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Cerf Will Pay to See Progress on School Reform Agenda

New Innovation Fund will reward schools for making goals and hitting targets

Can financial rewards help bring about change in New Jersey's public schools? Apparently, the Christie administration thinks so.

In the latest move to use money as an incentive, Gov. Chris Christie's administration has added to its new school funding plan a multimillion dollar program to reward schools and districts that meet specific goals and implement targeted reforms.

Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf outlined the new "Innovation Fund" in last week's 83-page report on school funding, which serves as the basis of Christie's proposed system for distributing state aid to schools next year and beyond.

Under Cerf's plan, the Innovation Fund would serve two functions.

First, it would provide dollar rewards to schools that make specific achievement gains, such as the largest improvement in fourth-grade reading scores for low-income students or the biggest jump in graduation rates.

Second, it would serve as the central pool of funds for a competitive grant process. Schools would apply for specific projects and programs that meet the Christie administration's reform agenda for raising achievement, including greater teacher accountability or strategies for helping the very lowest-performing schools.

"For the first time in New Jersey's history, state education aid would be merit-based," Cerf wrote in the report.

That is an overstatement, since the vast bulk of more than $7 billion in state aid will remain enrollment- and needs-based. But Cerf said $50 million would be allotted to the Innovation Fund, starting in 2013. The fund is not included in Christie's budget presented last week, but instead would presumably be part of his fiscal 2014 budget.

The program is a continuation of the administration's new push to provide dollar incentives to schools to make gains and adopt preferred policies. It is an approach that has gained favor in the federal education policy under the Race to the Top competitions, which gave money to states to implement specific reform policies favored by President Obama and his administration.

New Jersey itself has been part of that process, last week announcing separately it would provide $19 million of its recent Race to the Top grant to districts that meet specific program goals, including teacher evaluation and curriculum training. More than 370 districts could to tap into the funds, from a few thousand dollars in smaller districts to more than a million in large ones like Newark, Paterson, and Jersey City.

But even before New Jersey won the federal grant, Cerf had been talking about a state-level competition for New Jersey that is akin to Race to the Top. Earlier this month, he announced a $1 million reward program for special education programs that showed the greatest achievement gains last year. Twelve districts received awards of up to $100,000.

In addition, the state's new accountability system will include a category of Reward Schools, in which the very best performing high-poverty schools could receive up to $100,000.

The Innovation Fund takes it one step further. "The idea of the Innovation Fund is to turbo-charge certain reforms," Cerf said this weekend. "Historically we have put money out without any expectations of success, and some ways have even rewarded failure by providing more money."

Cerf said that he hopes that the new Innovation Fund helps motivate not just local gains and reforms, but ones that can be spread statewide.

"New Jersey would quickly become a laboratory for reform, where the Department of Education, as well as all 600 school districts, had a common purpose: identifying reforms that work," he wrote in his report.

Starting in the next school year, districts could apply to the state for funds to implement specific reforms based on Christie's priorities, including better use of data, improved educator quality, strategies for turning around low-performing schools, and closing the achievement gap. The awards would come at the end of the school year, in the summer and fall of 2013.

The grants could be for new ideas or established ones that could potentially be scaled up. Depending on their potential impact, the sums would be capped at different levels.

Others said they will be watching closely, as the federal Race to the Top competition has introduced both positive lessons and cautious notes.

Race to the Top has been "very effective at driving change -- pushing states to do things they otherwise were reluctant to do," said Patrick McGuinn, an associate professor of politics at Drew University who has studied federal education policy. "Teacher evaluation and tenure reform being the best example of this."

"But we are already seeing how hard it is to sustain the political will to see these reforms through," he said. "That effective implementation is both critical and very, very difficult."

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