superville

TEANECK — Using $15 million of the school district’s budget to fund a virtual charter school would “devastate” local public education, district officials said Wednesday night.

Superintendent Barbara Pinsak detailed to parents and other residents how students would be affected if the Garden State Virtual Charter School opens in Teaneck next year and the district must divert the equivalent of 20 percent of its budget to fund it.

Pinsak asked residents to join with the district to “ force the Department of Education to behave responsibly towards the Teaneck students.”

“It amazes me that the Department of Education is willing to be so reckless with public money and public school children,” she said. “They seem so determined to advance the myth that these other schools are so good that they will stop at nothing to decimate our school system….”

The state Education Department informed the district on Oct. 28 it may have to earmark an estimated $15.37 million to fund the virtual charter school.

The charter school applied to the state last month to open the K-12 school for 1,000 students from around the state. It would have a drop-in center in Teaneck to assist students, and its 36 teachers would do most of their instruction by Web conferencing.

The school has applied for $15 million in public operating funds — based on a per-pupil cost of $15,000. The proposal estimates just over $10 million in first-year expenses, leaving a surplus of nearly $5 million.

The state will decide in January whether to approve the school.

Robert Finger, the school district’s board secretary and administrator, said removal of funds from the district could mean the end of courtesy busing for students, a 25 percent cut in instructional supplies, consolidation of bus routes for private school students, eliminating school trips, the end of co-curricular clubs and activities, privatization of the custodial staff, 75 to 90 layoffs and increases in class size.

Pinsak said the cuts will essentially lead to “the elimination of the Teaneck public school and the proud tradition of the public school that we have known.”

Even with the cuts, the board may still have to ask voters to approve a tax increase equal to an estimated $250 on an average home, assessed at $465,000, Finger said.

“Whether it does or doesn’t get approved, you can’t sock a district with a bill equal to 20 percent of the size of your budget when everyone knows that those kids are not in fact leaving the public schools,” he said. “So I am still going to have to educate the same 4,200 kids that we are educating today, with 20 percent less money.”

The district this year set aside about $5.9 million of its $91 million budget for two charter schools, The Teaneck Community Charter School and Shalom Academy Charter School.

Shalom Academy, a K-5 Hebrew immersion charter school for Teaneck and Englewood students, was originally set to open this year. The opening was delayed to 2012.

The state Education Department has said the Oct. 28 letter is for district “planning purposes” in its budget process.

“If the school were approved, the district would be required to pay the full allocation for each student in its district that enrolls in the charter school,” Richard Vespucci, an education department spokesman said Wednesday. “But districts can use their judgment about how to budget based on this projection…”

The district plans to explore every option — including legal action — to stop the virtual charter school from opening, Pinsak said.

“We are going to take an aggressive stand against this,” she said.

Pinsak and Finger called for a review of charter school law and for the state to require applicants to provide more information on where students would come from.

“I want them not to approve this in January,” Pinsak said. “And if the state is interested in virtual charters and virtual education, then let’s make plans together. Let’s not devastate the public schools and reconfigure in a way that we don’t have any sense that would be more successful.”

Assemblyman Gordon Johnson attended the meeting and said he would fight the proposal along with state Sen. Loretta Weinberg and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle.

“We all stand in opposition of this idea,” Johnson said.

E-mail: superville@northjersey.com



NJ Spotlight - Democrats Vow to Fight, But Who’s the Boss?...Sweeney and Oliver discount influence of Norcross and DiVincenzo as power brokers

By Mark J. Magyar, November 11 in More Issues|Post a Comment

Buoyed by Election Day victories, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) yesterday vowed to stand up to Republican Gov. Chris Christie, but found themselves answering questions about whether they would be answering to South Jersey power broker George Norcross II and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo.

Two days after retaining 24-16 control of the Senate and gaining one seat for a 48-22 majority in the Assembly, Sweeney and Oliver pledged to push a Democratic agenda that would include job creation programs; higher taxes for millionaires; and healthcare, education and environmental initiatives.

They bristled when the first question asked at their joint press conference was why anyone should believe that the two Democratic leaders would stand up to Christie over the next two years, when Norcross and DiVincenzo – the powers behind their thrones – are good friends with the Republican governor and see eye-to-eye with him on the most controversial issues.

“I think you really demean the members of the legislature when you as the media continue to press that there are outside external influences that drive the agenda in these respective houses,” Oliver scolded the assembled media. “The members of both caucuses of the legislature are perfectly capable of identifying a legislative agenda, moving it through their respective chambers, and it has nothing to do with anyone and any external influence,”

“You give way too much credit to people who aren’t in the room,” Sweeney complained.

Despite Oliver’s and Sweeney’s protestations, it was Norcross and DiVincenzo who cut the deal two years ago to put Sweeney, Norcross’ childhood friend, and the unknown Oliver, who works for DiVincenzo as an administrator, into the two most powerful positions in the Legislature.

It was the Norcross-Sweeney duo in South Jersey and DiVincenzo-Oliver in Essex who provided the Democratic votes needed to team with Christie’s unanimous Republican voting bloc to pass a hotly contested bill that required public employees to pay more for their pensions and health benefits, and stripped public employees of the right to bargain on health care benefits for four years.

And when DiVincenzo couldn’t come up with enough votes out of Essex, it was Norcross who cut the key deal with powerful Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-Hudson), under which Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) dropped his challenge to Oliver in exchange for the chairmanship of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The reason Oliver almost lost her speaker’s post was because she posted the controversial pension and health benefits bill against the wishes of a majority of the Assembly Democratic caucus last June. Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and 12 other Assembly Democrats who had opposed Oliver’s reelection met with Oliver yesterday morning and extracted a promise from her not to post any bills that did not have the support of 41 of the 48 Assembly Democrats for passage, McKeon said. Just how ironclad that pledge is could be tested soon on a controversial issue like tenure reform.

Nevertheless, the leadership moves orchestrated by Norcross, DiVincenzo and Sacco in support of Sweeney and Oliver consolidated legislative power in the hands of the Democrats who worked most closely with Christie on the pension and healthcare bill – the “Christie-crats,” as they were dubbed by liberals and public employee union leaders.

As part of the Prieto deal, Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Cryan (D-Union), an opponent of the pension and healthcare bill who had been angling to replace Oliver for months, was ousted from his leadership post in favor of former Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairman Lou Greenwald (D-Camden). Greenwald’s elevation puts another Norcross protégé in line for Assembly speaker in case Sweeney runs for governor and the power brokers decide to have a North Jersey Democrat take his place.

The realignment also ousted Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) from her leadership post. Buono criticized Sweeney publicly over his sponsorship of the pension and healthcare bill and has been considering running for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2013. Buono’s demotion relegates her to the back bench -- a boost to Sweeney or whomever Norcross and DiVincenzo decide to back in 2013.

Buono’s demotion also knocks down a rival to state Democratic Party chairman and Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) in the Balkan politics of New Jersey’s second most populous county. Wisniewski, who signed on to the Oliver-Prieto deal soon after it was made, was rewarded with the post of deputy Assembly speaker, which puts him in an Assembly leadership troika with Oliver and Greenwald..

To take the sting out of Buono’s demotion for both women and liberals, Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the feisty liberal grandmother who ran as the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor with Gov. Jon Corzine in 2009, was chosen to replace Buono as Senate majority leader. Weinberg will provide a liberal voice in the caucus, but she is not considered a threat to anyone’s future gubernatorial or legislative leadership ambitions. Weinberg’s elevation was also a nod to the importance of Bergen County, the state’s most populous county and a bellwether in statewide elections; Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) remains in leadership as chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Christie praised the Democratic leadership realignment at a press conference yesterday, saying that “all the changes appear positive for them [Democrats] and for the state” -- referring the ouster of Buono and Cryan, two of his most vocal critics, from their leadership posts.

Praise from Christie is the last thing Democrats wanted to hear yesterday.

“We have gone through a tough two years,” Sweeney said. “A lot of tough decisions had to be made, not popular ones. They were made. We have had differences of opinion as Democrat. We listened to our colleagues and moved forward. We did reforms that had to be done. Now we have to focus on what has not been done by this administration -- the creation of jobs and fixing the economy. No one should think we will not be aggressive over the next few years in advancing a jobs package and helping the poor, the middle class and seniors attacked over the last two years by this administration.”Sweeney not only was quick to defend the pension and health benefits bill that split the Democratic caucus, but also to insist that Democrats should take credit for it. He noted that in 2007, he and Assemblymen Jerry Green (D-Union) and Paul Moriarty (D-Camden) “stood up and said, ‘We’ve got to fix the state.’”

Pension and health benefits reform “wasn’t the governor’s initiative, it was our initiative,” Sweeney said. “So when people start saying this was the governor’s position, let’s get that straight first. it was ours and we did it for the taxpayers of the state of New Jersey, and not for any reason . . . I am proud that the people of New Jersey now feel the State of New Jersey is on the right track. We’re going to fight with this governor when we know he’s wrong, but we’re not going to fight at the expense of the taxpayers.“

Oliver emphasized that New Jersey voters favored increasing state income taxes on millionaires and pledged that Democrats would pass the millionaire’s tax again -- even if Christie vetoes it again, as he promised to do yesterday. Sweeney concurred: “Two years of treating millionaires with kid gloves has not helped the economy in New Jersey.”Sweeney and Oliver pledged to work with the governor on tenure reform, but both said they had real problems with other parts of Christie’s education agenda. Oliver said New Jersey’s top ranking on fourth grade and eigth grade standardized test scores, on Advanced Placement exams, and in numbers of students going on to higher education prove that the state’s public education system is “not broken.” She added that there needs to be more emphasis on addressing the socioeconomic problems that hold back schoolchildren in the poorest cities.

If Sweeney and Oliver do go head-to-head with Christie on major policy issues, they will be able to keep the solid majority support they enjoy in their respective caucuses today. But if they are seen as compromising too readily – or, even worse, compromising at the behest of Norcross and DiVincenzo, they will quickly face new challenges from Cryan, Buono and other former Democratic legislative leaders they have relegated to the back bench.

“Majority leader is a position that demands concessions be made -- concessions I am unwilling to make when I do not believe that they are right for the state and this party,” Buono said yesterday in a letter to Sweeney declining an offer to serve as a co-majority leader with Weinberg.

“Tuesday’s legislative elections underscore the reality that the people of New Jersey demand a check on the Governor. I am proud to serve as an independent voice defending our core Democratic principles. I thank you for your trust and friendship in bestowing on me the honor of breaking an historical glass ceiling,” she wrote, then closed with a veiled threat: “And I look forward to breaking many more.”

More in More Issues »

Mark J. Magyar teaches labor studies at Rutgers University and is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Spotlight. A veteran Statehouse reporter, he served as deputy policy chief in the Whitman administration and as policy director for the independent Daggett for Governor campaign in 2009


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