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3-30-13 Education in the News - Dept of Education-State Budget, Autism Rates in NJ
NJ Spotlight - Budget Review: School Aid, Pricey Consultants Are Scrutinized…Despite prodding, Sarlo doesn’t expect changes in education budget

Star Ledger - N.J. still ranks high in autism rate, report says

NJ Spotlight - Budget Review: School Aid, Pricey Consultants Are Scrutinized…Despite prodding, Sarlo doesn’t expect changes in education budget

The Christie administration’s education budget was first up for the Democrat-controlled legislature’s review yesterday, facing a barrage of questions from the fairness of its funding for local schools to the high-priced consultants hired inside the state department itself.

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The target of the mostly polite questioning was acting education commissioner Chris Cerf, who with his top staff, sat through more than four hours of inquiry from the Senate budget committee about his decisions and policies on a broad range of topics, not all of them budget related.

Through it all, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the committee’s chairman, said it was unlikely much will change in the final budget. It nevertheless led to some political theater.

Exhibit A was Christie’s much-vaunted proposal for a $213 million increase in state aid to local districts, a centerpiece of the Republican governor’s budget message. But it received a cool welcome from Democrats and even a few Republicans.

Sarlo immediately questioned the administration’s math that claimed it was a record-high amount of aid to local districts.

Instead, Sarlo pointed to analysis of the legislature’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services that the funding still left a majority of districts short of their aid from before Gov. Chris Christie took office two years ago.

Cerf responded that the aid in 2010 included more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money that wasn’t available to Christie. But Sarlo persisted that a vast majority of districts are still short.

“Sitting in a district as a superintendent today, they are still 90 percent of where they were in 2009-2010,” the senator said.

He and others also questioned the arcane changes the administration is making in the School Funding Reform Act, the funding formula enacted by former Gov. Jon Corzine and still being followed under Christie’s new budget

With Cerf the architect of the changes, Christie seeks to slightly reduce some of the funding in the formula for specifically schools with the highest needs students. One change would alter how school districts count students for funding purposes, a move that some said will also disproportionately hit high-need districts where enrollment is unstable.

Cerf defended the changes as mostly minor, but was also adamant that additional funding for some of the state’s most troubled districts is no longer the answer. He cited Camden schools, which spend more than $50 million above what the formula deems as adequate but still has many of the lowest performing schools in the state.

Instead of the money, Cerf said, “have we done everything in our power to ensure a qualified teacher in the classroom? I seriously doubt that.”

At another point, he was disdainful of providing additional aid to districts that continue to lag. “I am pretty sure if we sent more money to certain districts, we wouldn’t get any different results,” Cerf said.

The questioning came from Republicans, too, some whose constituents have seen steep declines in their state aid. Some of the toughest hit have been in Sussex and Warren counties, where dropping enrollments have cost the schools millions in state aid under Christie’s plan. Cost of living adjustments in those districts also have reduced their aid, infuriating state Sen. Steven Oroho (R-Sussex) who saw 14 of 25 districts see aid cuts.

“That is one part of the formula that is significantly unfair, particularly in rural areas,” he said.

The questions ranged the gamut beyond the budget, some of them on charter schools and the administration’s delicate dance between promoting them and monitoring them.

One piece of news was Cerf’s stated indecision about online charter schools. The state is seriously lagging in providing online education, but Cerf conceded the laws and regulations have yet to catch up.

Two virtual charter schools – one in Newark, the other in Monmouth County – have received preliminarily approval but not their final charters for next year.

“I am in the process of evaluating the laws and regulations,” Cerf said. “I cannot say that definitively they will open. They propose a number of interesting questions.”

Some of the livelier questioning was about outside consultants and other staffing of the department under Cerf, a point of controversy since he took the job more than a year ago. Cerf, a former deputy chancellor of New York City schools, has past ties with private foundations and for-profit education companies that continually are brought up by his critics.

For Democrats yesterday, it was a combination of things. For one, the department has several current and former employees connected with the Eli Broad Foundation in California, a pro-reform organization that has come under fire from teachers unions and other public school advocates.

Cerf himself is a former Broad Fellow and said he has a handful of senior staff also from the Broad, some being paid in part by the foundation. Yesterday, the commissioner found himself defending the foundation, calling Broad a “lovely and generous man” and saying there have been no conditions to the funding.

But Democrats questioned how the employees were being hired and funded, saying there are a number of outside consultants and per diem employees in the department holding critical jobs.

In documents provided to the OLS in its budget review, the department disclosed consultants on the Cerf’s school funding proposal made as much as $1,000 or even $2,500 a day.

“That’s certainly an interesting amount,” said state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) of the latter figure. “Imagine if that went a full year, that would break all records.”

One assistant commissioner, Penny MacCormack, was hired last fall for three months at $1,000 a day until she could be confirmed by the state Board of Education as a permanent hire in January. She is now earning a salary of $135,000 a year, officials said.

Cerf defended the extra pay, saying MacCormack was a critical hire and the consultants on the funding report – including some notable national names in the school funding debates – were invaluable.

“This level of talent and expertise comes with a price tag,” he said.

Nonetheless, Sarlo asked Cerf for a full list of the per diem and consultants hired. The chairman said afterward it remained a curious stretch for an administration quick to criticize the pay of teachers and other school employees, including caps on superintendents, that is well below what it is paying consultants.

“A little hypocritical, isn’t it?” Sarlo said in an interview.

Still, after a long day of questioning and more than a dozen departments still to come, Sarlo in the next sentence conceded that despite the prodding, he did not expect big changes in the administration’s education budget, be it the billions in local aid to districts or the smaller sums for consultants.

“In the final budget, I don’t see the education piece changing too much,” he said.


Star Ledger - N.J. still ranks high in autism rate, report says

Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012, 8:40 PM Updated: Friday, March 30, 2012, 7:12 AM

By Seth Augenstein/The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger

Autism rates continue to soar nationwide and New Jersey remains near the top of the list, with roughly 2 percent of children — or about 1 in 50 — diagnosed with the disorder, according to data the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released today.

Experts say the nationwide spike is due at least in part to increased awareness and detection — probably the same reasons why New Jersey’s rate continues to be higher than states that don’t have as many resources to treat autism.

"The numbers are not higher here because there are more autistic children," said Walter Zahorodny, assistant professor of pediatrics at UMDNJ–New Jersey Medical School, who collected the New Jersey data. "We generally have better awareness and more sophisticated education services — that is probably why our estimates are higher."

According to the CDC study, which is based on 2008 data, 1 in 88 children nationwide is believed to have autism or a related disorder. In New Jersey, the rate was 1 in 49, second-highest in the nation behind Utah, where the rate was 1 in 47.

Six years ago, the nationwide autism rate was 1 in 110; in New Jersey, it was 1 in 94.

The study also found autism disorders were almost five times more common in boys, while a growing number of black and Hispanic children were also reported to have them.

Advocacy groups seized on the new numbers as further evidence autism research and services should get more attention.

"Autism is now officially becoming an epidemic in the United States," said Mark Roithmayr, president of Autism Speaks.

The CDC study is considered the most comprehensive U.S. investigation of autism prevalence to date. Researchers gathered data from areas of 14 states, including New Jersey, looking specifically at 8-year-old children because most autism is diagnosed by that age. They checked health and school records to see which children met the criteria for autism, even if they hadn’t been formally diagnosed. Then the researchers calculated how common the disorder was in each place and overall.

An earlier report based on 2002 findings estimated about 1 in 150 children that age had autism or a related disorder such as Asperger’s syndrome.

Autism is diagnosed by making judgments about a child’s behavior; there are no blood or biologic tests. For decades, the diagnosis was given only to children with severe language and social impairments and unusual, repetitious behaviors. The definition of autism has gradually expanded, and "autism" is now shorthand for a group of milder, related conditions, including Asperger’s.

Many parents are aware of the early warning signs.

Kelly and Mike Samson of Westfield said they noticed something wasn’t right with their son, Matthew, when he was just 3 months old.

He was different from the other babies, they said. He didn’t have the same attention to toys and seemed distant.

"He just never developed that reciprocal smile," Kelly Samson said. "He would see part of my face — but he would never see me."

Matthew was diagnosed at 18 months and began therapy four months ago. His parents have already noticed a difference.

Now 2, Matthew notices his surrounding more clearly, makes eye contact and communicates, they said.

Whether environment and pollution, genetics, or a combination, also contributes to New Jersey’s higher-than-average autism rates has yet to be determined, experts say.

"There’s been a lot of debate why New Jersey’s at the top," said Roger Kurlan, director of the movement-disorders program at Overlook Medical Center, who is researching whether autism is hereditary. "Virtually every human disease is a combination of genetics and environmental factors ... Genetics looks to be the most important factor in the development of autism."

Mary O’Dowd, the state health commissioner, said New Jersey has been in the forefront of treatment for autism.

"New Jersey has the some of the best autism resources in the country and has for more than 30 years," she said. "There is great awareness of autism in New Jersey among health professionals, educators and families. New Jersey has one of the best systems in the nation for identifying, diagnosing and caring for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders."

Parents have also been known to move to the state simply for the expertise the medical community here has for autistic children.

Jill Harris, director of the autism program at the Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, said there’s also been a change in treatment philosophy.

"We’ve always actively looked for autism, but I think the tools are getting better, and we’re getting wiser about what it looks like," she said.

The Samsons, who bring Matthew to Children’s Specialized Hospital, say his treatment is working and they can only hope his progress will continue.

We have no idea what he’s going to be doing one year from now, five years from now, or 20 years from now," Kelly Samson said. "We have seen leaps and bounds in his progress, and we’re glad we live in New Jersey. We’re thankful for every little baby step."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.




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