NJ Touts Educational Reforms But Earns ‘D’ on One Nationwide Report Card

StudentsFirst rankings raise eyebrows for judgment of Christie’s record -- and who's doing judging

Two years ago, school-reform crusader Michelle Rhee was sitting in the first row during Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address, in which he laid out much of his education agenda.

As Christie prepares to make his State of the State for 2013 today, education is expected to figure less prominently, but his administration still got a reminder yesterday that the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor-turned-national education advocate isn’t letting up.

In the first state-by-state report card issued by Rhee’s new organization, StudentsFirst, New Jersey earned a D for its progress – or lack of progress– in meeting Rhee’s core reform principles, which center on teacher quality, school choice and what she deems to be effective spending and oversight.

“Parents and teachers are working hard every day to make sure every child in New Jersey gets a great education, and while recent tenure reform represents meaningful progress, more reforms are necessary for our students to achieve the results we want for them,” said Craig Wallace, StudentsFirst’s state director for New Jersey.

How much all this matters beyond hardcore school-reform circles is arguable, and some said the report speaks more to Rhee’s own Draconian standards than the political realities in most states, including New Jersey.

For instance, no states won grades of A in the report card, and eight states received failing grades. Only eight states earned passing grades, with Florida and Louisiana tops with a B-minus each.

But Rhee is probably the highest-profile member of the reform circles of which Christie likes to think himself a member, and his invitation for Rhee to attend his State of the State address in 2011 – and even to sit with his family – was a notable nod to her influence at the time.

He followed up with what his supporters would say has been a successful record of accomplishments on the education front, including last year’s passage of a tenure- reform law that for the first time directly tied teachers’ tenure to their annual evaluations.

Still, he has fallen short on other measures that might have given the state better grades by Rhee’s standards, including his stalled proposal for a school-voucher program and his failed bid to end teacher seniority rights under the new tenure law.

Yesterday, the governor’s office did not comment on the StudentsFirst report, and the state Department of Education was diplomatic, choosing instead to highlight Christie’s accomplishments.

“While we certainly respect the viewpoint of StudentsFirst, we believe this report fails to recognize the great work happening in so many of our districts across the state and only scratches the surface of the work we have undertaken over the past three years,” said Barbara Morgan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

“That includes the expansion of our Inter-District School Choice program, the passage of the Urban Hope Act, the agreement on a groundbreaking contract in Newark, and the regulations on teacher and principal evaluations we will be introducing in the coming months,” she said in an email.

The state’s dominant teachers union, hardly a big ally of this governor, scoffed at the report.

“Where do I begin?” said Steve Wollmer, communications director of the New Jersey Education Association. “First of all, when Louisiana and Florida are the two top ranking states in this, its remarkable that New Jersey didn’t fall lower.

“It’s clearly an ideological report and not about student achievement,” he continued. “If it was, we’d rank at the top. All it does is measure the Legislature’s willingness to follow Michelle Rhee’s agenda, and obviously that’s not selling very well.”