Joint Ed committee conducts biopsy of Christie’s schools report; state takeover process under fire

PATERSON – Gov. Chris Christie’s Education Transformation Task Force’s first draft recommendation report was on trial today at the Joint Education Committee hearing. But some participants at Eastside High School in Paterson zoned in on what was called a “discriminatory” practice of selective district takeovers.

Speaking on the report, many professionals testifying agreed in principle to the facts and conclusions included.

“There are many elements that are true regarding this report,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, (D-28), of Belleville, “but the way(s) to solve the problems, there are going to be differences.” He said, under Christie, the public education system as a whole has been “under attack.”

Jennifer Keyes-Maloney, assistant director of Governmental Relations at the New Jersey Principals & Supervisors Association, echoed some of the other participants on the report: “There are some things that we are troubled by.”

Top of the complaint list for many persons who spoke was a reliance on test scores as a sole measure of student performance. “It shouldn’t simply be about student performance,” Keyes-Maloney said.

Christie is exploring a split method of measuring success, including a growth formula.

Accountability under a microscope

The state’s accountability system, QSAC, the measuring stick for overall district success in the eyes of the state, was a topic of discussion, although the governor is reviewing options for replacing or revamping the system.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, the most recent plaintiff against the state in the monumental Abbott v. Burke school funding case, said before the committee today that the report suffered from a “lack of transparency and collaboration of key stakeholders.”

Sciarra agreed with others that it is “premature for us to be talking about changes to (QSAC).”

“There’s a lot of moving parts,” Sciarra said in summing up the transformation that Christie is examining, from teacher evaluations to new core curriculum standards. “A lot of these measures remain unproven and untested.”

Co-chairman, state Sen. Ron Rice, (D-28), of Newark, heaped criticism on the state administration for a “bias(ed)” task force that didn’t include any representation from takeover districts of Paterson, Newark, and Jersey City. “There’s a difference how we’re treated in Newark, a takeover district, than in our sister city, East Orange (which has a representative on the task force),” Rice said.

The issue of takeover was front and center today. Rice and other participants alleged selective state intervention into schools, entering some failing districts while staying out of others. QSAC is a metric used to determine state intervention and return to local control.

With a calculation dictating school funding these days, Rice said state representatives have less ability to wrangle funds for home districts. “We can no longer argue for money for the school districts,” he said. “We have to argue for accountability.”

Takeover disparity

A district like Camden, Sciarra said, was deficient in all accountability standards benchmarks except one and yet the state has not engaged an outside agency for an evaluation – a statutorily-required precursor to state takeover – in over a year.

“Instead what they did was they told the district to do another self-evaluation,” he said. “The statute doesn’t call for that.”

Under state control, Newark, on the other hand, had “highly performing” metrics in all but one category last year, yet has not seen state withdrawal in the successful areas – another statutory requirement.

Although the one area of deficiency in Newark was an important one, according to the state – instructions and programs – Ocean County’s Lakewood school district has a 48 percent rating on instructions and programs, and yet has not been examined for state intervention.

Three dozen districts had at least one failing area under QSAC, Rice said, “yet the state has never sought to use its legal authority under QSAC to engineer a partial state takeover.”

“Paulsboro’s a good example,” he said. “I think they failed just about every category down there. The Senate president represents that district…There’s clearly a difference here (in Paterson and Newark).”

Junius Williams, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at Rutgers University, compared the takeover disparity to “selective law enforcement,” an overt practice of “discrimination” by the state Education Department.

“The statute is pretty clear,” Sciarra said: “When you score over 80 (percent) and you’re ‘highly performing’ the state must withdraw from those areas…That’s really a big issue that you have to dig into.”

Intervention by the state is at the discretion of the education commissioner, Sciarra explained; an in-depth outside evaluation of a failing district is not.

“I just don’t think the commissioner is following the mandate,” he said. “This report is deeply flawed and obviously done by people who don’t understand the QSAC process.”

Co-chair, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, (D-27), of South Orange, said of Rice’s protests, “He’s bringing to light certain information that should be brought to light.”

Another committee member, Assemblywoman Elease Evans, (D-35), of Paterson, said Rice was “holding up the bloodstained banner.” She said there were inequities in the takeover system, keying in on the Paterson takeover that dates back to 1991.

Paterson school board member Dr. Jonathan Hodges said the state’s intervention has led to “20 years of instability and uncertainty.” The district has had five superintendents in eight years, many of whom were “threatened by political entities,” he said.

“We don’t control who is leading our school district,” Hodges told the committee. “The governor does…They can take them away at the drop of a hat.”

Putting brakes on Gov’s agenda

Caputo told the sparse crowd that the report was a “very important document” – one that in many cases gets ignored in busy personal schedules – that would lead to “changes that can take place without (your) input.”

Jasey said the recommendations – which aren’t final – are informing the governor’s agenda that he intends to move in the lame duck session. “He intends to push through his quote-unquote reforms,” she said. “We need to take the time to hear these reports…I think it’s a big mistake to push through these reforms in lame duck just to say ‘I did it.’ ”

Joint Ed committee conducts biopsy of Christie’s schools report; state takeover process under fire