New Jersey Public Education Caught in Christie’s Maelstrom

For a year that governor Christie called “The Year of Education” his achievements so far are for the most part on the side of disruption and confusion. Needless to say. the children who are in NJ schools today will be the ones affected. Lost learning opportunities are not recuperable. Time is inexorable.

What began as an election fight with the NJEA and subsequently turned into a relentless campaign against teachers and their union has evolved into the most destructive process that has affected public education in New Jersey, possibly since the turn of the XX Century.

Governor Christie disguised his assault as an “education reform” after his first year in office, knowing fairly well that the best way to attack the NJEA was by attacking their membership. Along that change in tactics, he has connected with the national current of school privatization where big money is out for gain. For most of the reformers, education is a for-profit business and profit is the primary objective. Students are products.

New Jersey public education K-12 is facing teacher testing, merit pay, tenure reform, the loss of income by teachers due to pension and benefits reforms, reduced state funding, and as of late, a new system of testing for graduation beginning in the ninth grade. The latter is ultimately intended to replace the current High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), given for the last 10 years or so in 11th and 12th grades as a broader measure of language arts and math skills.

Of all of the above, I found that the pension reform was a must because of the dismal fiscal condition of the public pension system – caused by the irresponsibility of both political parties over the last 15 years.

I also believe that the replacement of the HSPA is a step in the right direction although such change all by itself will not achieve the desired results. The administration’s plan, although a good idea, is for the time being nothing but an empty box.

NJ Spotlight | Christie, Rewriting Rules for Graduation, Will Fill in Blanks Later.

The rest of the objectives mentioned above are the framing introduced by the administration to weaken the teachers’ union and carry out the gradual privatization of public education.

There are a qualitative and a quantitative dimensions in education.

My point of view – and this is a general guideline – is that the qualitative aspect is best addressed through a uniform statewide curricula with tests which are not by multiple choice but in the old fashion way where students must show their work step by step. This is particularly important in the sciences and mathematics. However, testing or how we test are not at the heart of education but how we teach and how much we teach are. When I learn something, I know it regardless of whether I am tested or not.

The quantitative aspect is best addressed by diminishing ancillary activities, and teaching longer periods, days, and school years.

To add to the confusion, the federal government has changed the way it calculates graduation rates

N.J. high school graduation rates decrease under new federally mandated calculation method | NJ.com.

However, in the end, what really counts is not how we measure knowledge but the amount of knowledge students graduate with. We are spending all these resources and building a huge bureaucracy to measure teaching at the expense of teaching itself. We are drowning in statistics but can high school graduates solve a quadratic equation?

Of course governor Christie and some of his democratic accomplices could not leave alone higher education:

NJ Spotlight | Rutgers Trustees Refuse to Surrender Camden Campus.

Perhaps governor Christie is not old enough to worry about his legacy as governor. Or perhaps he does not care as long as he can satisfy his ambitious appetites.

There will be a great deal of damage to be undone when I am elected governor in 2013.

Student Debt Crisis Aggravated by Anemic Economy: My Views

Student debt has surpassed credit card debt in the U.S. and it now amounts to $ 1 trillion. Both political parties are exchanging barbs in Washington on this issue and, like everything else, it has become a political football. Both appear inclined to maintain the current interest rate of 3.4% but such move would benefit a small percentage of students; only those subsidized loans disbursed to undergraduates since July 1, 2011 qualify for the 3.4 percent rate. The loans made before are all at significant higher rates and the difference hovers around 3 percentage points, depending on the year when the loans were taken. My youngest son has all his loans at around 6.25% interest because he graduated in May 2011.

N.J. students hoping, praying for relief from soaring college loan rates | NJ.com.

Student Loan Debate Becomes Election-Year Fight – NYTimes.com

Of course, the sputtering economy aggravates the problem. Even though college graduates have better chances of finding employment than non-college job-seekers, they are often forced to take un-paid internships or menial jobs, notably in the services industry.

Governor Christie increased the aid to higher education by a bit in his budget proposal for 2012-2013 FY although his motivation seems to be more to sweeten the Rutgers-Camden/Rowan merger than any concern for students, or higher education for that matter. The budget is being currently debated in the Legislature and the center of the attention rests not of the students but on what kind of tax cut is included in the final budget.  Personally, the democrats’ plan, which involves cutting property taxes, benefits me more than the income tax proposed by Christie but neither proposal is likely to bring sustainable economic growth and put more fiscal stain on New Jersey: That means paying for the tax cut in the future.

Fiscally speaking, the State of New Jersey runs from crisis to crisis. Every budget year, the governor has to take from Peter to pay Paul. Often, budgets are balanced by sacrificing the future. That is not a responsible form of governing and I would not even call it government. It is irresponsible and in the particular case of governor Christie, it all appears geared toward building a political resume to seek higher office.

New Jersey already has the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority: http://www.hesaa.org/. Why we have a political authority – with the customary political patronage and unnecessary administrative expenses – to grant financial aid to college students when the DOE could pass the funds in block grants directly to our public colleges, earmarked for aid to students only, is a mystery to me. Whether the existence of this independent authority is required will be reviewed if I become governor. But the issues of lowering tuition cost and student financial aid rest on the health of the New Jersey economy.

In turn, economic growth in New Jersey will only happen if we implement the structural reforms I propose. There is no doubt that the state must play a very substantial role in supporting higher education. Perhaps the most important part of that support is making college affordable to students without mortgaging their future. Whether it is done through lower tuition, or aid, or both is relatively unimportant but it must be done because these young men and women are the future.

Public universities are not businesses and students are not consumers or products.

Finally, graduating students must encounter a lively job market when they graduate. But that is not likely to occur under the current tax and political structures we have in New Jersey today.

Christie, Norcross, Sweeney Plunge Ahead with Rutgers/Rowan Merger

Not many people have the fortune of being told the future. In this case, it is one possible future; only if I am elected governor of New Jersey in 2013.

To all the promoters of this shotgun marriage between Rutgers and Rowan I say this: If I win in 2013, there will be a new sheriff in town and the merger better be clean. Because the first marching orders that my new AG will receive are to thoroughly investigate the role of everyone involved with this deal. I mean everyone.

No stone will be left un-turned.

That is the possible future.

Stile: Christie sticking to education merger’s tight deadline : page all – NorthJersey.com.

Newark’s Revival Hinges on Tax and Political Reforms in New Jersey

The GDP of New Jersey is about $650 billion. The total amount of taxes  – including property and sales, user fees, and tolls – that New Jersey residents pay to the government are roughly 10% of that: $65 billion annually. A middle class and a great city are not created by decree. It is highly unlikely that the middle class can grow in Newark and bring gentrification to the city when the same middle class is under pressure everywhere else in New Jersey. The income tax cut proposed by governor Christie – if implemented – would be just another blow to it.

Cory Booker on Newark creating ‘village’ for teachers: ‘This is how we reinvent a great American city’ : page all – NorthJersey.com.

Building a “Teachers Village” in downtown Newark obviously does not hurt the city but it does not address the root causes of the difficulties Newark faces nor will remedy the chronic shortage of qualified teachers in the Newark Public School System. When it comes to teaching staff, Newark is a revolving door. The education reform and weakening of tenure proposed by the Christie administration will also worsen this situation. The village is a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound.

This administration has launched a frontal assault against teachers during the last two years. Without either a reasonable degree of job security or much higher pay, teachers may not commit themselves, with their families, to Newark. To add to the issues of job insecurity and pay, I understand that the crime statistics in Newark are not the best by any means. That is a consideration that any teacher will take into account when looking at the perspective of teaching in or moving to Newark.

The administration is also dedicating public funds to the construction of 3 charter schools in the complex. Diverting public funds to build private schools is wrong but if being done through the NJ Schools Development Authority, NJSDA, one of the many authorities  that allegedly serves as a nest of political patronage and I believe should be abolished, it eliminates the legislative oversight.

But in any case, the New Jersey Legislature has opted to cooperate with the administration in many of these questionable plans.

We can not solve the serious problems affecting our urban centers without addressing the structural problems in the entire state. The main issues are: property taxes and the redundant layers of government which must be reduced although reforms must go well beyond those two points to turn the state around.

Note: Although I have written numerous articles that apply to Newark and other cities, this is the first which belongs exclusively to Newark. Accordingly, I have created a distinct category: Newark.

Of Home Rule in New Jersey

Home Rule is as old as New Jersey and the concept was borrowed from mother England and perhaps Holland. England had the counties and their respective counts which probably dated back to the Norman invasion of 1066. The system in turn was copied from the French who were the inventors of feudalism. In New Jersey, a colony with its vastness only sparsely populated by natives and even fewer colonists, small towns surged from the first settlements and by the time independence was gained from Great Britain in 1783, most of the system we have today was already in place.

Jump to 1947 and the Framers of the last State Constitution chose to maintain what we call Home Rule.

Jump to 2010 and I introduce my program which among other things, calls for the elimination of county governments, transferring all the taxing authority from the municipalities to the State (thus eliminating property taxes), consolidation of police forces and boards of education.

A few months later, governor Christie floated the idea of municipalities sharing services. He might not have been the first one who proposed this but he probably was the loudest. Nonetheless, with minor exceptions, his call fell on deaf ears and his tool-kit aiming to facilitate the process was for the most part ignored by the N.J. Legislature However he managed to pass a property tax cap of 2% although such cap caps nothing: It has a number of exceptions – the expensive ones – so it is pretty much meaningless as homeowners have discovered to their chagrin.

I don’t believe for a minute that I invented the idea of government consolidation nor was I the first discovering that the current system is untenable and that it places a tremendous burden on the people of New Jersey and the state economy. But I believe I am the first who has approached the issue with a radical plan which eliminates entire layers of government rather than executing flimsy unions of 2 or more DPW’s, fire or police departments, or some other local functions.

But moving on: The N.J Senate leader, Mr. Sweeney, has gone one step further and proposed an approach more Draconian that Christie’s although bland compared to mine: He has introduced a measure that would force local governments to share services or face a loss of state aid equal to the amount of the consolidation savings they passed up.

Sweeney has been pushing the shared-services agenda for some time. In October 2010, Sweeney spoke on the subject at a press conference with Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver about arbitration reform, hammering away at municipal government. Quite simply, he said, there was too much of it. And he was ready to turn towns “upside down” to bring about some changes.

Such unions, where they have occurred, have clearly shown that they do not save much if anything at all.

But from Sweeney’s – or any other member of the political establishment – point of view, that is the ideal diversion because it places all the onus on the taxpayers, focuses on the lowest workers rather than on the political hacks, and maintains the huge mantle of government layers intact. No one; Not Sweeney, or Christie, or anybody else talks about doing away with the medieval relics of county governments. They know that the more government layers, the more opportunities to place political appointees in public jobs. For the two political parties, their ability to dole public jobs is the very essence and foundation of wealth and power.

What I propose is the only plan which would yield significant results rapidly: A constitutional amendment that would not touch the independence or identity of municipalities except for the fact that they would not collect property taxes any longer and their police stations would be manned by Police of New Jersey rather that the local police department, although the officers will be the same individuals.

I would propose the unification of all boards of education into a New Jersey BOE. If New York City can do it, so can we.

I would propose the elimination of county governments and the takeover by the State of New Jersey of county schools and hospitals. The county DPW’s would go under the NJ-DOT. The counties divisions of Taxation would remain as state agencies of the Department of the Treasury to collect some property taxes which would remain (Example: property owners who are not New Jersey taxpayers.)

With the abolition of property taxes and a tax credit for renters, inevitably, income tax would increase and so would be the tax on dividend that does not originate in economic activity in New Jersey. For more information please refer to my pages relevant to this topic in my website.

The typical property tax pie is roughly 25% for the town, 25% for the county, and 50% for the local board of education. If we want to achieve big relief, we must be willing to take big steps. For the political class, that is rocking the boat. But there is no choice: We must cast at least part of the political ballast over the side.

The Rutgers-Rowan Affair

The second set of hearings on the shotgun marriage of Rutgers with Rowan  began at Rowan University yesterday, in front of the Legislature’s higher education committee. The balance of speakers was essentially the same as in the first set of hearings with opponents of the merger exhibiting much more reason and asking many more questions that the supporters had answers.

The cost of this concoction of a plan will be enormous, in terms of money, for all of us. For Rutgers, it could bring irreparable harm. No one can create a great research university – as governor Christie is claiming he will – just by changing the name at the entrance gate and on the stationary.  Both medical and scientific researches are expensive, require state-of-the-art laboratories, and above all they require researchers who do not come cheap. Frankly, when I hear the governor explain this plan, I always get the impression that he does not know what he is talking about.

That has not always been the case: He knew what he was talking about when he called for pension reform. In fact, I supported the plan although it affected me personally (freezing COA) but my position was and still is that we can not stop there but must go on to reform the entire State of New Jersey. Otherwise, what the pension reform accomplished will be reduced to gain a few years before fiscal meltdown. All the sacrifice will be in vain.

Christie gained the support of numerous democrats led by senator Sweeney in the pension and benefit haircut. Was that support for the good of New Jersey or was there a price attached to it? Is Rutgers-Camden that price? It seems I am not the first to think that way.

NJ Spotlight | Rowan Replay: Criticism Continues at Second Hearing on Rutgers Restructuring.

The entire merger plan is a house of cards and the cards are blank. Apparently, the only written records of the UMDNJ Advisory Committee are its preliminary and final reports. There are no notes, no minutes of the meetings!!! And 21 of the final report’s 57 pages are the preliminary report, with six of those pages repeated twice.

In other words. There is no paper trail of the discussions and the final product of such discussion was exactly what they started with. This is the plan that governor Christie is pushing down the throat of New Jersey. The governor is trying to coerce this one through. Do I believe that he cares about education at all? Certainly not: He uses education like like he may use an elevator.

To say the least: This is a very goofy way of breaking up the best public university of New Jersey: They created a doctrine and plastered some  quasi-justifications onto it. It seems it was all a political deal between Christie, Sweeney, and Norcross (the democrat political boss of South Jersey) which involved the swap of pension reform for Rutgers-Camden.

NJ Spotlight | Who Decided to Give Away Rutgers-Camden?.

An appellate court ruling this month, barring the governor from eliminating the state Council on Affordable Housing, applies directly to the state’s higher education system. So he may be trying to scare the Legislature into folding. However, if the governor still has the power to do this with an executive order or if the legislature goes along with the merger, I believe the Rutgers trustees have the ability – and perhaps the moral responsibility – to take all the original Rutgers facilities and revert them to be the  private university that it once was. Rutgers-Camden is part of the original Rutgers – before it became state university.

Perhaps previewing this, the governor has proposed a 6% increase in aid to higher education in his proposed budget of 2012-13. That is the bait in the hook.

I would support the secession of Rutgers as s stop-gap measure until Christie is out of office and till such moment when Rutgers can return to its public status safely.  If the State University is going to be downgraded and such a disaster is going to additionally cost a tremendous amount of money (taxpayers’ money) I would support Rutgers to move into the private field and them welcome the university back into the State higher education system if I am elected governor in 2013. The escape for Rutgers may ultimately be to self-privatize and stay so until there is a governor with common sense in New Jersey. It would be better for New Jersey to a have a great private Rutgers than a diminished public Rutgers.

Report Shows Increase in Number of U.S. High School Graduations

Nonetheless, 1 out of every 4 American teens drop out of high school before finishing. That is the finding of a report released by the Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, Civic Enterprises, and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University on March 19.

The report is titled  Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic and the portion published today is the 2012 update.

Main findings were:

a) The national graduation rate increased by 3.5 percentage points between 2001 and 2009 from 72 percent to 75.5 percent in 2009.

b) The South and the suburbs saw the largest declines in the number of “dropout factory” schools with 410 and 171, respectively, between 2002 and 2009.

c) Contrary to 2008-09, progress in towns and rural areas stalled in 2009-2010.

d) Despite, and probably because of, all the upheaval in the state public schools under the Christie administration, New Jersey is among the states that lost ground.

High school graduation rate rises in U.S. – The Washington Post.

The WP writes:  “One of the success stories highlighted in the report is Washington County, Md., which increased its high school graduation rate from 78 percent in 2000 to 92 percent in 2010.

Recognizing that it faced a problem, Washington County devised a strategy in 2001 to turn around its sagging graduation rates. Teachers adept at working with struggling students were assigned to those most at risk of dropping out. Intervention specialists were hired. Support was offered to at-risk students before, during and after school. Summer classes and evening high school were expanded to help students complete graduation requirements.Designated staff at a special learning center focused on teen parents.”

Some of the above are among the steps I propose, notably the lengthening of in-school time. One point that I do not find – although it is probably somewhere in the report – is the issue of when we start with the enhanced program. I gather from the report that the expanded school year is only used where the lagging students are detected. Stressing on the fact that I am not an educator, I am fairly sure that the fate of a student is sealed as early as 3rd or 4th grade if a deficit in knowledge begins to build up with respect to class level. Such deficit accumulates and prevents further progress particularly in subjects where advance builds upon previous lessons.

Mathematics is possibly the best example of the above.

The part of working with the parents appears fundamental although it is not something that I had identified. At the very least, parents must send their children to school regularly. Absenteeism is certainly a factor in falling behind. Addressing cases where students are in danger of falling behind on an individual basis also seems to make a great deal of sense.

I have no doubt that we must start as early as 1st grade to see the benefits at the end of high school. But then there must be, as I have said before, a point where career paths separate. Not everyone is college material and there are great opportunities in non-college fields.

Trade-school grads in hot demand for manufacturing jobs – Mar. 14, 2012.

All developed and most if not all developing economies have such dual approach to education. We had it and seemed to abandon it as manufacturing moved overseas. It is time to undo the damage.

It is clear to me that one of the main factors in governor Christie’s drive against teacher tenure is motivated by revenge for the attacks the NJEA launched against him during the gubernatorial campaign of 2009. The problem with Christie’s agenda is that it robs a great deal of time and resources from the measures that really work. The governor and his accomplices in the education reform business have the potential to do a great deal of harm to an entire generation of children.