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Opinion: Getting Beyond the Race to the Top

New Jersey can attain the advantages of RTTT, one failing school district at a time.

A whole week of catharsis, yet the Garden State still agonizes over the loss of $400 million in Race To The Top money. Ex-Commissioner Bret Schundler is out on his keister -- amid calls for legislative hearings because of a botched question that pushed us into the losers’ column by three points. (NJ came in 11th with 437.8 points; Ohio, the 10th of 10 winners, got 440.8.)

More pertinent is the NJ Department of Education’s perceived ineptitude. During the presentation of our application to federal reviewers, five high-level DOE staffers were unable to conjure up basic fiscal information for 2008 and 2009, instead of the mistakenly/cravenly entered information on 2011. And that’s after spending $500K on a consultant.

Was the incorrect answer a clerical error? Was it a ham-handed effort to elude accountability on state school aid cuts?

Final answer: it’s irrelevant.

We didn’t lose the Race To The Top by a grimace-inducing three points because of a whiffed answer valued at less than one-half percent of the total 500 points. We lost because our ambitious reform plans elicited lukewarm support from local school boards and superintendents (about half signed on) and ice-cold censure from NJEA affiliates.

For comparison’s sake, New York State won and had buy-in from every local union president.

Troubling Reservations

Federal reviewers of NJ’s application were preoccupied by the NJEA's pointed non-participation. One reviewer noted, "New Jersey’s biggest challenge relates to the lack of support from the state’s NEA affiliate and the weak support for the sensitive evaluation provisions." Another reviewer worried, "The biggest question for this proposal is whether the reforms will truly make the statewide impact in light of non-support of local and state NEA affiliates."

So let’s get over the anger and face the real issue. Now that Gov. Christie has made an art out of alienating labor unions, how does New Jersey move forward with essential education reforms? (The Facebook group "New Jersey Teachers United Against Gov. Christie’s Pay Freeze" has 74,000 members.)

While New Jersey boasts many fine public schools, children in Trenton and other urban districts (some suburban ones as well) are locked into a system of academic failure. Almost 80 percent of Trenton Central High’s seniors failed the math portion of the High School Proficiency Assessment. At Asbury Park High, 86.1 percent failed the same test.

The graduation rate at Camden High is 39.8 percent. (The state average is 93.3 percent) At West Side High in Newark, 20 percent of seniors were admitted to four-year colleges; average SAT scores for verbal and math were 350/350. And at Levitt Middle School in Willingboro, 69.1 percent of eighth–graders failed the math portion of the NJASK.

There’s no urgency to statewide education reform if you’re a parent in Moorestown or Montclair or Mountain Lakes or Millburn. But if you’re a parent in Trenton or Asbury Park or Camden or Willingboro the stakes are enormous.

Pulling Together Instead of Falling Apart

Here’s an idea. Let’s collectively concede -- parents, teachers, NJEA and governmental officials -- that some of our urban school districts cheat our neediest children. We’ve proven to a fare-thee-well that showering impoverished school districts with funds doesn’t work. We’ve proven that arriving at a consensus for statewide school reform among NJEA executives, DOE honchos, superintendents and school boards doesn’t work. (What about our first-draft Race to the Top application, unveiled days before the deadline and representing a collaboration between our erstwhile commissioner and the NJEA? No way would RTTT reviewers give high marks to a plan that derailed meaningful tenure reform and merit pay.)

So let’s stay local.

What if we took one chronically failing urban district and made it a pilot education reform project? Take the basic elements of Race To The Top -- using longitudinal data systems to improve student and teacher performance, rewarding and retaining our most effective teachers, expanding school choice -- and implement them in a single troubled school system. Offer financial incentives to our most effective teachers who are willing to work in a more challenging environment. Implement tenure reform and treat educators like professionals. Develop the data systems we need right now. Coax in a successful charter organization like the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) or Harlem Children’s Zone. Have Rutgers set up an autonomous magnet school. Permit children to cross boundaries to neighboring, higher-performing districts. Most importantly, measure the effects on educational outcomes for our children.

So we didn’t win Race To The Top. Let’s do it ourselves. (Who knows? Maybe we can lure some federal or private grant money.) Surely Gov. Christie and NJEA executives can agree that the benefits of piloting education reform in one chronically failing district is a no-lose proposition.

Laura Waters has been president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County for six years. She also blogs about New Jersey education policy and politics at A former instructor at SUNY Binghamton in a program that served educationally disadvantaged students from New York's inner cities, she holds a Ph.D. in early American literature from Binghamton.

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