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NJ Education: What's Hot, What to Watch

Think the 2011 elections will take all the sizzle out of education? Think again.

It’s not called "silly season" for nothing, since the next two months leading up to the New Jersey’s legislative elections will surely be more about rhetoric than substance when it comes to public policy.

Education will be no exception, with key votes on topics like tenure reform and charter schools likely to wait until at least November 9, the day after the election.

But with stakeholders and policy-makers returning this week from their summer breaks, and schools opening across the state, that’s not to say there won't be plenty of drama centered on education in the next few months.

Here are a few places to keep an eye on:

NJEA vs. B4K

Politics has a big place in policy, of course, and the legislative election and some developing themes will provide interesting tensions that could carry over into the new year and higher-profile elections to come.

A big one will not be so much about the politicians but their backers.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), the state’s dominant teachers union, has made it clear that it does not suffer gladly what it sees as traitors to its cause and members, and it will make its voice and electoral machine well-heard in the coming months with all 120 legislative seats on the ballot.

This summer, it proudly announced that it supported no candidate, Democrat or Republican, who backed this spring’s pension and healthcare reform, and that left a lot of powerful and usual names off the union’s endorsement list.

How much that matters this year is arguable, with just a half-dozen or so districts up for grabs, but the NJEA has no qualms about flexing its muscle and staking out its position when elections carry bigger stakes, namely the governor’s seat in 2013.

There are some new players on the other side that want to stake their claims as well. Most notable is a group called Better Education for Kids, or B4K, that is being funded by two millionaire financiers and led by prominent school choice advocates.

The group is actually two entities, one a political action committee (PAC) that will be a direct player in the election and the other its advocacy arm that will take the issues to the airwaves.

Able to keep its donors anonymous although pledging to make the biggest ones public, the advocacy group is readying for a large-scale campaign -- especially about teacher accountability and tenure reform that is now being proposed by Gov. Chris Christie.

“Philosophically, there are two ways to approach education reform,” said Derrell Bradford, director of the B4K and former leader of the pro-voucher group, Excellent Education for Everyone.

"One believes that everything is working and only thing we need to do is tinker," he said. "And the other says that in large and small ways, there is a lot more we can do to improve."

Steve Wollmer, communications director for the NJEA and frequent combatant with Bradford, said he expects B4K to be fully engaged in defense of an agenda being otherwise promoted by Christie and his administration.

"They will give Christie all the air cover he needs and take some pressure off him to carry what is a corporate reform movement," Wollmer said. "And that is what this is, corporate-backed reform."

Wollmer played down a direct confrontation between his union and B4K, but didn’t shy away from it, either.

"Everyone wants a storyline, but put it this way, we are not going to let B4K and Chris Christie define us or our members without a discussion," he said.

Nexus Newark

Christie and his acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, have never hidden their intent to make Newark a main stage in their education ambitions, be it reforms within the district or the expansion of charter schools outside of it.

The timing then appeared perfect for not just the announcement last year of a $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, but also the chance to appoint a new superintendent in the district, Cami Anderson.

With schools opening today, now it’s put-up time.

Anderson spent much of the summer preparing the schools for this opening, putting in place new systems for principal and teacher hiring and assignments, setting up a training system for principals in which she herself led the training, and readying each school building for opening.

Hurricane Irene didn’t help much, the damage forcing at least one school to start in another building. But otherwise, Cerf said he is pleased with the progress, describing Anderson’s attention to every detail, from personnel to scheduling.

"I think we’ll have a real strong opening," Cerf said yesterday. "I have been extremely impressed with the incredible focus. The district has never seen anything like it, this kind of discipline and operational care.”

But it will take more than preparation, and there are many new initiatives at play. Anderson is rolling out a personnel policy this year that will put dozens of teachers in paid limbo until picked up by individual schools, potentially leaving a sizable hole in her budget as well.

There are shared campuses between district and charter schools in three locations, and growing tensions as to whether the charters will be treated better than their hosts. And six virtual high schools are slated to go online, the first evidence of Anderson’s focus on providing numerous pathways to graduation. The district’s contract with its teachers is also still unresolved, potentially a key obstacle in bringing about changes in instructional time and practice.

And what about all this Zuckerberg money and the additional $100 million that must be raised to match it? The head of the foundation that is administering the funds, the Foundation for Newark’s Future, said recently that there will be a roll-out of a number of unspecified initiatives in the coming months to help both district and charter schools.

"What is that mixture going to look like, that is something that I think the foundation will help set a real vision," said Greg Taylor, the foundation’s new director.

Still, Taylor acknowledged the foundation's strategies will rest in not just the presentation but the execution, with not a lot of time and public patience to show real accomplishments.

A key player will be Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who played a pivotal role in securing the Zuckerberg money. But not running for reelection in the city, he has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate, running against the Republican incumbent with whom he has shared the Newark stage.

The Newark community may not wait that long. The district's local advisory board has already filed a legal appeal to the state’s ongoing operation of the district, a matter likely to head to court and sow still more uncertainty.

Quack, Quack

Many of the hard deliberations -- at least in the State House -- may have to wait a couple of months, with many politicians and pundits expecting that any actual legislative action on education will likely hold off until the lame duck session held after the election.

That includes significant debate over tenure reform, with at least three major bills having been filed that would alter the state’s existing law in meaningful ways. The one getting the most attention comes from state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate education committee. She has pledged hearings on the bill before the election, but few expect actual votes.

Much of any debate on tenure also hinges on changes to how New Jersey schools evaluate and track teachers, two separate components that are also going through their own trials this coming year.

A pilot program to test out new teacher evaluation methods is slated for 11 districts. Further expansion of the state’s student database -- including the first links of student achievement to specific teachers is getting its initial tests this year as well. Neither are expected to see hard results until after the new year.

A number of bills addressing concerns about charter schools are also still pending, and while some may see some life -- or at least hearings -- in the fall, others that would require local approval of charters, for instance, or tougher restrictions on them are maybe too contentious.

There are others in that category as well, including the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) that would provide private school scholarships paid for by public tax credits. That is now its umpteenth iteration, with few making predictions as yet to its next version.

Still, educators and their policy-makers will likely be kept plenty busy this fall. Almost halfway through Christie’s tenure, Cerf continues to finalize his staffing at the Department of Education. The state is expected to apply for a waiver from some of the stiffest strictures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which could bring big changes to how the state tracks and supports its schools. And while the charter school law may go unaltered for a few months, there are still applications in the pipeline and approvals pending.

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