|6-15-06 Star Ledger, Gannet articles- Abbott advocates demand school reform at educ. dept|
Pointing their fingers at the state, "Advocates demand Abbott school reform" "...Assistant State Commissioner Gordon MacInnes, who oversees the Abbott implementation, is a chief target in the advocates' call for new leadership. But he said yesterday that advocates appear to center more on compliance and procedures and not as much on student achievement..."
"We know that after three governors, and several commissioners and assistant commissioners, the state has dropped the ball, failing the Abbott children, their schools and their communities," said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, which has led the Ab bott legal fight and organized yesterday's announcement.
Among the steps needed, they said, was a comprehensive evalua tion of the Abbott programs, fiscal and administrative audits, a statewide student database, and greater community and parent involvement in decision making.
The call for better state oversight is hardly new, and much of it has been ordered by the court. But the renewed call comes now at an opportune time as Corzine administration has tightened the belt on new state money for Abbott districts.
A few of the districts also have come under fire over some of their administrative and other spending, including the Jersey City superintendent's overseas trip to a conference and performance bonuses for Camden's school chief.
The advocates said yesterday unless the state takes a stronger role now, Abbott reforms could be undermined entirely.
"If we don't insure accountability, we run the serious risk of losing the public will," said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, based in Newark. "There are too many examples of where bad decisions are made ... and if that is to continue to happen, the funding that is so im portant is at serious risk of being lost."
Other advocates taking part in yesterday's presentation at the Statehouse in Trenton were the Association for Children of New Jersey, the Black Ministers Council of New Jersey, New Jersey Black Issues Convention, the New Jersey NAACP, Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers, Paterson Education Fund, and the Statewide Education Organizing Committee.
State officials said accountability has been a main focus of their efforts, and they cited ongoing reviews and audits of district budgets, tighter regulations on Abbott preschools, and new policies on travel and other administrative perks.
In addition, Gov. Jon Corzine last month took an unprecedented step by vetoing the contract of Camden Superintendent Annette Knox for being too generous.
"Since taking office a few months ago, Gov. Corzine has moved aggressively to ensure that all children receive a thorough and efficient education; accountability is key to meeting that goal," Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley said.
Assistant State Commissioner Gordon MacInnes, who oversees the Abbott implementation, is a chief target in the advocates' call for new leadership. But he said yesterday that advocates appear to center more on compliance and procedures and not as much on student achievement.
"We're at a stage that, given the run-up in funding, we can make the statement these districts now have adequate resources, with a few exceptions, and we need to be focused on what is effective in the education of these children," he said.
Yet he also raised a fundamental disagreement on the limits of the state's role in driving what happens in classrooms.
Sciarra yesterday cited the state Supreme Court's own words in its Abbott rulings that give the state authority to order changes. MacIness claimed such mandates don't work when it comes to instruction.
"The state's role is to provide every opportunity and assistance to get this work going," MacIness said. "If it ends up a district is not prepared to do that, there is no way for me to hold a gun to their heads. I don't care what judges or lawyers or editorial writers say, you can't mandate these things."
BY GREGORY J. VOLPE
GANNETT STATE BUREAU
TRENTON — Urban education advocacy groups called Wednesday for Gov. Jon S. Corzine to replace leadership in the state Department of Education and implement accountability standards to make sure schools are improving and districts spend their money properly.
"If you're running a business and you're not doing well ... you do what we're calling for today, which is to bring in a new leadership team, a new strategic plan," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. "... It's as simple as that."
Advocates blamed DOE leadership for failing to abide by court orders that say the state has to foster student achievement and watch that money is spent efficiently.
Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley said the governor will name a permanent education commissioner after the budget is adopted, and he would not rule out acting Commissioner Lucille Davy. Other top personnel decisions would be up to the new commissioner, he said.
Gordon MacInnes, assistant commissioner in charge of implementing the Abbott rulings by the state Supreme Court, said he didn't take the call for new leadership personally.
"I don't have a comment on that. That's a management/leadership issue, and I'm biased," MacInnes said. "I would have quit if I wasn't placing us on the right path."
Other reforms proposed at a Wednesday news conference include establishing benchmarks to assess student achievement, encouraging parent and community involvement and fiscal audits.
Advocates said these reforms could have averted recent controversies involving superintendents contracts and trips, which they said "besmirched" Abbott districts and could lead to a loss of public support for the 31 districts covered by the funding-equity lawsuits.
"There are too many examples of situations where bad funding decisions have been made," said Diana Autin, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network. "... If that continues to happen, the funding for the Abbott schools, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for success, is at serious risk of being lost."
Coley said Corzine has already taken some of the steps advocates called for, including auditing the Abbott districts and reviewing programs.
"Corzine has moved aggressively to ensure that all children receive a thorough and efficient education," Coley said via e-mail. "Accountability is key to meeting that goal."
MacInnes said the department has focused solely on student achievement.
"Our preschool program has been successful, and that's not a little thing," MacInnes said. "That is the basis for educating all these kids. When we started, half the kids couldn't read or write as third graders."
Gregory J. Volpe: firstname.lastname@example.org
Garden State Coalition of Schools
160 W. State Street, Trenton New Jersey 08608