|6-1-12 Education Issues in the News|
The Record - Update: N.J. School Report Cards shows average spending per student is down
NJ Spotlight - More than a Bit Tardy, State Releases Annual School Report Card…Annual report delivers snapshot of the state of schools in New Jersey -- in 2010-11
Moran: War over Chris Christie's Supreme Court nominee claims a decent man, Bruce Harris
The Record - Update: N.J. School Report Cards shows average spending per student is down
BY LESLIE BRODY AND DAVE SHEINGOLD
New Jersey’s K-12 school districts spent an average of $17,469 per student last year, down $416 from the year before, according to the School Report Cards released by the state Thursday.
The 2010-11 report cards used a new method for calculating per-pupil spending that the Christie administration devised a year ago, and showed the toll that last year’s state aid cuts had taken on districts during the fiscal crisis.
State officials said the new per-pupil calculation captured a fuller picture of spending than those used for prior report cards because it counted previously excluded expenses, such as transportation, debt service and capital outlays for equipment. State officials said the latest report cards applied the new method to three years of budgets to allow for apples-to-apples comparisons.
Parents, taxpayers and real estate agents scrutinize the annual report cards — which give test scores, faculty pay, SAT scores and other indicators — to judge local school systems. But several superintendents questioned the accuracy of some elements of the latest report cards, and speculated that flawed enrollment data had skewed the per-pupil spending figures in their districts.
In Paramus, for example, interim Superintendent Joseph Lupo said there was “no way in the world” that his district spends $22,916 per pupil or that it had spent substantially more than in the previous year. The new report card said the district spent an average of $18,354 in the 2009-10 school year to educate each of its students. Lupo said his district had since cut costs for salaries, benefits and transportation. He said his data on enrollment did not match the report card either.
“Quite honestly I don’t understand it,” Lupo said. “I find it very difficult to believe it went from $18,000 to $22,000 at a time we’ve been cutting and moving in the opposite direction.”
In Midland Park, Superintendent Marie Cirasella said she was bewildered by the report card’s claim that the average class size for Grade 8 was one student. “Clearly we do not have an average class size of one,” she said. The report card also said that the number of students at Midland Park High School dropped to 176 from 492 in a year, when enrollment was roughly steady.
“My administrators and I are reviewing the information,” she said. “There are several inaccuracies that do not match our records.
“We are going to work closely with DOE officials to correct them,” she added, referring to the state Department of Education.
Some superintendents said the problem may stem partly from differences in the ways school employees interpret the instructions for entering data into a statewide database, called NJ SMART, that collates information for the report cards. Several used the phrase “garbage in, garbage out,” citing concerns that some of the numbers were based on erroneous data.
Some also expressed concern about flawed statistics at a time when the Christie administration wants to rely more on test scores and other data to evaluate teachers and principals.
Justin Barra, a spokesman for the Education Department, said it was the first time the report cards used enrollment data from NJ SMART, which relies on information submitted by districts and is being refined. He said these report cards are not used to calculate state aid allocations, and that the department does not expect to use student growth measurements as part of evaluations for educators until the fall of 2013.
“We are going to continue to work with districts to ensure that we have accurate data submissions and will continue to work closely and collaboratively with districts to make sure that happens before the numbers are attached to high stakes,” Barra said.
Barra said per-pupil spending figures would generally rise under the governor’s proposed 2012-13 budget.
Governor Christie proposed a budget for the coming school year that would boost direct aid to K-12 schools by $135 million to $7.8 billion, with 82 percent of districts getting an increase. The state Office of Legislative Services says that plan under-funds the school funding law by $300 million, with most of the reductions in poor cities.
The Education Law Center, an advocacy group that has litigated for disadvantaged children for decades, has asserted that the proposed budget violates the law and shortchanges poor children. The state’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, wants to revise several elements of the law – by slightly trimming the extra allocation for each at-risk child, for example – and the advocacy group argued he would be overstepping his authority by doing so. A coalition of critics, including the Paterson Education Fund, plans to travel to Trenton next Thursday to lobby legislators to reject the education budget.
Christie has proposed a $32.1 billion state budget, which must be negotiated with the Legislature and passed by July 1.
Thursday’s release marks the last round of report cards under this format. Cerf said a new version will have more precise, useful data on students’ academic growth year to year, rather than just passing rates on state tests, in addition to more detailed figures on absenteeism, college matriculation and other measurements of achievement. The new cards will compare schools with similar demographics.
The cards usually are released in February. State officials said the late release was due in part due to a federally mandated change in the way graduation rates are calculated. The new method, which aims for a more honest accounting, lowered the statewide graduation rate to 83 percent last year from 95 percent in 2010.
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Star Ledger Column-Moran - War over Chris Christie's Supreme Court nominee claims a decent man, Bruce Harris
Published: Friday, June 01, 2012, 6:01 AM
By Tom Moran/ The Star-LedgerThe Star-Ledger
Bruce Harris lost the fight of his life Thursday, and it wasn’t his fault, not even one bit.
It was painful to watch because he is so clearly a decent man and a gentle soul, caught between larger political actors who played him as an expendable pawn in their never-ending game of chess.
Yet there he was, taking one blow after another as Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee built a rock-solid case against his nomination to the state Supreme Court during a five-hour hearing.
Harris smiled through it all, even as his gay partner of 32 years, Marc Boisclair, sat in the front row of the audience with a pained expression, as if he wanted to scoop up Harris and rush him back to the safety of their Chatham Borough home.
Yes, Harris conceded, he was a stranger to the courtroom. No, he never published a legal opinion on anything, even in law school. And no, he was never selected as partner at the two firms where he has worked. But he would learn, he promised, and he would work hard.
“What’s important is to have the basic foundational skills to make (yourself) an expert in each matter that comes before the court,” he said.
But how, Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) kept asking, can the Senate be sure he has those skills?
The truth is that Harris should not have been nominated in the first place. Gov. Chris Christie just lost a big fight, and he has no one but himself to blame. Afterward, true to form, he was belligerent.
“What it was was a political assassination,” he said. “They wanted to wipe this guy out, so they did. Good for them. Now what?”
Good question. Because behind this fight is a high-stakes feud over partisan balance on the Supreme Court, a standoff that has left two seats vacant.
And Thursday, both Christie and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) were vowing not to surrender.
“We are not an ultra-conservative state, and we will not have an ultra-conservative court,” Sweeney said.
When you parse the positions of each side, they both make fair points about partisan balance on the court. By tradition, neither party can have more than four of the seven spots. Both sides accept that.
The glitch is that Justice Jaynee LaVecchia is a registered independent, but worked for two Republican governors — Tom Kean and Christie Whitman — and has donated money to Republican politicians.
To Sweeney, that makes her a Republican. By that count, the court has three Republicans now, so Christie cannot be allowed to fill the two vacancies with Republicans, as he insists he will do.
Christie says LaVecchia is independent, so he is only insisting on a four-seat majority, just as Democrats had for many years.
“If they’re waiting for me to appoint a Democrat to the Supreme Court because of their false logic regarding Jaynee LaVecchia, they’ll be waiting a long time,” he says. “Cuz it ain’t gonna happen!”
There is a pretty obvious compromise to break this stalemate: One seat goes to a Republican, the other to a genuine independent with credentials that no mortal being can dare challenge.
Christie says he hates the idea. And that’s probably because he basically views the courts as a nuisance to his sovereign power. He once suggested he might refuse to obey the court’s decisions.
He started this feud by refusing to reappoint Justice John Wallace, for ideological reasons only, breaking a long tradition. And he has said over and over he wants a new court so he can enact sweeping conservative change on education, housing and other issues.
Why would Democrats go along with that? And with this issue unsettled, why would Christie throw a weak candidate like Harris into the mosh pit? What happened to the governor with the golden touch?
Christie on Thursday had a blunt message for Sweeney and his crew about his power as governor: “They want Democrats on the court, they should win the next election,” he said.
But Democrats won their elections, too, and they control the Senate now. Neither side can get what it wants without agreement of the other.
Picture two men, each with a pistol pressed against the other’s forehead, and you have the politics of this understood.
Sweeney, for one, sounds ready to deal. “When there is compromise, we get things done,” he said. “When there isn’t, we don’t.”
As for Harris, Democrats were almost apologetic with him as they voted to can his nomination. Sure, Democrats might have approved a Republican nominee, especially a gay African-American. But given the political backdrop, he had a steep hill to climb, and his résumé was not up to the challenge.
“I am impressed with you,” said Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex). “But we should be searching for the cream of the legal crop. There should be very few who qualify for this position in the entire state.”
Sweeney, a husky ironworker, seemed a little misty at the personal wreckage as well.
“It was sad to watch, to be honest,” he said. “He’s a nice man.”
New Jersey’s annual School Report Card, a compendium of test scores and other statistics from 2010-2011, was finally released by the Christie administration yesterday, more than two months later than ever before.
The delays have been many, largely blamed by the administration on new data being collected on graduation rates. Nevertheless, the reports providing information on schools from the previous year -- and a rite of winter for the last 15 years -- moved deep into spring this year.
NJ Spotlight’s Report Card, including interactive charts on student achievement for each school, is available on our site.
Some of the information was a little anticlimactic, too, with the 2010-2011 test scores already released by the state two months ago, showing mostly improvements, slight to significant, depending on the schools.
But the Report Card release also provides other useful information, from class sizes in each grade to the percent of students with access to the Internet (at least on school computers) to the spending per pupil in a number of categories.
Required to be distributed to every student and family, the Report Card also includes a written narrative for each school and district that aims to provide more explanation and information than straight numbers.
Nonetheless, the financial statistics certainly reflected the tough times that schools faced in 2010-2011, still reeling from the administration and Legislature’s deep cuts in state aid the year before.
Total cost per pupil for K-12 districts dropped to $17,469, from $17,885 the year before. In turn, the ratio of students to faculty rose, especially with administrators where there were close to 190 students for each supervisor.
Still salaries didn’t appear to much slow, with the average teacher salary rising slightly to $63,800, with 10 years experience, and $119,500 for administrators, with 19 years.
Not surprisingly, local taxpayers bore a greater share of the expenses, too, paying about 52 percent of the total costs. Interestingly, the state share rose slightly to 42 percent, but the big hit was a drop in the federal share from 9 percent to 3 percent, a reflection of the loss of federal stimulus funds.
After all the wait, this will be the last year of the Report Card in its current form. Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf said the School Performance Reports of the future will better reflect achievement trends in schools and highlight comparisons between different categories of students and between schools and their socio-economic peers.
“While these Report Cards provide some helpful information to parents, the general public, and school administrators about school performance, the Department has long acknowledged that we can do a much better job of providing actionable information for the purposes of school improvement,” Cerf said in releasing the information.
Cerf said the department would bring together experts and educators to start developing the reports in the coming months.
Garden State Coalition of Schools