|12-8-11 Education in the News|
Wall Street Journal - School Vote Changes Weighed
NJ Spotlight - Pilot Teacher Evaluation System Slow to Gain Traction in Newark…Superintendent Anderson "disappointed" in teachers union, moving ahead in half-dozen schools
NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Sen. Buono's Teacher Quality Bill…Rather than relying heavily on test scores, this bill focuses on peer evaluations and student portfolios
Wall Street Journal - School Vote Changes Weighed
By LISA FLEISHER 12-8-11
Voting on run-of-the-mill school budgets soon could be phased out in New Jersey.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are supporting a measure to allow school board elections to move to November and to eliminate votes on budgets that fall under the 2% property tax cap.
Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has been pushing the idea for more than a year, saying that the low-turnout April elections often are a rubber stamp that benefit the teachers union. Republican governors in Michigan and Indiana recently signed bills moving school elections to November.
Under the bill, which will get a first airing in an Assembly committee Thursday, school boards, voters or municipalities could choose to move school elections to the general November election date.
Budgets have traditionally passed in April elections, where turnout has been recorded in the single digits in some areas.
But the elections can also provide a powerful forum for voters to reject government spending. In 2010, Mr. Christie urged voters to revolt against school districts where teachers hadn't agreed to pay freezes. Ultimately, 59% of budgets across the state's more than 600 districts were rejected that year.
"Voters sometimes will react to a budget based on other considerations, such as the general state of the economy or more likely other governmental spending," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, which supports the measure. "This is the only thing they're able to take it out on."
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said the state's largest teachers union supports the bill, particularly because it is optional for districts.
Republican Assemblyman Declan O'Scanlon called the concept "wise," but he said he had some concerns, including that budget votes in November would occur after the school year begins. But he said it would encourage school districts to stay under the 2% cap to avoid facing voters.
This year, eight of 11 school districts were successful when they asked voters to approve tax increases above the cap. Voters in Garwood, for example, approved money for art and music programs, full-day kindergarten and extracurricular activities. But Monroe Township voters rejected extra money for full-day kindergarten.
Write to Lisa Fleisher at firstname.lastname@example.org
In New Jersey's highest-profile school district, plans to test one of Gov. Chris Christie's highest-profile reform initiatives have gotten off to a bumpy start with the teachers union.
Still, a half-dozen district schools will test a new teacher evaluation system.
Superintendent Cami Anderson 12-8-plans to formally launch the pilot in the next week, naming a team to oversee the development of the system. She said there would be a heavy emphasis in the beginning on setting clear goals and feedback for teachers.
Anderson said she hoped to put the pilot in place in as many schools as possible, but after what she described as extensive outreach to teachers and the Newark Teachers Union, she was unable to win any buy-in votes.
Instead, she will start in just seven schools receiving federal School Improvement Grants (SIGs), with the pilot being a condition of the grants. The schools were chosen from among the state's lowest performing.
"The more people who weigh in, the more likely it will be successful," she said yesterday. "That was the spirit, to get more involved."
But Anderson put some of the blame on the NTU for a lack of wider involvement. "It is absolutely clear to me they played in a role in that, and that's disappointing," she said. "I believe their members want to be part of this."
Newark is one of 11 districts that are conducting a pilot of a new statewide teacher evaluation system that ultimately could be used for determining teachers' tenure and perhaps even pay.
The system has been the centerpiece of Christie's moves to revamp teacher tenure and tie it more closely to student performance. Newark's involvement would have been especially notable not just as the state's largest district but also due to its headline-grabbing $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Part of that money will go toward the pilot's development.
But even in other pilot districts, union support has been a delicate balance, albeit so far mostly cooperative. That is particularly noteworthy since the teachers in all the other districts are represented by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the statewide teachers union that has been in frequent combat with Christie.
"The main feedback we are hearing from teachers is that there is still a lot of work to do but they appreciate being at the table," said Justin Barra, the state Department of Education's communications director.
The Newark Teachers Union is part of the American Federation of Teachers and had appeared more receptive to the effort. But its leadership said it balked after its members' expressed reluctance over some of the details in the plan.
"In our discussions, a few of our building representatives asked if we would accept a resolution not in favor of the pilot in its current form," said Joseph Del Grosso, the union's long-time president. "It passed unanimously."
But he denied any formal campaign against the proposal in individual schools or among his members.
"We just said we want other things in it," Del Grosso said, pointing specifically to the union's push for a greater role for teachers' peers in their evaluations.
Anderson maintained the pilot would include extensive feedback from peer teachers. "It's all about how do we get teachers great feedback, but that is not just limited to peers," she said.
But even those details are still to be developed, Anderson said, part of a process that will take place early in the year and start to be tested in different schools in the spring. The more controversial use of student test scores in gauging teacher performance likely will not come until the next school year. The district is currently conducting its own review of its student and teacher data, including through an audit by KPMG.
"We still need to clean up our own data in Newark before we can do that, and also need that statewide comparability data that will come from the state," Anderson said.
What it is: State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the outgoing Senate Majority Leader, has introduced a bill that would put in a place a statewide system for evaluating and supporting teachers. Modeled after the one used in Cincinnati public schools, the system would rely on peer evaluations, teacher observations, and student portfolios in gauging teacher effectiveness.
What it means: The bill is counter to those being proffered by both Gov. Chris Christie's administration and Democratic legislators, who are pushing a complete overhaul of not just teacher evaluation -- which puts heavy emphasis on student test scores -- but of how it is used in determining tenure.
What else it means: Buono remains on the short list of those said to be thinking about making a run for governor in 2013, and education has been among the issues she has been most outspoken on. But she also appears on the outs within her own party's Senate leadership, voted out as its Majority Leader after the November election. That makes this bill's chances shorter, but it also speaks to the lack of a clear consensus within the Democratic membership as to what is the best approach.
What it's not: The proposal ramps way down the reliance on test scores that is the underpinning of Christie's proposals, as well as proposed tenure reforms being developed by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) as part of a bill soon to be reintroduced. "Test scores have a place, but they should also give us pause," Buono said. "When we want to make high-stakes decisions about teachers and students, let's make sure we are doing this the right way."
Academic underpinnings: Buono said she has worked on this proposal for the better part of a year, meeting with academics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, among others. And it led to a unique press announcement, one that listed a number of academic studies. Typically, legislative press releases do not come with footnotes.
NJEA similarities: The bill bears some resemblance to what the New Jersey Education Association has proposed as a tenure reform to counter Christie's proposal. The NJEA would include an added year for a teacher to get intensive training before receiving tenure, something that Buono has also proposed, and the union has long been critical of the emphasis on test scores as a measure of teacher performance. Buono adds in another pro-union piece: the system would ultimately be part of collective bargaining. But Buono said the NJEA was not involved in the crafting of her plan, and in fact disagreed on some pieces. The NJEA concurs this is not its bill and that it is helping draft another one for introduction soon.
Political prospects: Buono said she's not placing any bets on her proposal in the near future, including the current lame duck session, but hopes it will spark further discussions, including with Ruiz. And she knows her diminished role in the Democratic leadership doesn't help. "But I'm going to be as outspoken as ever, if not more so," she said.
Not done yet: Coupled with her proposal for a fourth year of training, Buono said she hopes to complete a package of bills on educator effectiveness, the next one focusing on evaluating principals. "I have a draft almost ready," she said.
Garden State Coalition of Schools