The setting was austere, even elegant. The reception was less so.
Hundreds of New Jersey educators filled Trenton’s gilded and marble War Memorial today to hear state education Commissioner Bret Schundler share his plans for the state’s application to the federal Race to the Top program.
At stake is up to $400 million in available money for a host of education reforms, and Schundler wanted the educators’ support for the specifics of the plan.
But what he also got was earful on the many details in the proposal, including changes in pay and tenure for teachers, guidelines for turning around under-performing schools, and details on new standards and testing.
For each piece of the plan, districts—including their superintendent, school board and teachers union—are supposed to check “yes” for support, “no” for rejection, or “conditional” if it needs more time and information.
Here are some perspectives from each.
About halfway into a presentation that would go three hours, Viktor Joganow was walking out.
The superintendent of Passaic Valley High School district was none too pleased. The Christie administration had cut his budget by more than $1 million, forcing reductions in pay for his aides and extracurricular programs, and now they wanted his support.
“Frustration, you could feel it in the room,” Joganow said. “Their actions over the last few months have established what their agenda is, and it’s not support of public schools.”
Still, he conceded there are some intriguing ideas in the application, even if he doesn’t think they have much chance of ever passing. Tenure needs cleaning up, he said, and what’s not to like in tracking teacher performance with student performance.
“What’s most interesting is the longitudinal studies of student achievement,” he said. “That’s of value right there. . . We’ve asked for that year after year after year.”
And $400 million is nothing to ignore at a time when the state is facing the cuts its facing. “We have an obligation to take a look at it, and I’ll be meeting with my board tomorrow night,” he said.
“But for what it is, most of us will have to put conditional,” he said.
Kristine Height stayed until the end, sitting about halfway back in the vast auditorium that by noon was quickly emptying
The principal of the Somerdale Park Elementary School, the lone school of 500 students in the Camden County district, wanted to say something positive about the plan.
She had seen the use of data to diagnose children’s needs and teachers strengths at work in her own school. The school is big on professional development among teachers based on the data, with frequent assessments of students.
“It sounds like a lot of work, but it’s not,” she said. “The teachers want to succeed. They want to see the assessments and data where they can say, ‘Wow, this works.’”
And she said it works for evaluating teachers, too, especially in times when layoffs in the air.
“Sometimes it disheartening to see the data and see the ones who have to be let go,” Height said.
So before she returned to her seat halfway back in the auditorium, she finished with some encouraging words to an appreciative Schundler. “I wanted you to leave here with that,” she said.
It likely would have been the main event if people had stuck around that long.
Up to the microphone stepped Barbara Keshishian, the president of the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union that has been Gov. Chris Christie’s frequent target of criticism.
The NJEA had refused to support the state’s last application for Race to the Top funding, citing some of its provisions for merit pay and emphasis on standardized testing. That lack of support was widely seen as a chief reason for the first application’s rejection. Few expect much to change this time.
But Keshishian’s first words were actually thanks to a state Department of Education official who had earlier said nice things about New Jersey’s teachers. She wasn’t so thankful to Schundler, who by then sat alone on stage behind a white-draped table.
She said he was asking for collaboration in the federal application.
“But collaboration requires a certain degree of trust, and so far what has happened over the last four months does not generate a whole lot of trust,” she said.
“You cannot have attacks continuing on an almost daily basis and expect there to be trust,” she continued. “And you certainly cannot be holding this meeting two weeks before the deadline and expect collaboration and an atmosphere of trust.”
Schundler said much of the tenor of this winter and spring had centered around the state’s dire fiscal condition. He said it was not about demeaning teachers, a comment that drew some jeers from the thinning crowd. Still, he said the NJEA had done its share of attacking, too.
“But that’s not why we’re here,” he said. “We’re here for the $400 million.”
After taking the last question from a crowd that was down to a few dozen, not including his own staff, Schundler thanked those who stayed.
After three hours, the commissioner said the meeting went “pretty much as I expected,” as he was the last to walk out of the auditorium.