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Education Department Working Flat Out to Finish Federal Waiver

Critics contend too little time taken to gather public input on No Child Left Behind waiver application.

The Christie administration is scrambling to complete a proposal to the federal government that would essentially remake how New Jersey grades and monitors its public schools.

But in the rush to complete its waiver to the No Child Left Behind Act, the state is being accused of skimping on a critical aspect of the application: public input. It also has frustrated some critics who say the Department of Education hasn't shared enough information about what will be in the waiver application.

With five days to go to next Monday's deadline, the department yesterday accepted the last of the public testimony before it will formally submit its waiver application, which will lay out a system of tiered grading and interventions for public schools.

More than 200 individuals and organizations have weighed in through private meetings and online comment. These range from parents and businesspeople to the state's largest teachers union, representing 200,000 members.

The New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) has been at the table almost every step of the way, raising concerns but also appreciative of Gov. Chris Christie's invitation after what has been a rocky relationship.

"I'd say the meetings have been positive, productive, and cordial even," said Vince Giordano, the union's executive director.

Still, Giordano said he has had his issues, and others have called the process way too rushed. The Education Law Center (ELC), the Newark advocacy group that led the landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation, suggested the state wait for the next round of applications so as to gain more public input.

"Such far-reaching plans deserve more careful legislative review and fuller public examination than the department has provided for," wrote David Sciarra, director of the ELC, in a letter to acting commissioner Chris Cerf.

"The Department's selective private conversations with an unknown number of 'stakeholders' and 'community members' are not a substitute for transparent public review of such significant proposals," Sciarra noted.

The uncertainty as to exactly what the administration will be proposing is one of the key concerns, with few details so far offered from Cerf and his top staff, who are working virtually full time on the application.

"It's literally an all-hands-on-deck situation" said Justin Barra, the department's communications director. "It involves every division in the department and the commissioner is heavily involved, too. It has been for the last month and a half, and it will be for the next week."

Last week, the department released an 11-page outline that gave the few details known so far. It proposed abandoning the current State Report Card and the federal requirements for "adequate yearly progress," replacing them with School Performance Reports and different tiers of achievement. Those on the bottom rungs would require specific interventions. Those at the top would see far less oversight and even potential rewards.

"There may be some minor differences in the end over what we are doing," said Barra. "But as to the general principle that NCLB is flawed and needs changing, that is universal."

But exactly what measures the administration would use and how it would decide the interventions remains the mystery, with Cerf laying out a number of options but saying districts would be left with some unspecified discretion. Adding more uncertainty, he also said the new procedures would require some statutory changes, from those that dictate how teachers are granted tenure to more sweeping measures to expand charter schools and even distribute school vouchers.

The inclusion of the vouchers bill -- the controversial Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) -- specifically roiled several of the interest groups. Some wondered if the administration is using the application to press the legislation through.

"It muddies everything up," said Giordano, whose union has forcefully opposed school vouchers in any form. "We have told them to leave it down the street with the legislature."

Nonetheless, he said the administration appears sincere in its efforts to include different voices, even critical ones. The union's strained relationship with Christie over the past two years -- including the governor's rejection of the union's support a year ago for the application for federal Race to the Top money – has left "cause for pause," Giordano said

"But I don't think this has been just an exercise," he said. "I do think there has been an serious exchange of views."

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