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12-19-11 Education Issues in the News
Press of Atlantic City - New Jersey will not get share of Race to the Top education funds

NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: New Jersey's "Race to the Top” Scores…The state misses out again, this time on the federal Early Learning Challenge

Star Ledger - 50 briefly occupy N.J. Department of Education lobby to protest charter schools

NJ Spotlight - A Year after His Appointment, Why Is Commissioner Cerf Still 'Acting'?...Political grudges, impassioned rhetoric may be keeping Cerf from Senate confirmation

State pays $40,000 to newspaper for withholding public information...Judge rules for Asbury Park Press

Press of Atlantic City - New Jersey will not get share of Race to the Top education funds

Posted: Friday, December 16, 2011 5:50 pm

By DIANE D'AMICO Education WriterpressofAtlanticCity.com | 0 comments

New Jersey will not get a share of $500 million in federal funds for early childhood education initiatives, but is still in the running for a share of $200 million in federal K-12 reform funds.

On Friday, the White House announced that nine states - California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington - will receive grant awards from the $500 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge fund, a competitive grant program jointly administered by the U.S. departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

Six other states are still in competition with New Jersey for the $200 million in K-12 funding: Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana and Pennsylvania. Awards will be announced later this month. New Jersey is eligible for about $38 million, state officials said.

New Jersey acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf issued a statement saying that while they are disappointed, state officials will move forward with an early childhood action plan. The governor already has issued an executive order creating an Early Learning Commission to improve the quality of existing preschool programs and increase access across the state.

"We will not stop or let up on these reform efforts," Cerf said.

Contact Diane D'Amico:



NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: New Jersey's "Race to the Top” Scores…The state misses out again, this time on the federal Early Learning Challenge

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By John Mooney, December 19, 2011 in Education|Post a Comment

What it is: New Jersey again finished out of the running for federal Race to the Top funds, this time in its Early Learning Challenge, which would provide up to $60 million for programs such as a new rating system for preschools and a "kindergarten readiness" assessment. Each state's application was graded by a team of five reviewers, who gave numerical scores and comments on each component of the bid. New Jersey's reviewers didn't have any strong criticisms of the state's proposal, but consistently found enough shortcomings that kept New Jersey from being one of the top nine that won awards.

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What it will mean: The rejection sets back the state's timeframe for implementing its plans, especially those that would have given quality ratings and follow-up training to hundreds of preschools across the state. New Jersey officials said that will still happen, but at a slower pace.

What it also means: To say the least, the Christie administration doesn't have a stellar record on federal education grants. This is the third Race to the Top competition in which the state has fallen short, the most famous being a year ago when New Jersey lost $400 million on what was a technicality. The state has also lost out three years running on federal charter school start-up funding.

The numbers: In this competition, New Jersey finished 15th out of 37 states applying, with a score of 221.8 out of a maximum of 300. The top score was North Carolina with 269.6. California was the lowest scorer to still win a grant, with 243.6.

Reviewer No. 4: Four of the five reviewers, drawn from a list of experts and officials, gave New jersey at least 200 out of their maximum of 300 points. Reviewer No. 4 -- the names for each state are kept anonymous -- came in at 189, continually citing a lack of specifics in the bid about just how the state would meet its promises. "Many of the proposed projects appear to be more a conceptual idea with limited actions currently taken, or broad actions proposed in a very compressed timeframe."

Other themes: Even among the reviewers with higher scores, the state's application appeared to lose significant points on a few key areas, including its planned assessment system for incoming kindergartners, its own budgetary commitment to the projects, and some of the details as to how it would grade preschool programs.

The commissioner's response: "The reality is this was a very positive process for us. Through it, we identified a number of ways to coordinate agencies much better and in more focused ways, and a very significant percentage of this we're still planning to do and actually will be able to do with existing resources," said acting education commissioner Chris Cerf.

A critic's response: "This is yet another lost opportunity for New Jersey's children. When coupled with the bungled Race to the Top application and the failed charter school grant process, New Jersey's schools have been denied nearly a half-billion dollars in federal aid. The Christie Administration simply has to do a better job," read a statement from Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly's Education Committee.


Star Ledger - 50 briefly occupy N.J. Department of Education lobby to protest charter schools

Published: Friday, December 16, 2011, 4:18 PM Updated: Friday, December 16, 2011, 4:18 PM

By Christopher Baxter/Statehouse BureauThe Star-LedgerFollow

TRENTON — Protesters angry about the Christie administration's charter school initiatives briefly occupied the lobby of the state Department of Education this morning, chanting, "charter reform now!"

The group of about 50 people from Highland Park, Edison, New Brunswick, Teaneck, Montclair, Cherry Hill, Voorhees and South Orange said the state was dividing their communities by considering putting charter schools there.

"Why, when we have a high-performing district, would they approve a charter school?" said Rita McClellan of Cherry Hill.

A State Police trooper responded to the protest and asked the residents to leave the department's lobby after they were told that no one from Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf's office was available to speak with them.

The protesters delivered several boxes of petitions against applications for charter schools in their communities before peacefully going back outside. They said the state was refusing to listen to their concerns.

"They chose not to meet with us, so we decided to come to them," said Darcie Cimarusti of Highland Park. "I don't understand why they won't listen to us."

The department said in a statement that they "take seriously all public comment that we receive in the review process."

"We welcome an open, honest, and productive dialogue about proposed charter applications," the statement said. "We encourage community members across the state to take an active role in public education in their communities."

In recent years, the charter school movement has taken off with little resistance from urban communities where the public schools are failing.

But as attempts are made to establish charter schools in the suburbs, a rising tide of opposition and resentment has emerged. Charter schools are independently run but receive public funds, taking money away from public schools.


NJ Spotlight - A Year after His Appointment, Why Is Commissioner Cerf Still 'Acting'?...Political grudges, impassioned rhetoric may be keeping Cerf from Senate confirmation

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By John Mooney, December 19, 2011 in Education|1 Comment

In Gov. Chris Christie's battle with Democrats over the confirmation of Chris Cerf as his education commissioner, a lot of political energy is being spent on a job title that most agree doesn't mean a whole a lot in legal terms.

The symbolism may be another matter.

At issue is Cerf's continued title as "acting" commissioner of education, exactly one year tomorrow since his appointment by Christie.

The acting part sticks with him until he is confirmed by the Senate. But the Senate has yet to even hear the nomination, since state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) has exercised his "senatorial courtesy" to block consideration due to an evolving series of objections to Cerf that now seem unlikely to go away.

It started with a perceived slight to Rice's Joint Committee on Public Schools, moving more recently to Cerf's relationships to politicians in state and then education firms outside of it.

Christie, for his part, has raised the stakes significantly, taking Rice, along with other Democrats in Essex County, to task repeatedly in the past week. He is now holding up the appointment of new Superior Court judges to Essex County until the confirmation is resolved.

Ironically, the "acting" title has virtually no impact on the job's functions; Cerf holds the same powers that he would when and if he is confirmed.

It's not a new situation for the state. Former commissioner Lucille Davy holds the record of acting education commissioners, going 13 months from September 2005 to October 2006 before she was finally confirmed.

The circumstances were different, however. Davy was appointed by acting Governor Richard Codey and then kept the post while former Gov. Jon Corzine did a national search for a new commissioner, only to end up picking Davy.

While in office, Davy often said that she never felt impeded by the caveat to her title, since she served at the favor of the governor and that was all that counted.

"There are two ways in which being acting commissioner is less than just being commissioner," said Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. "First, if you are clearly viewed as a placeholder until someone better can be found. Second, if you are not given the full power of the commissioner's office. Cerf's situation doesn't apply to either. He isn't going anywhere, and he has the full authority of the office at his disposal.

"So in this case, it comes down to the personalities and politics of Trenton, as well as the ongoing negotiations between the governor and the legislature on a host of issues," he said. "But substantively, I seriously doubt that anyone questions whether Cerf is in charge of the education department."

Still, there are issues of ego and respect, and Christie doesn't hide his contempt for the legislature refusing to even act on his nominations. Michael Drewniak, Christie's spokesman, said last week as the Senate was meeting that Rice is treating Christie's cabinet like it was a "provisional government."

"Nobody questions that Cerf is qualified and has a terrific background, that he's smart, intelligent and capable," Drewniak said. "All governors, just like the Democratic predecessors, have had their own cabinets approved by the Senate. Why not this one?

"It's the most minimal requirement," he said. "How about a little respect?"

And there do remain some practical disadvantages, or at least inconveniences: Cerf and his staff are sometimes left to explain why he remains in an acting capacity to those outside the state, including potential recruits for the department jobs. The fact he has been slow to fill all the top positions has added to the perception, although Cerf denies the acting title has anything to do with it.

Either way, Rice doesn't sound like someone who will back down soon. It actually started a year ago, with Rice's insistence that Cerf first visit Rice's committee before his confirmation. It then evolved into objections over Cerf's friendship with Newark Mayor Cory Booker and his stand on local control of the city's schools. Now, Rice said his beef is over Cerf's alleged connections to private firms with their eyes on New Jersey public education.

"I have a lot of issues with his relationships," Rice said Thursday. "There were integrity questions coming from New York City, and there are integrity questions here."

Still, as much as Rice appears to be relishing the attention, Cerf's supporters conversely said it may end up a badge of honor for the commissioner -- acting or otherwise.

"In some ways, the story behind why he is still only 'acting' makes him sound like a bad-ass," said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform in New York City. "For a guy who wants to break china and get things done, that's not a terrible problem to have."

State pays $40,000 to newspaper for withholding public information...Judge rules for Asbury Park Press

3:13 PM, Dec. 18, 2011 |

For the state Department of Education, the cost of withholding public information from the public has a steep price tag: $40,290.80.

That’s the total the state paid the Asbury Park Press for its legal fees after a Superior Court judge ruled in July the department violated the state’s Open Public Records Act. The Press sued this year when it was denied full access to a list of schools the department planned to investigate for possibly tampering with state-mandated tests.

The education department had blacked out the school names in its test “erasure analysis” reports for 2008, 2009 and 2010 after the Press requested the full list. An erasure analysis examines patterns in state tests to see if wrong answers are changed to correct answers at a rate that is higher than normal. In other states, teachers and administrators have been caught altering tests as a way to win bonuses and preserve government funding.

The state said it denied the Press access to the records because it planned to eventually investigate the erasures.

State Superior Court Linda R. Feinberg, Mercer County, though, ruled that the department violated OPRA, which says all government records are public with a few exceptions. She later ordered that the Press’ legal fees be paid by the state, which is normally required under OPRA.

“This decision shows that the Press and its sister papers won’t back down from a fight for public records,” said Hollis R. Towns, executive editor and vice president of news for the Press, the flagship paper of New Jersey Press Media. “We are committed to providing strong watchdog reporting for our readers when it comes to keeping tabs on the government.”

Acting state Education Commissioner Christopher D. Cerf announced in July, after the Press won the right to see the full list of schools, that the agency would investigate testing procedures at nine public schools based on the erasure reports. The schools include the Avenel Street School in Woodbridge, four in Newark and four elsewhere in northern New Jersey.

Cerf said the erasure reports do not prove that cheating happened or implicate anyone in wrongdoing. But significantly higher erasure marks at schools warrant reviews, according to Cerf. The investigation is ongoing, according to the education department.

Todd B. Bates: 732-643-4237; tbates@ njpressmedia.com; Contributing: NJ Press Media archives


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