By Laura Waters
[Laura Waters has been president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County since 2006. She also blogs about New Jersey education policy and politics at NJLeftBehind.com. A former instructor at SUNY Binghamton in a program that served educationally disadvantaged students from New York's inner cities, she holds a Ph.D. in early American literature from Binghamton.]
On Sept. 5, Gov. Chris Christie’s Education Transformation Task Force released its final report, 239 pages of recommendations intended to advance education reform, address inefficiencies in school funding, and streamline the Department of Education’s oversight of New Jersey's 591 school districts.
While they vary in length and authorship (fun fact: former Toms River Superintendent James Ritacco, just sentenced to 11 years in prison for accepting bribes, is on the team that produced the first report), the tone remains forceful and righteous. From the Second Report: “We must work together to find the right balance between celebrating NJ’s impressive educational accomplishments and adopting a perspective of moral urgency in tackling the deep concerns that coexist with them.”
After all, “children’s futures and even lives are at stake.”
These three reports chart an arc of the Christie Administration’s reform strategy, which comprises a series of successes, failures, and realignments. Over the past three years, the Legislature has resolved some issues. The two percent tax increase cap for school district budgets cut teacher salary increases in half, according to the NJ School Boards Association.
Some goals listed in the first report -- upgrading the DOE’s database, winning a grant through the federal Race to the Top competition, adopting the new Common Core national curriculum -- can be ticked off as victories.
On the failure side of the balance sheet, school district consolidation is barely mentioned by the third report, a bow to political reality.
What’s unmarked by either celebratory checkmark or conciliatory concession: reforming the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC), the state’s district accountability rubric, which has morphed the DOE from an overseer of student achievement into a Dickensian scrivener with OCD, f ixated on over-regulating districts through onerous paperwork..
Other unresolved initiatives, still the subject of stubborn advocacy from the Task Force include:
addressing New Jersey's dismal achievement gap;
implementing a corporate-sponsored voucher program (bogged down in the Legislature);
expanding school choice (stuck in the quagmire of the suburban vs. urban war over school integration and funding greed);
eliminating unfunded mandates;
reinstating a board’s ability to invoke “last, best offer” when at an impasse with local unions;
delegating policies on paid leave for NJEA conventions and sick leave to local negotiations.
I could argue that the successes of the task force are simply low-hanging fruit. But the final report -- the task force is now officially disbanded, perhaps until Christie gets a second term -- aims for the treetops, with an analysis of the high costs endemic to New Jersey's practice of sending many special education students to out-of-district schools. (The U.S. Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Programs cited New Jersey for having the highest proportion of students with disabilities in separate settings, both public and private.)
In fact, over the course of the three reports, the Task Force displays a growing preoccupation with the costs of educating special needs children.
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