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Opinion: A New Year in Education, but 2014’s Battles are Far from Over

Here’s a look at four issues that will continue to shape education in New Jersey well into 2015 -- and possibly beyond

laura waters
Laura Waters

New Jersey’s education reform landscape has always been rocky, and 2014 was no exception, pitted with growing resistance towards new accountability metrics, dissension about school choice, and school-funding challenges.

Will 2015 yield a smooth ride or more parkway potholes? Here are four questions worth asking as we head into a new year.

Will NJ’s “toxic testing” movement peter out after the state’s teachers, students, and schools survive their first year of PARCC standardized tests?

If only it were so simple. Some of the opposition to the PARCC tests stems from concerns about overtesting kids. These tests are a little longer than New Jersey’s old standardized tests, and more challenging because they’re aligned with appropriate grade-level expectations. But the real hostility towards PARCC is driven by accountability measures embedded in the state’s 2012 TEACHNJ law. This legislation ties student outcomes on standardized tests to teacher and school evaluations. The assessments aren’t high stakes for children, but they’re high stakes for teachers and schools. That’s a basic premise of education reform: public schools should be responsive to the public and responsible for results.

But New Jersey’s march towards accountability almost cratered this year after a campaign kindled by one of those strange-bedfellows alliances of Save Our Schools NJ, a local chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, and the NJEA, N.J.’s primary teachers’ union. Each organization subscribes to idiosyncratic gripes, but their combined heft nearly persuaded the Legislature to demur from its earlier consensus on the need for tying evaluations to test scores. Gov. Chris Christie salvaged the initiative by issuing an executive order that diminished the percentage of data infusing teacher and administrator evaluations to 10 percent (20% percent in 2016, topping out at 30 percent for some teachers and administrators in 2017) and statewide PARCC testing will commence in April.

While NJEA was temporarily appeased and even took credit for the compromise, Save Our Schools and other Tea Party groups were outraged. Currently a number of suburban bargaining units are sponsoring opt-out tutorials for parents who have the means to keep kids home on testing days and the NJEA is hosting an opt-out page on its website. However, my guess is that the antitesting fervor will diminish by the end of 2015 after everyone emerges unscathed by the first implementation of PARCC. Look: students take tests. Teachers prepare students for tests, even new assessments that require mastery of meaningful standards. It’s called school.

Will the state Legislature finally pass a new charter school law in 2015?

New Jersey’s charter school law is 20 years old and everyone knows what’s wrong with it. First, model charter school laws mandate multiple authorizers: some assortment of local school boards, universities and colleges, special commissions. But in New Jersey the sole source of authorization of new charters is the commissioner of education, which means that sensible long-term growth strategies can fall prey to transient political impulses. Second, our charter school law provides no aid for facilities. Currently the Legislature has three charter school proposals in the pipeline and all, to one extent or another, address these deficiencies.

But the prognosis for legislative action is grim. Christie is bedding down in Iowa; gubernatorial-hopefuls Sen. President Steve Sweeney and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop are loath to antagonize antichoice lobbyists who fear diminution of traditional public school market share. The NJEA has even called for a moratorium on all charter school authorizations, despite 20,000 New Jersey children who huddle on multiple waiting lists for seats in these alternative public schools.

Well-conceived laws transcend political posturing. But political posturing waylays well-conceived laws.

Whither goes Newark and Camden, New Jersey’s hotbeds of education reform?

Let’s take the easy one first. Camden’s educational transformation under the leadership of Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard appears charmed. During his short tenure Rouhanifard has managed to attract some of the most highly regarded charter operators to the city (KIPP, Mastery, Uncommon) under the auspices of the Urban Hope Act and, concurrently, make improvements to Camden’s traditional public schools. A linchpin of the district’s new “Camden Commitment” strategic plan is community engagement and transparency, and these efforts seem to be paying off. Test scores and high school graduation rates are slightly up, students feel safer, and some parents and teachers are expressing renewed hope and allegiance.

Will this Cinderella story follow the fairy-tale arc of redemption in 2015? Let’s get real: this is Camden, not Disneyland. Next year the school district will have to navigate falling test scores (that damned PARCC!), as well as the sustainability of Camden’s $28,000 cost-per-student-per-year in the context of New Jersey’s fiscal malaise. Expect some turbulence.

Ah, Newark! A casual news reader might be forgiven for thinking that the onset of the city’s educational problems coincided with the arrival of Superintendent Cami Anderson. A quick primer: Robert Curvin, civil rights leader and author of “Inside Newark” describes almost a century of school-district corruption and patronage that has “shortchange[d] the overwhelming majority of children who enter its classrooms.” Last May in the “New Yorker”, Dale Russakoff quoted Ross Danis of the nonprofit Newark Trust for Education: “The Newark schools are like a candy store that’s a front for a gambling operation. When a threat materializes, everyone takes his position and sells candy. When it recedes, they go back to gambling.”

But this Casablanca-esque story was successfully rewritten last spring by mayoral candidate Ras Baraka, who turned his campaign into a referendum on Superintendent Anderson and her much-maligned efforts to reform a broken system. Not coincidentally, a militant arm of the Newark Teachers Union took over the union’s Executive Committee and Anderson’s innovative universal enrollment plan, One Newark, evolved into an emblem of civic discontent.

Newark is an educational palimpsest.

This revisionist history was aided by Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation, a public relations disaster that became grist for the antireformer’s mill. State and local politicians, including Mayor Baraka, are demanding that the State immediately cede its twenty-year hold over district governance, despite the lack of any sort of transition plan. The city’s charter school sector, which educates 20 percent of Newark’s public schoolchildren, is the target of vitriol, despite undisputed increases in student achievement and 10,000 Newark children on waiting lists.

Superintendent Anderson, however, seems committed to maintaining her stride. The district has seamlessly aligned its course objectives to the Common Core, is ready for PARCC, and just this past summer spent $40 million on infrastructure improvements. Local control is probably a few years off, at least until Christie leaves Trenton. Prognosis: choppy but still on course.

Finally, how will New Jersey’s districts fare in Christie’s next budget?

Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch have downgraded N.J.’s bond rating eight times in the past five years. Our pension system’s liability is $83 billion, proportionately the worst in the country. The Education Law Center is demanding more school funding for poor rural districts and will litigate any reduction in aid to poor urban districts. The NJEA and N.J. School Boards Association are currently playing chicken over whether a law called Chapter 78, which requires state workers to make graduated contributions to benefits, will sunset next June and whether New Jersey will then revert to the old system of districts shouldering almost all the costs, a budgetary impossibility.

The optimist in me bets on flat state aid. Happy New Year!

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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