|11-17-11 Education & Related Issues in the News|
Star Ledger - Christie, Cerf appear in Secaucus to push for education reform bills
NJ Spotlight - Christie's School Accountability Plan To Focus on Urban and Suburban Districts…New rules will target both achievement and achievement gaps
Star Ledger - N.J. Legislature scrambles to pass bills during final six weeks of 2011 session
NJ Spotlight - OPRA Request Reveals Charter Advocates’ Role in Application Process…Sen. Gill: Community representatives and traditional school educators conspicuously absent..."Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) filed the request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and her office yesterday shared the state's response of more than a dozen pages of names and emails...Gill said yesterday the lists in both years was notably absent of traditional public school educators and community representatives..."
Star Ledger - Christie, Cerf appear in Secaucus to push for education reform bills
Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2011, 9:31 PM Updated: Thursday, November 17, 2011, 7:06 AM
By Jessica Calefati/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger
The comprehensive set of bills aims to change the way teachers earn and keep tenure; expand access to charter schools; offer vouchers for students in failing schools to attend private and parochial schools; and privatize some failing schools in the state’s five lowest-performing districts.
The legislation recognizes there is "no single solution" to fixing the state’s failing schools and that "a piecemeal, incremental approach" will not help the state close its achievement gap between wealthy and poor students, said Christie, who appeared alongside acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf.
He also argued the bills do not attempt to undermine teachers.
"This is not about being angry at teachers. I’m not," Christie said during a press conference he held after speaking with students in a peer-leadership class. "I’m angry at the union that refused to be a part of the reforms deemed necessary by this governor, governors around the country and the president of the United States."
Democrats welcomed Christie’s discussion about the need for reform but criticized his approach, which in the past has been hostile toward teachers. Christie once accused teachers of using their students as "drug mules" and called their union leadership, most of whom are former teachers, "political thugs."
"The governor’s input is welcome, but his education agenda has so far been tainted by poisonous rhetoric and politics and been a failure for children and property taxpayers, so we’ll continue working on our own education reforms," said Tom Hester Jr., a spokesman for the Assembly Democrats.
Though Christie’s bills have some bipartisan support, many members of the Democrat-controlled Legislature oppose them. The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has also opposed Christie’s proposals on tenure, vouchers and charter schools.
Some Democrats, including Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) have introduced bills of their own to revamp teacher tenure and update the state’s outdated charter school law. Those bills also are stalled in the Legislature.
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA, said the union stands by its own proposal to increase the time it takes to earn tenure and bills sponsored by Democrats to increase charter school accountability.
Baker said the union’s plan would preserve a fair dismissal process and positively affect student outcomes. The governor dubbed the union’s pitch "well short of anything that would change anything."
Many of Christie’s proposals are rooted in the state’s recent application for a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the federal law governing school accountability nationwide. Under that law, which requires all students to be proficient in math and reading by 2014, schools and districts that don’t meet achievement benchmarks are labeled "failing."
Under the proposed accountability system detailed in New Jersey’s application, the worst schools would be deemed "focus" and those with wide achievement gaps would be considered "priority." The best schools would be classified as "reward" and could earn schoolwide financial bonuses.
The Christie administration's new accountability system for public schools will save its strongest measures for urban districts like Camden, Trenton, and Newark. But there may be a few suburban names coming under extra scrutiny, too.
Gov. Chris Christie yesterday rolled out the accountability plan being proposed to the federal government as an alternative to the rules that have existed for a decade under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
It will be heavily focused on the lowest-performing schools, now to be called "Priority Schools," offering assistance and often requiring changes at the threat of losing state or federal funding. Those changes could include everything from new teacher training to a longer school day to closure and replacement of all staff.
Tucked at the back of the 365-page document is the list of schools that would rate intervention if the new system were in place now. And while heavy with schools from New Jersey's cities, there also are some from suburbs like Westfield, South Brunswick, Paramus, and West Windsor-Plainsboro.
They're on the list because the new accountability system also addresses schools where there are wide achievement gaps between students of different races, needs, and income—and where poverty is less a determining factor.
In all, 177 schools -- known as Focus Schools -- fell into this category, largely defined as the bottom 10 percent in terms of the achievement gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing student groups over three years.
At a press event held at Secaucus High School to announce the new plan, Christie and acting education commissioner Chris Cerf yesterday stressed that the interventions will differ significantly for different schools depending on their problems. They said that a hallmark of the new accountability system, in general, was that it would be customized to individual school's needs.
"We will receive a full range of options up to withholding of aid," Christie said. "And it doesn't mean there has to be instant success. We want people to be making progress."
But Christie also said there is only so far the administration will go if progress is not made.
"Their response will dictate my response," he said. "The goal in this is cooperation, but we also know at some points that doesn't work."
The same list also includes the schools that the state designates as Reward Schools, based on both their overall achievement and their progress. Reward Schools with high poverty concentrations will also be rewarded with cash: $100,000 each.
That list also contains many expected names of high-performing schools, like Millburn High School and High Tech High School, both perennial high-achievers.
But it will include a few from urban districts as well, including three of the selective high schools in Newark and another in Jersey City.
Still, for all of this, the plan remains a work in progress, with state officials saying some of the details to be worked out and none of it expected to be in place until next year, at the earliest.
Indeed, the new accountability system as outlined in the federal waiver application is sweeping and complex in many regards. It goes into great detail as to interventions or so-called "turnaround strategies" that would replace the now-notorious system under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) that was slowly marking virtually all schools "in need of improvement."
Under NCLB, the quandary came in the law's requirement that every school make it to 100 percent proficiency by the year 2013-2014, a goal that no state found attainable. In New Jersey, the statewide passing rates on the math and language arts tests remain in the 70 percent to 80 percent range.
But the new system would still set passing rates for schools, to be achieved by 2016, using a detailed formula that takes into account where the school is starting from. Each school will then have set benchmarks for progress for a given year, which will be listed on the new School Performance Reports to be issued in place of the current School Report Cards.
The new reports as outlined in the plan are vastly different than the current report cards, with rankings of where schools fall statewide and also against comparable schools. It will be color coded for improvements and declines, and whether the school met specific performance targets.
Schools will be rated on not just test scores, either, but also different metrics such as a high school's percent of students both taking and passing AP tests. Ultimately, the plan is to also track graduates with the state's data system beyond high school into college, and factoring whether they needed remedial help and whether stayed in school.
Star Ledger - N.J. Legislature scrambles to pass bills during final six weeks of 2011 session
Published: Thursday, November 17, 2011, 6:00 AM Updated: Thursday, November 17, 2011, 8:07 AM
By Matt Friedman/Statehouse BureauThe Star-Ledger
TRENTON — The lame duck session of the state Senate and Assembly is shaping up to be anything but that.
Legislative leaders are hammering out a multibillion-dollar bond issue for the state’s colleges and universities, one of dozens of initiatives they hope to pass in the final six weeks of the session.
"We need to invest in higher education and our higher education facilities so we can keep our industries in the state," Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) said. "It’s a big one."
Changes to the state’s public education system will be sought as well. Democrats say they also hope to work out a compromise with Gov. Chris Christie to restore $139 million in aid to struggling cities, and again pass about a dozen bills intended to create jobs that he vetoed in February.
Then there is a controversial deregulation measure that is bound to come up again. Approved by the Assembly but taken off the table in the Senate in the face of stiff opposition, the bill would essentially remove regulatory oversight of the telecommunications and cable TV industry.
A spokesman for Christie, Michael Drewniak, declined to discuss whether the governor supported the bond issue or telecommunications bill.
"The governor will be discussing many things for lame duck and beyond," he said.
Wednesday, Christie’s office came out with a list of its own bills it says the Legislature has not yet addressed — most prominently a school vouchers bill, stiffening the requirements for teacher tenure and merit pay. Christie also called for strengthening the state’s ethics laws and to allow towns to withdraw from civil service.
Committees will begin meeting next week, and the full Senate and Assembly will convene the first week in December. The session will end at noon on Jan. 10
Sweeney said he hopes he can form a bipartisan consensus with Christie to finance new university projects and the maintenance of existing facilities. The size of the bond issue he is considering, though not final, is $3 billion.
If passed by the Legislature, the bond issue would have to be signed by Christie and approved by voters in a referendum. Sweeney said the plan would include a revolving loan pool "so higher education doesn’t have to wait all these years to get funding for their facilities."
The bond issue was first called for in a January report prepared by the Governor’s Task Force on Higher Education, which was headed by former Gov. Tom Kean.
"Because the state has defunded the whole higher education sector now for almost 10 years in a row, in order to do maintenance they’ve had to take money away form student services, had to add to tuition, cut back on scholarships in some cases," Kean said. "They’ve been scraping to just maintain the status quo."
Kean wants the bond issue to go to public and private two-year and four-year colleges. Sweeney said those details would be worked out with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and the governor.
The Senate and Assembly are also expected to take up bills on public education, including raising the bar for granting teacher tenure, and possibly the controversial school voucher bill Christie wants, labeled the Opportunity Scholarship Act, that was introduced almost two years ago.
Sweeney and Oliver have said they are not committed to moving the bill, which as written would be a pilot program in 13 cities at a cost of $1.2 billion. "I don’t have a position yet," Oliver said. "All I know is that I had heard back in June that (Assembly Budget Chairman Lou) Greenwald was developing a new proposal."
Greenwald said the bill — opposed by the New Jersey Education Association and many Democrats — will be pared down to include just five or six cities before the Assembly even discusses it.
The telecom bill may have an equally difficult time gaining approval.
"I don’t think the bill is dead, and we’re planning a significant campaign to kill it," said Bob Master, the district legislative and political director for the Communications Workers of America.
The bipartisan bill (A3766) sailed through the Assembly in February but stalled in the Senate in the face of stiff opposition from the AARP and other advocacy groups. At that point, Christie also expressed reservations.
Supporters say the measure will remove regulations on the telephone industry that go back to the era of Ma Bell. But critics say it will result in rate increases for some, and will allow Verizon to renege on a pledge it made to provide free service to towns in order to gain a statewide franchise in 2006 for its FiOS service.
A spokesman for Verizon, Lee Gierczynski, said his company is looking to address critics’ concerns.
"Verizon has still been communicating with the key players in this legislative process — with the governor’s office and legislators in the Senate — to discuss ways to improve the bill," he said.
Sweeney said Christie has given him mixed signals on the bill, and he will not move it without his support.
As he put it, "I’m not going to line up to kick a field goal and get the ball pulled out from under me."
Over the past year, the Christie administration employed an array of national and state charter school experts, educators, officials, and other advocates to help review applications for new charters, according to documents released under a public records request.
Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex) filed the request under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA), and her office yesterday shared the state's response of more than a dozen pages of names and emails.
Included in the first reviews were advocates from across New Jersey, including several charter school leaders. The latest round had a more national flavor, including top charter school officials from Colorado, Florida, and Washington, D.C.
Gill said yesterday the lists in both years was notably absent of traditional public school educators and community representatives. She also questioned the expense of nearly $125,000 for about two weeks work.
"It underscores the need for the local community to have more of a role in the process," Gill said. "They have given charter school consultants more say in how money is spent on charter schools than the communities where they are located and will have an impact."
"We should have a transparency and other voices that come to the table," she said. "It locked out everyone but charter enthusiasts."
Chris Cerf, New Jersey's education commissioner, said yesterday he's glad the names are out and said it was more of a legal issue that held up their release.
"I think it was just a back and forth among lawyers about protecting the application of OPRA, but I have long believed that was appropriate," he said.
Cerf defended the reviewers and their pro-charter leanings as valuable to the process. And he stressed that the final decisions still rested with his office and the department.
"These are serious educators and quality people who want public education to succeed," he said. "A central theme of charter advocates today is we need to be extremely thoughtful about who we give a charter school to, and we may have been too generous historically. Being charter advocates is not at all inconsistent with being concerned about quality."
The identities of the outside reviewers had been the source of some controversy after the state Department of Education had initially refused to share the names last year, following what was the largest single class of new charter schools approved in the state.
Critics and others had questioned whether the reviewers last year and again this year may have had some bias and even conflicts of interest in serving as the first line of evaluation in the application process.
By and large, most of the reviewers were connected to the charter school movement either nationally or in New Jersey. Others were either Department of Education staff or active lobbyists or advocates.
Among the better known names in the 2010 round were Derrell Bradford and Shelley Skinner, senior staff to the Better Education for Kids New Jersey, an advocacy group pressing for tenure reform; James Deneen, author, formerly of the Education Testing Service; Kim Chorba, director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families; and Josh Pruzansky of the Orthodox Union. Several New Jersey charter school leaders were also on the list.
The process changed for the latest round of applications, with just four new charter schools being approved out of 53 applicants. In that process, the state employed the National Association of Charter School Authorizers to assist in the reviews, and it brought in 14 consultants as team leaders, each paid $8,900 for a total of close to $125,000. State officials said those fees were paid by NACSA, and no state funding was used.
That list included charter school educators and advocates on the national level, including the head of the Atlanta charter school office, two of the top officials in Washington, D.C.'s charter school board, and the former director of charter schools in Denver.
Garden State Coalition of Schools