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Opinion: A Report on the Education Transformation Report

The Education Transformation Task Force has published its final report, replete with some victories but more omissions.

On September 5, Gov. Chris Christie’s Education Transformation Task Force released its final report, 239 pages of recommendations intended to advance education reform, address inefficiencies in school funding, and streamline the Department of Education’s oversight of New Jersey's 591 school districts.

This is the third in a series. The First Report came out on January 16, 2010; the Second Report, September 11, 2011.

While they vary in length and authorship (fun fact: former Toms River Superintendent James Ritacco, just sentenced to 11 years in prison for accepting bribes, is on the team that produced the first report), the tone remains forceful and righteous. From the Second Report: “We must work together to find the right balance between celebrating NJ’s impressive educational accomplishments and adopting a perspective of moral urgency in tackling the deep concerns that coexist with them.”

After all, “children’s futures and even lives are at stake.”

These three reports chart an arc of the Christie Administration’s reform strategy, which comprises a series of successes, failures, and realignments. Over the past three years, the Legislature has resolved some issues. The two percent tax increase cap for school district budgets cut teacher salary increases in half, according to the NJ School Boards Association.

Some goals listed in the first report -- upgrading the DOE’s database, winning a grant through the federal Race to the Top competition, adopting the new Common Core national curriculum -- can be ticked off as victories.

On the failure side of the balance sheet, school district consolidation is barely mentioned by the third report, a bow to political reality.

What’s unmarked by either celebratory checkmark or conciliatory concession: reforming the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), the state’s district accountability rubric, which has morphed the DOE from an overseer of student achievement into a Dickensian scrivener with OCD, f ixated on over-regulating districts through onerous paperwork..

Other unresolved initiatives, still the subject of stubborn advocacy from the Task Force include:

  • addressing New Jersey's dismal achievement gap;

  • implementing a corporate-sponsored voucher program (bogged down in the Legislature);

  • expanding school choice (stuck in the quagmire of the suburban vs. urban war over school integration and funding greed);

  • eliminating unfunded mandates;

  • reinstating a board’s ability to invoke “last, best offer” when at an impasse with local unions;

  • delegating policies on paid leave for NJEA conventions and sick leave to local negotiations.

I could argue that the successes of the task force are simply low-hanging fruit. But the final report -- the task force is now officially disbanded, perhaps until Christie gets a second term -- aims for the treetops, with an analysis of the high costs endemic to New Jersey's practice of sending many special education students to out-of-district schools. (The U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Programs cited New Jersey for having the highest proportion of students with disabilities in separate settings, both public and private.)

In fact, over the course of the three reports, the Task Force displays a growing preoccupation with the costs of educating special needs children.

This culture of segregating children with more severe disabilities in out-of-district placement is expensive. An incisive 2007 report from NJSBA found that special education services cost over $3.3 billion dollars a year in Jersey. (It’s higher now). The major cost drivers are tuition to out-of-district private special education schools and transportation.

According to the NJSBA, out-of-district placements “involve 10% of New Jersey’s special education population, but make up 40% of the total cost of special education.” For counterpoint, see the report from ASAH, the nonprofit that represents private special education schools.

The task force’s Third Report recommends some radical remedies to the special ed situation:

  • delegating tuition rate hikes at special ed schools to the assistant commissioner and a stakeholder committee;

  • regulating the “egregious pay” for staff members;

  • and reducing requirements for child study teams, which create and oversee the individualized education plans for students with disabilities.

Most significantly, the report admits that the DOE is too understaffed and overwhelmed to properly audit and monitor special education tuition, which ”strains the capacity of the Department’s finance staff” and makes school districts “party to a payment system over which they have little control.”

The task force is eager to see all these recommendations implemented by next August. You can’t fault its consistency and ambition. In a bit of serendipity, Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), architect of the tenure reform bill, has expressed an interest in reforming special education. And increasingly budget-conscious school districts are eager for relief, while committed to providing federally mandated services for students with disabilities.

There’s a sense in which New Jersey's struggles to provide special-needs children with fair, efficient, and unsegregated services echoes our struggles to provide the same for poor urban children. The second report asks, “How do we define the level of school failure that is sufficiently injurious to children that we can no longer afford to 'empower' districts with the authority to be the primary decision-maker?” The same question can be asked both of our segregated and expensive system of special education and of our “Zip code is destiny” system” for poor urban students, stuck in Camden, a few miles from Cherry Hill.

In the midst of a presidential election that juxtaposes the Democratic rhetoric of shared responsibility with Gov. Mitt Romney’s disdain for the 47 percent who depend on governmental largesse, New Jersey finds itself with a Republican-appointed task force that’s fighting for less home rule and greater oversight from Trenton. Either that’s an emblem of the eccentricity of New Jersey or yet another sign of the increasingly nonpartisan nature of education reform.

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