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NJ Board of Education Scrutinizes Christie’s Blueprint for Schools

State board hears on key pieces of education reform, including charter schools and testing.

Credit: Amanda Brown
Arcelio Aponte during a NJ State Board of Education meeting in Trenton. 3/7/2012 (Amanda Brown/NJ Spotlight)

Chris Cerf may have been away, but his top lieutenants came before the state Board of Education yesterday to present -- and sometimes defend -- key pieces of the Christie administration’s education reform agenda.

Cerf, the acting education commissioner, was at an invitation-only conference of education reformers in California, but led by deputy commissioner Andy Smarick, the department’s staff took on high school curriculum, graduation testing, and charter schools in a long day of testimony and questions and answers.

The state board, now loaded with a near majority of appointees from Gov. Chris Christie, is becoming a rising platform for the governor’s agenda as many of his education reforms have stalled or at least slowed in the legislature.

The governor’s proposed changes to the state’s high school graduation requirements announced this week, including new end-of-course exams in Grades 9 through 11 starting in 2016, will need the state board’s approval above all else.

A host of changes to the state’s charter school regulations, including some that would open up the way for online schools, were before the board for the first time yesterday as well.

Once a month, the board has the power to bring department officials before it to publicly explain its policies and procedures, as it did yesterday with this week’s release of new graduation rates for the state’s high schools.

The methodology has been controversial, reducing the rates by as much as 25 percent for some schools from the previous counting method. Assistant commissioner Bari Erlichson spent the better part of two hours explaining the process and the outcomes.

In the end, while there was acknowledgment it has not been glitch-free, even some of the most critical board members said there appears to be continuing progress in the state’s data collection and analysis, a central piece to virtually all of Christie’s reforms.

“My takeaway is it’s a new system, and we’re continuing to work through it,” said Ronald Butcher, the board’s most veteran member. “There may have been some minor flaws [in the graduation rates], but it effected relatively few districts and all of it is correctable.”

Arcelio Aponte, the board’s president, added: “The progress has been significant in providing more comprehensive data and more useful data. It is critical to the progress of public education of New Jersey, that districts have data they can use.”

Erlichson -- who heads up the data system known as NJ SMART -- said the program of tracking every student in their attendance, achievement and even college records is fast expanding in its uses in the coming months.

The linking of student test scores to individual teachers, the centerpiece of a new teacher evaluation system, is to see its first tests by the end of May, Erlichson said. The data system will become increasingly critical in the state’s funding formula as well, as changing enrollments play a bigger factor in determining whether state aid rises or falls.

“Between now and October, my next goal is to bring school business administrators into this and make sure they know how to use it,” Erlichson said. “If we are going to fund schools based on these records, they need to be part of the conversation.”

The presentation on the administration’s plans for new graduation exams and the curriculum changes that will lead up to them also described a process that appears to be very much a work in progress.

Christie on Monday unveiled a long-awaited proposal for end-of-course exams in language arts and math in 9th, 190th and 11th grades, replacing the state’s current High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA). But he left open the possibility for similar tests in science and social studies, too.

Assistant commissioner Penny McCormack said yesterday that the department is weighing the different options, with a request for proposals to go out this fall, but the extent of those state tests will rest with the state board as well.

“Clearly we have some work to do,” she said. “These proposals [from Christie] are a solid beginning, but there is a great deal of work to be done.”

Much of the meeting centered on charter schools, an immediate issue for the board as it considers changes to regulations that dictate how the state reviews and approves new charters and the rules they must follow once operational.

The department’s interim charter school director, Amy Ruck, presented to the board an update on the state of charters in New Jersey. There was a heavy dose of accountability in her message, as the administration has taken some heat for being too soft on charters in Christie’s first years.

Instead, Ruck said while a majority of charter schools in Newark, for instance, have exceeded the district’s achievement averages, it has not been the same for Jersey City. She showed a chart from the state’s largest urban areas where charters outperformed district averages in Newark, Paterson and Camden, but not so in Trenton and Jersey City.

“Some charters are not performing well, not to what we would expect of them, and it’s something we need to take a look at,” she said specifically of the Jersey City charters.

For all charters, the administration is rolling out new so-called “Performance Frameworks,” measuring them on more than a dozen indicators of achievement, operations and finances. The financial reviews are a newer piece, looking both at current fiscal health of a charter school but also its long-term viability, Ruck said.

But the process of reviewing them will change, too, with the new regulations providing more tools for the state to intervene. Included will be a different probation options and a new option of so-called “restructured renewal” for a school that is low- performing but still worthy of staying alive, Ruck said.

“It’s an alternative to closing them,” she said. “It’s a fundamental reorganization, with the idea that it will be minimally disruptive to students.”

Some of the changes with the broadest impact could be in the technical language, however. For instance, the new regulations would allow for charter schools that don’t necessarily serve contiguous districts -- a move specifically aimed at opening the way for online charter schools.

The state has already approved at least four online charter schools, but questions have persisted to whether they are permitted under the state’s current statute and regulations.

The board gave little indication of its sentiments around the new changes, with some veteran members raising the most critical questions and the Christie appointees more supportive.

But even some of them wondered the state’s own capacity for overseeing charter schools as they continue to grow. Next year, the total could top 100 charter schools, depending on how many receive their final charters this summer.

“With the current investment, how much could we grow the program?” asked Claire Chamberlain, appointed by Christie last year. “You have put a lot of things in place, and with what you have [for staffing], could you oversee as many as 200 charter schools?”

State officials conceded that capacity is a concern, although would not put specific number on a maximum.

“As we grow more,” Smarick said, “we’ll need to invest more.”

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