The topics ranged from charter schools to teacher evaluation to Abbott v. Burke -- all flash points in New Jersey’s school debates, past and present.
And gathered last week in an unprecedented panel discussion hosted by LEGAL ONE, the five former education commissioners at the center of those discussions for the last decade described how they might have done things differently in some cases, stuck to their plans in others, and weathered the rancorous political storms of today.
The timing is good. Governor Christie is expected this week to nominate former New York City deputy chancellor Chris Cerf as his next commissioner. From those who preceded Cerf, there was no shortage of advice about the challenges he’ll face.
But advice was flowing to school leaders as well, as all the panelists agreed that the precarious financial times are far from over.
"You are all probably looking at the year ahead with some trepidation," former commissioner Bret Schundler told the audience of 200 school leaders and advocates. "And you ought to be."
Each former commissioner came to the panel from a different perspective.
Schundler, Gov. Chris Christie’s commissioner for eight months this year, was making some of his first extended public comments since his firing last summer over the federal Race to the Top application. He said he’s still weighing what he’ll do next.
Lucille Davy has been consulting around the country on the Common Core State Standards since she left office a year ago, following nearly five years in the commissioner’s chair. She’s now a senior analyst with the Hunt Institute.
William Librera is a professor at Rutgers, culminating a career in New Jersey’s public education system as teacher, administrator and ultimately former Gov. Jim McGreevey’s commissioner for three years.
Vito Gagliardi has begun a new career as a consultant and expert witness in school law cases, one of many roles he has held in the education field, including his one-year stint as commissioner in 2001.
David Hespe is the only one of five still in the state’s education system, as interim superintendent in Willingboro public schools. Since his two years as commissioner ending in 2001, he was also a professor at Rowan University.
The five were invited to speak on a range of issues by LEGAL ONE, a partnership of the Foundation for Educational Administration, Monmouth-Ocean Educational Services Commission, and Rutgers-Newark Institute on Education Law and Policy.
With the high-octane rhetoric coming out of the Statehouse, school politics has been as prominent as school policy in the first year of Christie’s term. The ex-commissioners were asked to talk about both the benefits and the perils when the volume is turned up so high.
Schundler was at the center of three or four political storms in his short tenure, but said interestingly that the public’s attention is not a bad thing. "We have a potential now because of how education has increased as a political issue, there is a potential for positive reforms to be made," he said.
Hespe described school change as like moving a boulder up a mountain.
"There is only one way to move this, and that is to take the biggest crowbar you can find to get the leverage," he said. 'It’s going to be messy and you’re going to step on some folks’ toes."
Still, others said that while politics is central to the process, what is critical is the tone of that discourse.
"Without politics, there won’t be any education movement in education,” Gagliardi said. “It just doesn’t always have to be negative.”
New Jersey’s charter school movement was born in the late 1990s, with Hespe as commissioner in those first years. Hespe said that although the state’s charter school law was a product of compromise, he wished he had done more to provide charter schools more autonomy.
"I would have liked to give them greater freedom to put together contracts and curricula than they have," Hespe said. "And certainly providing them with facilities' incentives would have been a great idea."
Librera said he had regrets, too, about those early years and how the debate has evolved -- or maybe devolved.
"I regret I was not as successful as I wanted to be in changing the nature of the discussion away from charters vs. public schools as we now define it, which I think is unfortunate, and instead to emphasize public school choice, because that is what we need," he said.
He described choices within the public schools, possibly with charter schools but also within districts in terms of magnet, alternative and other specialized schools.
Schundler said one piece of the doomed Race to the Top application that does not get much attention was the proposal for "achievement academies" within districts, schools much like charters that would be given wider autonomy in their staff and programs.
“That goal of moving toward lots of small, diverse schools, where there is a lot more collegiality and they are run by the educators, as opposed to being politically run enterprises from top down, I think it would dramatically expand choice but all sorts of other fundamental structures in public education,” he said.
A private school voucher system was the topic of some discussion, with general support from Schundler and Gagliardi and criticism from Librera and Davy.
Schundler said the Opportunity Scholarship Act (OSA) now under consideration in the legislature, proposing a voucher-like system funded through corporate tax credits, could have been passed in the last year if not for some of the political divisions that have arisen. “We did not seize the opportunity as we might have,” he said.
But Davy said the focus needs to remain on the traditional public schools. “It can’t be just about creating choice, and hoping that choice, public or private, somehow changes what happens in the district,” she said.
"At the end of the day, the regular public school serves every child in the neighborhood," Davy continued. "We can’t forget about that and it needs to be part of the focus. The 'Waiting for Superman' idea really takes us off track in a large degree."
As New Jersey dives headlong into the debate over teacher tenure and evaluations, the five ex-commissioners had plenty to say on where the priorities should lie. Hespe said his experience in the Willingboro schools has helped teach him there is a whole continuum of work required.
"How do we recruit these employees, how do we prepare these employees, how do we mentor and support these employees, how do we evaluate these employees?" he said. "Then you get to what do I do with these evaluations, and then you get to the tenure issue."
Davy said that, for all the debate about using student achievement in evaluating teachers, such provisions already exist in the state’s regulations. "It is not very well defined, and has been left to districts to decide that individually," she said.
But Davy added that a single state test is not the way to do it, and that there are the resources already in schools to evaluate teachers well, including using their own peers.
"Teachers could be the harshest judges of their peers, given the opportunity," she said. "I think teachers know when their colleagues are not doing what they should be doing."
Several of the ex-commissioners said any development of a statewide system of evaluation requires teachers and administrators being at the table. Christie appointed a nine-member task force that was criticized as not having enough public educators on it.
"If we are going to study these issues, and apparently we are, I just hope that whoever forms these committees incorporates the professionals who actually do the evaluations," said Gagliardi.
Gagliardi was also the most insistent that the state Department of Education has to improve its own capacity in ensuring that a system is fair and accurate, including by providing valid data that tracks individual teachers and their students over time.
The state’s fiscal condition remains dire, with Christie saying last week that the choices for next year’s budget may be even tougher than last year’s. That left the ex-commissioners discussing their own experiences enacting school funding formulas, only to see them largely shelved as the cash ran dry.
"We’ve had good funding formulas; we do a terrible job of implementing them," Librera said. "Look at the history in what’s happened in implementing funding formulas. It’s been shameful."
"The problem is not the source of money, although we’d all like more of it," he continued. "It’s the unpredictability of the conditions on which we get it. It is so counter to any of the kinds of decisions that good planning would produce, "Librera said.
Librera also had the most extended comments on the epic Abbott v. Burke school funding decisions, some of which he said have led to New Jersey’s greatest success stories, especially concerning preschool.
Other parts, he said, were too prescriptive and an "over-response" by the state Supreme Court in trying to push the legislature into action. That led to adjustments that only hindered the overall goals.
"The argument that Abbott has been a waste of resources is simply not true," he said. "Did we have more things in Abbott than we needed to promote high student achievement? Absolutely. Were we able to change that easily. No. That’s a big part of the problem."
Davy pointed to the School Funding Reform Act enacted by Corzine as improving on Abbott and extending it to other districts with high-risk students.
"It’s not Abbott not succeeding. I think we talk about not using all the money efficiently and effectively," she said. “But at the end of the day, there has been a recognition that children at risk need additional resources and the state ought to be the vehicle to provide those resources."
None of the participants were terribly critical of the 2 percent tax caps now on districts, although some said there should be some sunset clause as conditions change.
"You have to do something; like the snow on the Metrodome, this is not sustainable and we’ve been waiting for years for the snow to build up," said Hespe. "Something has to be done, and the shame of it is we have seen it coming for a long, long time."
Gagliardi called the reliance on property taxes to fund schools is "public enemy No. 1 in the state of New Jersey," that has tainted all other initiatives and progress.
"All the things we would like to see as commissioners or as citizens are looked at with a jaundiced eye, because of how money is raised to support education in this state," he said.
All seven segments of theare available online. LEGAL ONE has educated thousands of New Jersey teachers, principals, and administrators in the area of school law. The December 13 forum also served as the launch for Legally Speaking, LEGAL ONE's new online school law magazine.