New school year, smaller paychecks for many NJ teachers

The 2015-2016 academic year is underway, and New Jersey’s teachers returned to their classrooms to continue a long-standing tradition of excellence: the state’s public school system has once again been ranked, based on a variety of measures, among the top in the nation.

But unfortunately, many of New Jersey’s public school teachers were also greeted with very bad news when they opened their first paychecks since June: their take-home pay had gone down. Significantly.

Even worse: if the State of New Jersey continues its current financial path, which includes pension/benefit reforms that affect public workers but fail to set limits on the rising cost of health care, it’s very possible that many teachers in the Garden State might never again see raises. Ever. In their careers.

A little background:

In a 2010 briefing paper for the Economic Policy Institute, Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations professor Jeffrey Keefe addressed the “myth of the overcompensated public employee” and concluded that public employees were actually “slightly undercompensated” compared to their private-sector counterparts.

In general, according to Keefe, public workers receive a “higher portion of their compensation in the form of employer-provided benefits,” and as such, public school employees have traditionally accepted salaries lower than those they could secure in the private sector because those employees paid less for health care and pensions than their private-sector counterparts. 

Further, Keefe says that “education level is the single most important earnings predictor”–and yet in 2010, U.S. public employees with Master’s degrees earned an average of $33,655 less in salary than private-sector workers with the same level of education–and $36,621 less in total compensation when benefits were factored in. (The discrepancy was similar for workers with bachelor’s degrees, which are required of all certificated teachers in the sate. Nearly half of New Jersey’s teachers have master’s degrees.)

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Most relevant to this discussion: the discrepancy Keefe observed in public- vs. private-sector compensation existed before Chris Christie took office in New Jersey in 2010.

And it got worse pretty quickly.

Once on the job, Governor Christie instituted a series of reforms–supported by members of both parties in the Assembly and Senate–which are causing hundreds of thousands of public workers immediate and forthcoming financial hardship:

  1. In 2010, Christie imposed a 2% limit on property-tax increases by municipalities. The cap greatly limited potential future salary increases for public workers, and also coincided with state budget cuts to school funding.
  2. The following year, Christie–again with bipartisan support–signed Chapter 78, P.L. 2011, a law that forced public employees to make increased contributions to their pensions and health benefits and suspended cost-of-living adjustments for retirees. (Public workers all over the state were in various years of previously-negotiated agreements when Chapter 78 was signed into law, but many are entering the fourth and final “tier” of increased contributions–and are paying up to 35% of their health care premiums this year.)
  3. Chapter 78 also stipulated that the state would be required to make increased contributions–over the course of seven years–to the its ailing pension system (the one that, according to a 2014 report, “ranks 95th in generosity among country’s 100 largest plans). However, Chris Christie categorically refused to fund the pension system in accordance with his own law, and then celebrated when the NJ Supreme Court ruled that the part of the law that required increased state contributions was unconstitutional (and, therefore, unenforceable).

So what does all this mean?

In terms of health benefits and in accordance with Chapter 78, public workers have been making increasing contributions to their premiums according to a sliding scale that is based on salary (so workers who earn more money pay more for the same coverage that costs lower-earners less–a formula that NJ Spotlight described as a “progressive income tax”), and while Chapter 78 caps employee contributions at 35%, Christie and his fellow Republicans refuse to set limits on healthcare prices. As healthcare costs increase, so too will employee contributions. (The suspension on collective bargaining of healthcare ended July 1 of this year, so benefits can once again be subject to negotiations once current agreements expire.)

Further, a nearly year-old analysis by NJ Spotlight showed the following:

  • The cost of New Jersey public employee health insurance coverage is the 3rd highest in the nation,
  • Most NJ public workers are paying more than the national average for state government workers,
  • NJ public workers who choose individual coverage pay more than government workers in any other state in the country, and
  • NJ public workers who choose family coverage pay the 10th-highest premium in the country.

With regard to pensions, despite increased worker contributions, New Jersey’s pension system remains underfunded by nearly $50 billion–and, according to a study by the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, the state’s record of funding its pension system is the worst in the country. (Moody’s Investors Services attributed the state’s record ninth credit downgrade to the unfunded pension liability, yet Chris Christie bragged about his pension reforms on Meet the Press last weekend.)

Essentially, the discrepancy between public- and private-sector wages that Jeffrey Keefe reported in 2010–before the 2% cap on property taxes and Chapter 78–has widened in recent years, and many public employees are seeing steady decreases in their take-home pay even as the cost of living continues to rise. To add insult to injury, those same workers–who have had no choice but to contribute hundreds of dollars from each check to the pension system that a string of NJ governors have categorically failed to fund–face the prospect of financial collapse in retirement.

Meanwhile, Chris Christie–whose systematic attack on public workers and egregious pension failures have turned hundreds of thousands of middle-class families upside-down–continues to blame workers and their unions for New Jersey’s financial woes. (Let’s not forget that he referred to public school teachers as “gluttons.“)

In this climate–and also considering that Christie refuses to fully fund schools, promotes evaluating teachers based on their students’ scores on flawed standardized tests, and endorses private management of schools that receive public funds–it is difficult to imagine that the best and brightest college graduates will choose to pursue careers in teaching. And if they don’t, how long can New Jersey expect to have public schools that consistently rank among the top in the nation?

It’s time for the citizens of New Jersey to vote, en masse, to protect public workers, the middle class, and essential services in the state–and to disrupt the current trend that favors corporations and Wall Street executives at the expense of everyday citizens.


Public school teachers: please leave a comment below with specific information about how Chapter 78 has affected your take-home pay. You don’t need to use your name.


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Star-Ledger’s Mulshine asks question, ignores answer, writes column

Anyone who wants more evidence of the Star-Ledger op-ed page’s general anti-union, anti-public education slant–typically led by editorial board editor Tom Moran–need look no further than today’s column by Paul Mulshine entitled “Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto’s pension plan sounds a lot like Chris Christie’s.”

Mulshine, who tried but was evidently unable to reach Speaker Prieto for comment, says he asked NJEA Director of Communications Steve Wollmer “how the state could come up with the cash to make [the pension] payments” outlined in Prieto’s plan.

Here’s Mulshine’s reporting of Wollmer’s response (emphasis mine):

I asked Wollmer what level of new taxes or spending cuts could make this pig fly, or at least put lipstick on it.

“Everyone talks about the millionaires’  tax,” he said. “That’s $700 million a year.”

Sounds good, but that’s just a fraction of the $4.3  billion annual payment recommended by actuaries.

Other than that, Wollmer couldn’t come up with any suggestions for big-ticket revenue-raisers. Instead he reiterated the line the union’s been pushing to avoid that question.

“The teachers didn’t create this problem and have been paying into  the fund,” he said.

Many people, NJEA members included, were angered by various aspects of Mulshine’s column–and there was evidence of as much in a discussion thread on a closed Facebook group for current, retired, and student members of the New Jersey Education Association. After all, it seems that virtually everyone who’s been paying attention to the pension crisis is aware of Chris Christie’s promises to public employees that he wouldn’t touch the pension system, his subsequent 2011 pension reforms, his failure to follow the law he himself signed in 2011, and the court battle that resulted in a judge declaring part of the 2011 reforms unconstitutional. And it also seems that virtually everyone who’s been paying attention is aware of the many, many, many, many ways that the governor has squandered billions of dollars that could have closed the pension gap–and the changes legislators could make to put the pension fund on the track to solvency.

So how could it be possible that the Director of Communications of the New Jersey Education Association was unable to come up with any solutions–other than the millionaire’s tax–to the pension crisis? How could he have so little to offer in response to Mulshine’s question?

The answer, not surprisingly, is that NJEA Director of Communications Steve Wollmer had plenty to say to Paul Mulshine: but Paul Mulshine chose to ignore what likely amounts to 99% of what Wollmer described on the NJEA Facebook group thread as a 45-minute phone conversation the two had on Friday.

During that conversation, when Mulshine asked how NJ could come up with the money to fund the pension system, Wollmer says he suggested a corporate excise tax, a gasoline tax, an end to Christie’s muti-billion dollar tax credit giveaways for zero job creation, and a millionaire’s tax–but It seems that Mulshine ignored all but Wollmer’s final suggestion.

And then Mulshine accused Wollmer of reiterating the “line the union’s been pushing” (about teachers not creating the pension crisis) to “avoid” answering the question about funding.


Put simply, Mulshine’s claim that Wollmer “couldn’t come up with any suggestions for big-ticket revenue raisers” was a blatant lie. 

Union haters will, of course, present Mulshine’s column as concrete “I-told-you-so” evidence that unions have no solutions to the pension crisis. No surprise there. Also unfortunate is that people who don’t necessarily harbor ill-will towards public employees or their unions will infer, from Mulshine’s column, that the state does not have the money–and cannot find it–to fulfill its pension obligations.

But most unfortunate is that a columnist at the state’s largest newspaper would pose a very specific question to NJEA’s Director of Communications and then deliberately misrepresent and omit most of the answer he very specific answer received.

What kind of reporting is that?

More largely, and certainly more troubling, Mulshine’s column is just one minuscule example of a nation-wide–no, global--effort to undermine unions and their members by perpetuating the myth that they complain without offering solutions and want unreasonable “entitlements” (because pensions aren’t deferred compensation, right?) at the expense of taxpayers (because union members aren’t taxpayers, right?).

And until the media abandons this kind of underhanded anti-union propaganda and calls sufficient attention to the real problem–the billions in taxpayer dollars that are being used to enrich corporations, hedge-fund managers, politicians, and political donors–hardworking public employees will continue to be vilified by people who mistake columns like Mulshine’s for unbiased reporting.

*This post was constructed based solely on information posted on the closed NJEA Facebook group, of which I’m a member. It was not solicited, approved, or endorsed by anyone at the New Jersey Education Association.


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Newark Residents Should Select Their Next Superintendent

We believe that the people of Newark should be able to democratically govern their public schools.

Fortunately, Mark Biedron, President of NJ’s State Board of Education, seems to agree. Mr. Biedron recently told the Star Ledger that “the people of Newark having local control over the school district…is a good thing.”

On Wednesday, Mr. Biedron will have an opportunity to act on this belief when the State Board votes on whether Chris Cerf should become Newark’s next Superintendent.

If the State Board approves Mr. Cerf, it will be continuing a 20 year history of disenfranchisement for Newark’s nearly 300,000 residents, who have had no say in this decision.

If the Board rejects Mr. Cerf and instead approves a candidate selected by Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education, it will be putting Mr. Biedron’s admirable philosophy into practice.

There is plenty of precedent for allowing Newark to select its own superintendent.

Newark, Jersey City, and Paterson are all state-controlled school districts. Yet Jersey City’s popularly-elected Board of Education selected its Superintendent, Marcia Lyles. Paterson’s Superintendent, Dr. Donnie Evans, was selected by a committee that included members of Paterson’s popularly-elected Board of Education, along with other community leaders. In contrast, Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education has had no voice in selecting Mr. Cerf, who was nominated for this position by Governor Christie.

Approving Mr. Cerf is also difficult to justify because Mr. Cerf lacks the qualifications necessary to run New Jersey’s largest school district. Unlike Jersey City’s and Paterson’s leaders, Mr. Cerf has no prior experience as a superintendent.

Nor is there a record of success in related public-education positions on which to base Mr. Cerf’s nomination. In fact, Mr. Cerf’s tenure as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education was marked by numerous poor decisions regarding Newark, including:

  • Appointing and continuing to support Newark’s prior Superintendent, Cami Anderson, whose policies and behaviors generated broad-based rejection and rebellion from Newark residents;
  • Improperly giving in to a demand from Ms. Anderson “to allow her to retain full control over 28 low-performing schools, which resulted in New Jersey failing to comply with federal requirements; and
  • Forcibly maintaining State control of Newark’s schools by dramatically lowering the district’s scores on the State’s monitoring system (QSAC) from the scores that Mr. Cerf had given the district less than a year earlier.

The people of Newark deserve the right to select their next Superintendent. They also deserve an experienced public education leader with a proven record of success. Mr. Cerf’s candidacy fails on all these counts.

We encourage Mr. Biedron and the other State Board of Education members to vote no on Mr. Cerf’s nomination and to allow Newark’s popularly-elected Board of Education to nominate the district’s next Superintendent.

Newark’s residents have been deprived of their right to democratically control their public schools for 20 years. It is long past time to correct this wrong!
Rosie Grant, Piscataway, NJ–Parent and nonprofit leader

Michelle Fine, Montclair, NJ–Parent and professor

Judy DeHaven, Red Bank, NJ–Parent and writer

Valerie Trujillo, Jersey City, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Jacklyn Brown, Manalapan, NJ–Parent and educator

Julia Sass Rubin, Princeton, NJ–Parent and professor

Linda Reid, Paterson, NJ–Parent and nonprofit leader

Melissa Katz, South Brunswick, NJ–Future educator

Bobbie Theivakumaran, Metuchen, NJ–Parent and investment banker

Lisa Winter, Basking Ridge, NJ–Parent, technology manager and former Board of Education member

Marcella Simadiris, Montclair, NJ–Parent and educator

Michelle McFadden-DiNicola, Highland Park, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Bill Michaelson, Lawrence Township, NJ–Parent and computer scientist

Marie Hughes Corfield, Flemington, NJ–Parent and educator

Rita McClellan, Cherry Hill, NJ–Parent and administrator

Sarah Blaine, Montclair, NJ–Parent, attorney, and blogger

Susan Cauldwell, Spring Lake, NJ–Parent and nonprofit leader

Heidi Maria Brown, Pitman, NJ–Parent and educator

Julie Borst, Allendale, NJ–Parent and special education advocate

Susan Berkey, Howell, NJ–Parent and educator

Darcie Cimarusti, Highland Park, NJ–Parent and Board of Education member

Amnet Ramos, North Plainfield, NJ–Parent and educator

Elana Halberstadt, Montclair, NJ–Parent and writer/artist

Ani McHugh, Delran, NJ–Parent and educator

Jill DeMaio, Monroe, NJ–Parent

Tamar Wyschogrod, Morristown, NJ–Parent and journalist

Lauren Freedman, Maplewood, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Lisa Rodgers, South Brunswick, NJ–Parent and business owner

Laurie Orosz, Montclair, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Michael Kaminski, Mount Laurel, NJ–Parent and educator

Ronen Kauffman, Union City, NJ–Parent and educator

Frankie Adao, Newark, NJ–Parent and social media specialist

Kathleen Nolan, Princeton, NJ–Parent, researcher and lecturer

Sue Altman, Camden, NJ–Educator

Jennifer Cohan, Princeton, NJ–Parent and publicist

Daniel Anderson, Bloomfield, NJ–Parent and Board of Education member

Debbie Baer, Robbinsville, NJ–Parent and educator

Dan Masi, Roxbury Township, NJ–Parent and engineer

Susan Schutt, Ridgewood, NJ–Assistant principal and public education advocate

Karin Szotak, Madison NJ–Parent and business owner

Tiombe Gibson, Deptford, NJ–Parent and educator

Lisa Marcus Levine, Princeton, NJ–Parent and architect

Kristen Carr Jandoli, Haddon, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Jean Schutt McTavish, Ridgewood, NJ–Parent and high school principal

Virginia Manzari, West Windsor, NJ–Parent and businesswoman

Stephanie LeGrand, Haddonfield, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Melanie McDermott, Highland Park, NJ–Parent and sustainability researcher

Nora Hyland, Asbury Park, NJ–Parent and professor

Beth O’Donnell-Fischer, Verona, NJ–Parent

Susie Welkovits, Highland Park, NJ–Parent and Borough Council President

Gregory M. Stankiewicz, Princeton, NJ–Parent and nonprofit leader

Margot Embree Fisher, Teaneck, NJ–Parent and former Board of Education member

Stephanie Petriello, Dumont, NJ–Parent, educator and business owner

Laura Begg, Bernards Township, NJ–Parent and public education advocate

Gary C. Frazier, Camden, NJ–Parent and community activist

Debbie Reyes, Florence Township, NJ–Parent

Christine McGoey, Montclair, NJ–Parent

Regan Kaiden, Collingswood, NJ–Parent and educator

Moneke Singleton-Ragsdale, Camden, NJ–Parent and administrator

Liz Mulholland, Westfield, NJ–Parent

Toby Sanders, Trenton, NJ–Parent, pastor and educator


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Chris Christie the Glutton

Merriam-Webster defines gluttony as “excess in eating or drinking and “greedy or excessive indulgence.

And today, Chris Christie had the nerve to accuse New Jersey’s pubic school teachers of being gluttons:

Railing against teachers, [Governor Christie] claimed the average 30-year teacher contributes just $195,000 of the $2.6 million in pension and health benefits they receive over their lifetime.

Christie said Friday he’ll make the largest payment the state can afford, but he won’t burden taxpayers with the cost of maintaining “a broken system.”

“The taxpayers of New Jersey are not, as long as I’m here, going to be the ones that shoulder the blame for their gluttony…,” he said.

First of all, governor, the taxpayers of New Jersey don’t “shoulder the blame” for the state’s broken pension system: you and your predecessors do. No: New Jersey’s taxpayers are victims of your reckless financial decisions and ill-advised economic policies–all of which favor the 1%–and all of which have caused the state’s economy to tank.

But if you really want to talk about gluttony, and if you seriously think teachers are guilty of “greedy or excessive indulgence,” I have a few real examples of gluttony for you. Any sound familiar?

  • Spending $82,594 taxpayer dollars on food and alcohol at Jets and Giants games is an example of gluttony.
  • $100,000+ trip to the Cowboys/Lions game is an example of gluttony.
  • Taking Sheldon Adelson’s private jet, on which you had your “own bedroom,” on your “trade mission” to Israel is an example of gluttony.
  • The $30,000 hotel-room bill King Abdullah paid so you and your family could attend parties and champagne receptions is an example of gluttony.
  • Your repeated demands for “private jets, lavish spreads of food, [and] space for a massive entourage” are examples of gluttony.
  • That you fly private jets often enough to have a preference for “Cessna Citation X flights” is an example of gluttony.
  • Tak[ing] over conference rooms laid out with elaborate spreads of food at all hours” is an example of gluttony.
  • Your $40,000 “three-day tour” of the UK is an example of gluttony.
  • Your State Police helicopter ride to your son’s high school baseball game is an example of gluttony.
  • Your trip to the 2013 Super Bowl, which cost taxpayers nearly $11,000, is an example of gluttony.
  • The excessive expenses you racked up–with “insufficient, inaccurate or no justification”–as the US attorney who most often exceeded the government travel expense rate are examples of gluttony.
  • Your $236 four-mile car-service ride to the airport is an example of gluttony.

I know I’m missing a few (dozen). And I don’t even have time to get into the gluttonous relationships you have with your Wall Street and corporate friends.

I don’t care who paid for your lavish trips or if they were privately funded, and I don’t care that other politicians (famous people, rich people, etc.) enjoy similar gluttonous experiences to the ones I listed above. Good for them, and good for you for having so much money (what’s that? you say you’re not rich?), and good for you for having such rich friends. Congratulations. Really. Glutton it up.

But how dare you accuse public school teachers of being greedy when the amount of taxpayer money you spent on food and alcohol at sporting events exceeds what most teachers make in a year.

If that’s not the literal definition of gluttony, I don’t know what is.

How disgustingly despicable.


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“How To Destroy The Public Sector in Ten Easy Steps”–a Chris Christie handbook

Congrats, Chris Christie, on your win in court today!

You must be thrilled that the New Jersey Supreme Court has ruled that the law you yourself signed–you know, the one you called “a model for America“–cannot be enforced.

No, wait–only the part of the law that requires the *state* to make its pension payments can’t be enforced. The public workers who have been contributing hundreds more per paycheck to their pensions and benefits still have to continue their increased contributions, as per the law. Is that right?

I’m only asking for clarification because I know you’re an expert in legal proceedings. You are, after all, a former US Attorney for NJ who holds a J.D. for Seton Hall. (I almost wonder whether declaring that the part of your own law which requires the state to contribute is unconstitutional–and all the while requiring public workers with modest salaries to take what amounts to pay cuts because of the increased contributions your law requires–was part of your grand plan all along. But that’s none of my business!)

Anyway, I’m sure this ruling will have your fans clapping loudly–because many of them think public workers don’t deserve their deferred compensation a pension, even though those workers have always contributed to the fund. (Wait, you haven’t told your fans that teachers have put $10 billion into the pension fund in the past 20 years? That they never had the option to not contribute to the pension fund? That they’re undercompensated compared to their private-sector counterparts? Sorry for letting the cat out of the bag.)

I’m also sure that you’ll spin this decision as a *huge* win for taxpayers. (Shhhh…don’t tell anyone that the hundreds of thousands of workers this ruling affects are–gasp–taxpayers; or that a Federal Reserve Board Chairman just criticized your fiscal strategies, including shirking pension payments; or that NJ might be subjected to yet another credit downgrade, as if the record 9 downgrades weren’t enough; or that you’ve spent $1.5 billion dollars in Wall Street fees, dished out $5 billion in corporate subsidies, rewarded your political donors with control of the pension system, and snuggled up to ExxonMobil by letting them off the hook for billions of dollars; or that New Jersey’s poverty rate keeps going up; or that you lost the receipts–whoops–for a quarter-million dollars in taxpayer-funded expenses. It’s middle-class public workers who are crippling taxpayers!)

Yes, you’re certainly making a name for yourself–and that’s despite all the incompetent/vindictive/reckless people and advisers you have around you! So impressive! You didn’t know how bad the pension situation was when you wrote that letter to teachers, police officers, and firefighters in 2009 saying that nothing about their pensions would change if you were elected governor. You didn’t know (hand over heart) that you staffers were shutting down a bridge as political payback! (Is it too soon to make a “who’ll-be-in-your-cabinet-and-how-will-they-secretly-betray-you-without-your-knowledge” joke? Too soon?) You–an attorney–didn’t know that parts of your own “model for America” law were unconstitutional!

We all know you have presidential aspirations and that you’re really busy traveling around and figuring out whether you should throw your baseball cap into the ring, so I’ll save you some time and get started on the “How To Destroy The Public Sector in Ten Easy Steps” handbook that I’m sure you’d love to distribute far and wide. I’ll start with teachers.

  1. Pretend you like public workers (lol!) and make promises to them that you won’t even *think* about keeping. (Don’t worry, it’s just until they vote you into office.)
  2. Once you get elected, appoint a bunch of NJ Supreme Court Justices who share your political views. (This’ll be important in #8!)
  3. Convince everyone that teachers suck, perhaps by likening them to drug dealers who are greedy and self-interested and who don’t care about their students. Also, make teachers’ jobs immeasurably more difficult by refusing to fund urban schools according to the SRFA–and then call schools with high populations of minority, ELL, special needs, and impoverished students “failure factories.” Or you could even say the K-12 education system is as much of a threat as ISIS!!
  4. When everyone jumps on the “Yeah! Teachers Suck!” bandwagon, convince them that public workers’ “benefits are too rich” and that they “aren’t contributing enough” to their pensions and benefits. Note to self: pay people to try to get that report about NJ being 95th out of 100th in pension generosity taken down from the internet.
  5. Implement education “reforms” like Common Core, PARCC, AchieveNJ, and TeachNJ, all of which are untested, fundamentally flawed, and designed to depersonalize, standardized, deprofessionalize, and privatize schools. (Continue sending your own children to private schools that don’t have to adhere to these “reforms.”)
  6. Watch veteran teachers start to flee the profession because they don’t want to teach to a test by reading from a script. Replace them with new (read, cheap!) teachers who will never know the academic freedom or professional judgment their veteran counterparts once enjoyed.
  7. At the same time, create and sign a law that requires teachers and other public workers to pay hundreds more toward their pensions and benefits, and promise that the state will make up its missed contributions by increasing its contributions over seven years and then continuing to fund the system thereafter.
  8. Yell “Just kidding!” and ignore the part of your law that requires you to fund the pension system.
  9. Appeal to the Supreme Court that’s mostly comprised of people you appointed when a lower-court judge tells you to make the payments that are required by the law you signed. (I know there are members of the legislature who have some kind of moral compass, but I’m not sure if there are enough to ensure the state does its part. We’ll find out, I guess.)
  10. Celebrate!

Yes, congratulations, indeed. Congratulations on perpetuating the vilification of public employees. Congratulations on perpetuating the idea that corporations and millionaires deserve political favors and tax breaks, but already-strapped middle-class workers are the greedy ones. Congratulations on perpetuating the idea that cheap labor is the way to go–and that years of service, and the knowledge and expertise that come with them, are worthless. And, ultimately, congratulations on a win in your most recent attempt to completely destroy the public sector. What a noble, admirable goal it is.


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A closer look at @GovChristie’s failure to #FundNJPension

It’s no secret that New Jersey’s pension system is a disaster. According to the National Association of State Retirement Administrators, the Garden State–from 2001-2013–had the worst record in the nation of funding its pension system, making only 38% of its annual required contributions. And now, according to Governor Christie (and despite his 2011 reforms), New Jersey still can’t afford to meet its pension responsibilities.

Certainly, Christie is not solely responsible for this mess; his predecessors are also guilty of pension offenses. Christie likes to brag that he has made the largest-ever contribution to the pension fund, but what he fails to mention is that he has skipped out on a whopping $14.9 billion in payments–$2 billion more than the five governors who came before him missed collectively. (And, moreover, Christie was the only governor to break the law in failing to fund the system.)

Here’s some more of what Chris Christie doesn’t like to tell people about his pension failures. (Keep in mind, again, that Christie claims New Jersey “doesn’t have the money” make the pension payments required by the law that he himself signed in 2011; more on that below.)

  • New Jersey’s teachers have always contributed to their pensions and have paid more than $10 billion into the fund over the past 20 years–but by the end of this fiscal year, the state will have only contributed $3 billion to the fund since 1996. None of the state’s teachers has ever missed a pension payment, because they have never been allowed–or had the option–to do so.
  • In 2009, Christie wrote an “Open Letter to the Teachers of New Jersey” (and wrote nearly identical letters to NJ police and firefighters) to make this claim: “I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor.”
  • Two years later, Christie signed into law Chapter 78, P.L. 2011, which required public workers in the state’s pension systems to contribute significantly more to their pensions and health benefits; further, new language in the law required the state to phase in a full contribution at a rate of 1/7 per year from 2012 to 2018–and continue to fund the pension system fully each year after that. Chapter 78 also states that members of the pension funds have a contractual right to the annual required contribution.
  • In violation of his own law, Christie shorted the pension system by $2.43 billion in 2014 and is now proposing more changes that would further reduce benefits for public workers–claiming that the state cannot afford to make the legally-required payments.
  • Christie has invested NJ’s pension funds in “high-risk, high-fee investments,” which according to pension consultant Chris Tobe cost the system $2.5 billion in unrealized returns.
  • From 2010-2014, New Jersey has spent more than $1.5 billion on fees to Wall Street firms, many of which are headed by Christie campaign donors.
  • New Jersey continued to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees to Angelo, Gordon, & Co.–the Wall Street firm that hired Mary Pat Christie, the governor’s wife, as a managing director–for three years after Christie announced he would divest in the firm.
  • In February, Christie settled an $8.9 billion lawsuit against ExxonMobil for just $225 million, and shortly after it was revealed that Christopher Porrino, the governor’s chief counsel for the case, “owned shares of a mutual fund [of which ExxonMobil was the largest holding] valued at more than $100,000.”
  • Christie has awarded approximately $5.1 billion in corporate subsidies since he took office.
  • Christie refuses to consider a Millionaire’s Tax, which would generate much-needed funds for the cash-strapped Garden State.

And this is an abbreviated list that doesn’t include Bridgegate legal fees, lavish expense account spending, and countless other financial offenses.

Since Christie took office, and as a direct result of his reckless spending and economic policies, New Jersey’s credit rating has been downgraded a record nine times–and the state’s unemployment rate remains among the highest in the nation. Members of the middle class are finding themselves in perpetual financial struggles, and New Jersey is one of only three states whose poverty rate rose from 2012 to 2013.

But don’t worry, because Wall Street is doing just fine.

In New Jersey, only about 20% of the state’s pension funding between 1993 and 2012 came from the state’s (non public-employee) taxpayers, though the governor would like his constituents to believe otherwise. The governor also would doesn’t want anyone to consider the connection between a solvent pension system and a strong economy, or the message he’s sending by sending billions of dollars to Wall Street instead of using them to strengthen the state’s middle class. Instead, Governor Christie spends his time vilifying and demonizing public workers, and he’s accomplished as much by perpetuating the public’s unfounded but increasing mistrust of public employees. (In the case of teachers, Christie has happily perpetuated the myth that our educators and schools are failing.)

New Jersey taxpayers should be furious–but not at public workers, who have never skipped pension payments and are contributing at record rates to their health benefits. Not at teachers, who stand faithfully in front of classrooms in schools that for decades have ranked among the very top in the nation.

No: taxpayers should be furious at Chris Christie, who has enriched his friends with billions of taxpayer dollars at the expense of all of New Jersey’s residents.

I leave you with this: at the beginning of his term as governor, Chris Christie said, of public employees, “Our benefits are too rich [actually, Governor, NJ ranks 95th out of the top 100 plans nationally for “pension generosity“], and our employees aren’t contributing enough, either” [it wouldn’t be difficult to find teachers who would share a pay stub revealing a $1,000+ monthly contribution to their pension and benefits].

Yes, that quote came from the same Chris Christie who has managed to spend $82,594–more than most teachers make for a year of work–of taxpayers’ money to buy food and alcohol at concession stands at MetLife Stadium.

Talk about benefits being too rich.

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*Adding, on June 4th: David Sirota is reporting that Christie’s administration has deliberately omitted information about Wall Street fees in its pension analysis reports (emphasis mine; read the whole article here):

“The Christie administration’s pension analysis, obtained through an open records request by International Business Times, omitted so-called performance fees that the state is paying to Wall Street. Those levies, which give financial firms a cut of the state’s investment gains, now total hundreds of millions of dollars a year. A Christie administration presentation to state pension trustees also obtained by IBTimes similarly omitted those performance fees”


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Chris Christie: New Jerseyans should make their own educational decisions–unless they’re from Newark

New Jersey is getting new academic standards, primarily because former Common Core cheerleader Chris Christie cares deeply about local control in education:

I want New Jersey parents and teachers to be the driving force behind the establishment of these new standards. I want New Jersey business partners, New Jersey school administrators, and New Jersey school boards to work together in this important effort.

I have heard from far too many people – teachers and parents from across the state – that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents. As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievement. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.

This statement is, of course, taken from the governor’s May 28th remarks to an audience at Burlington County College in Pemberton. Many of my initial reactions to Christie’s Common Core about-face have already been documented by New Jersey parents and educators (see here for Marie Corfield’s round-up of relevant posts and articles) who recognized the move as political pandering to the worst degree. This morning, however, Christie gave everyone who’s watching more material to work with.

And, not surprisingly, it isn’t pretty.

See, Future Presidential Candidate Chris Christie wants us all to think he believes that that parents and educators are the ones who know what’s best for children–and that the government, starting with President Obama, should stay out of decisions that should ultimately be made locally.

But today, Christie reiterated his belief that there are some people in New Jersey who can’t possibly be trusted to know what’s best for their own schools–and those people live in Newark.

A little background: on May 22nd, thousands of Newark students walked out of school in protest of the reforms Chris Christie and his ilk have imposed on the city’s public schools. Students ultimately made their way to City Hall, where they demanded fair funding for the district and a halt to the turnaround program that will affect eight city schools.

At an appearance in Belmar this morning, Christie was asked about the students’ protest–and this was his response:

It’s really shocking to me that students walked out in a protest on a sunny Friday afternoon. When they start walking out on a rainy Tuesday, maybe I’ll take it a little more seriously. They can walk out and protest as much as they want. […] No, I’m not changing my position on this.

That’s right, folks: Future Presidential Candidate Chris Christie is listening to his constituents (ask yourself “which constituents?”) about the Common Core–specifically because “the standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents.” But when thousands of students organize a protest (and I can’t be certain, but I’m guessing they can’t take credit for making sure it was sunny on Friday) against the reforms of which they say they’re victims every single day, Governor Christie makes a joke about their motivations and then admits that he did not take their actions seriously. (What was that he said about “buy-in” being important for “maximum achievement”?)

In other words: You matter, Not-From-Newark-New-Jerseyans. Chris Christie is listening to you. Your opinions count. You are best equipped to direct the eduction of the children in your state and in your community.

But if you live in Newark, Chris Christie won’t even *think* about taking you seriously unless you demonstrate your dissatisfaction for state control of your schools by walking out during a rainstorm. On a Tuesday.

Mark that one on your calendar.

Because those people don’t know what’s best for their community. Chris Christie does.

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“I don’t care about the community criticism. We run the school district in Newark, not them.” —Governor Chris Christie, 9/3/13


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Parent groups speak out on Senator Teresa Ruiz’s refusal to protect our children

A coalition of grassroots parent groups fighting for high-quality public education is asking New Jersey Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz to allow a vote on three very important bills that limit standardized testing – S2765, S2767 and S2768.

“These bills have incredible support,” said Julie Larrea Borst, a parent from Allendale. “All three bills were overwhelmingly approved by the New Jersey Assembly, with two receiving unanimous approval.”

Tens of thousands of parents and other voters have asked their legislators to support the bills. In fact, 3,500 constituents contacted their State Senators in just one weekend.

A bi-partisan majority of the Senate has committed to vote YES on the bills and more than a quarter of the State’s Senators are co-sponsoring them.

New Jersey parents are taking this action because, despite the incredible levels of support, Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz has so far refused to post the three bills for a vote in the Senate Education Committee.

Instead of allowing a vote on S2765, which requires districts and charter schools to inform parents about all standardized tests given to their children, Senator Ruiz introduced a stripped down version of that bill. Senator Ruiz’s version denies parents the right to know how their children’s standardized test results are used, whether the tests must be taken on a computer or with paper and pencil, and how much the tests cost. “We have a right to that information as parents and taxpayers,” argued Sarah Blaine of Montclair. “Why would anyone want to hide it from us?”

Senator Ruiz also has refused to allow a vote on S2767, which protects children from “sit & stare” and other punitive measures imposed by school districts and charter schools when their families refuse standardized tests. In place of S2767, Senator Ruiz introduced a nonbinding resolution asking the NJ Department of Education to develop guidelines for how districts should treat such students.

“The NJ Senate should not be pleading with the Commissioner of Education to protect our children,” said Jacklyn Brown of Manalapan. “They should follow the NJ Assembly and pass S2767, ensuring that our children are not being mistreated.”

Renee Simon Wagner of Hope Township agreed. “S2767 is common sense and very much needed,” said Ms. Wagner, whose 13 year old daughter was forced to sit and stare for the duration of the March PARCC test and the week of make-up testing. “That kind of child abuse has no place in our public schools. Why won’t Senator Ruiz allow a vote on S2767?”

Christina Cunha-Moreira of Elizabeth was very concerned by Senator Ruiz’s refusal to allow a vote on S2768, which freezes the use of PARCC scores for three years. “The PARCC tests are brand new and may not be reliable or valid,” said Cunha-Moreira. “Yet, without this legislation, districts and charter schools will be able to use results of the experimental PARCC tests to make decisions about class placements, admission to gifted and talented and remedial programs, and even whether children receive special services. We need S2768 to keep our children safe.”

Frankie Adao of Newark spoke for tens of thousands of parents in urging Senator Ruiz to “please allow these bills to have a vote. We want our democracy to work,” said Adao.

Below is a list of New Jersey parent groups that signed on to this statement:

Allendale Parents of Children with Special Needs
Bernards Cares About Schools
Chatham Cares About Schools
Collingswood Cares About Education
Community for Princeton Public Schools
Concerned Citizens of Southern New Jersey
East Brunswick Parents Against PARCC
Elizabeth Parents and Students Care
Freehold Township Cares About Schools
Hanover-Florham Park Cares About Schools
Highland Park Cares About Schools
Howell Cares About Schools
Jackson Cares About Schools
Lawrence Cares About Schools
Manalapan-Englishtown Cares About Schools
Marlboro Cares About Schools
Metuchen Cares About Schools
Middletown Township Cares About Schools
Monroe Township/Jamesburg Cares About Schools
Montclair Cares About Schools
Mount Laurel Cares About Schools
Neptune Cares About Schools
Newark Parents Union
No More Common Core – Moorestown
North Plainfield Cares About Schools
Ocean County Parents Against Common Core
Ocean Township (Monmouth County) Cares About Schools
Red Bank Area Cares About Schools
Ridgewood Cares About Schools
Save Camden Public Schools
Save Our Schools NJ
South Brunswick Cares About Schools
Toms River Cares About Schools
Verona Cares About Schools
West Windsor – Plainsboro Cares About Our Schools
Westfield Cares About Schools

This statement appears on the Save Our Schools New Jersey Facebook page. Any groups interested in signing the statement should send an email to

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@NJSenatePres: Post ALL FOUR testing bills for a vote

In early February, Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan said, “This is my 14th year in the Legislature and I’ve served virtually all that time on the Education Committee and I have never in all of my time in the Legislature had more concern about a particular topic than I have had from PARCC.”

That’s because in recent months, parents, students, and educators all over the state have been pushing back against an over-reliance on the Common Core-aligned tests that are dominating the national educational landscape. Hundreds have testified at Study Commission meetings and State Board of Education meetings, thousands have called legislators and written letters in opposition to PARCC tests, tens of thousands have taken to social media to make themselves heard about the issues children in public schools are facing right now, and an estimated 50,000 students sat out of the first round of PARCC testing.

With so much public outcry about PARCC, one would think that NJ Senate President Stephen Sweeney would be quick to post the four testing bills that sailed through the NJ Assembly last month for votes in the Senate. After all, it’s clear that a significant percentage of Sweeney’s constituents are begging for legislation to protect New Jersey’s children from what they know is bad educational policy.

But yesterday, Sweeney and Senate Ed. Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz wrote a letter to David Hespe asking the Commissioner to maintain–instead of increase–the percentage standardized test scores count toward eligible teachers’ evaluations next year: just one issue that’s addressed in S2768/A4190, which freezes ALL uses of PARCC results for 3 years.

Sweeney and Ruiz promote their request as a “measured approach to policy,” and note that “teachers are the most important individuals when it comes to a child’s educational experience”–so a delay in increasing the stakes attached to this test for teachers would be a “responsible approach.” 

On the surface, the request reads as a veiled acknowledgement of the many problems associated with PARCC testing, and the Senators’ proposed solution to avoid increasing the stakes for teachers is an important step since using standardized test scores as a part of teacher evaluations is an awful practice. However, the Senators’ request fails to acknowledge the impact PARCC testing has on students and their schools–a deliberate oversight that certainly won’t go unnoticed by the tens of thousands of parents who showed their dissatisfaction with PARCC tests by refusing to allow their children to participate in them this year.

So why not just post S2768, which the Assembly overwhelming approved in February, for a vote in the Senate–instead of dismantling it to avoid the legislative process in the name of backroom deals?

The short answer: politics.

The longer answer: politics.

Some background:

Last year, Sweeney blocked a vote on A3081/S2541, legislation similar to S2768, which sought to “delay implementation of certain assessments and certain changes to teacher evaluation”–presumably to avoid putting Governor Christie in a position to veto it. The result was Executive Order #159, which made changes to the TeachNJ teacher evaluation component and established the Study Commission that doesn’t listen to anyone that’s charged with evaluating the use of assessments in NJ. Many people–parents and educators alike–criticized Sweeney for his failure to post the bill for a vote, primarily because Executive Order #159 largely ignored the implications of testing on students and schools in the name of politics. 

And in March of this year, when Sweeney said he would’t post four new testing bills (which would go on to be passed overwhelmingly by the Assembly) for a vote in the Senate until he checked first with Commissioner Hespe:

“What I’ve been reading is that (the testing) has been a relative non-event compared to all the hype at this point,” Sweeney said. “I want to know what the commissioner says, and we’ll make a decision. Maybe it is the right thing to do, but I want to get that from the commissioner.”

Yes, the Commissioner Hespe who walked out of a Study Commission meeting that dozens of parents missed work to attend. Yes, the Commissioner Hespe who claimed we need PARCC tests because they’re “diagnostic”–even though his assistant commissioner, Bari Erlichson, acknowledged they’re not. Yes, the Commissioner Hespe who claims that PARCC tests will provide teachers and parents with valuable data–even though the tests are instructionally useless.

But I digress.

Last time I checked, a legislator’s job was to represent and answer to his constituents–and in this case, Sweeney’s constituents have certainly spoken.  How can Senator Sweeney, in good conscience, claim testing has been a “non-event” and allow his own political motivations to interfere with the legislative process he’s been elected to facilitate?

It seems that politicians and others not directly associated with education still believe, despite evidence that overwhelmingly indicates otherwise, that test resistance is only about teacher evaluation: a belief that is inherently insulting to the parents who are working so hard to fight reforms that they know to be bad for their children. (NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer acknowledged as much in the following statement.)

“NJEA appreciates Senator Sweeney’s and Senator Ruiz’s acknowledgment that the stakes for PARCC should not be raised next year. However, we still strongly support legislation placing a moratorium on all use of PARCC results for at least three years. Parents and educators alike are clearly very troubled by PARCC, and for good reason. We call on the Senate to pass all four bipartisan PARCC bills that have already passed the Assembly by overwhelming margins. Parents, students and educators deserve to know that legislators have heard them and are willing to act on their behalf. Passing those four bills is an important first step.”

Is the Sweeney/Ruiz proposition to Hespe an attempt to appease teachers in the hopes that they’ll stop voicing concerns about PARCC testing? Is it an attempt to cause a rift between educators and parents, who are working together to fight damaging education “reforms”? Is it Sweeney’s attempt–again–to save Governor Christie from having to veto the bill?

Either way, anyone who values the legislative process in New Jersey should call Senator Sweeney and demand that all four testing bills be posted for a vote. Because how can the State’s senators represent their constituents if they’re not given the opportunity to do so?

Here are links to and explanations of the four testing bills–and a link to contact legislators in support of the bills–from the Save Our Schools NJ website:

S2767/A4165 Protects students from “sit & stare” and other punitive measures imposed when their families refuse high-stakes standardized tests. A4165 was unanimously approved by the New Jersey Assembly on March 26, 2015.

S2768/A4190 Freezes the use of PARCC high-stakes standardized test scores for three years, to enable this experimental test to be proven effective before it is used to evaluate our children, our teachers, and our public schools. A4190 was approved by the New Jersey Assembly by a bipartisan vote of 63 Yes to 7 No, on February 23rd, 2015.

S2766/A3079 Prohibits the administration of non-diagnostic standardized tests prior to 3rd grade. A3079 was unanimously approved by the New Jersey Assembly on March 9, 2015.

S2765/A3077 Informs families of all standardized tests administered by school districts and charter schools, including their uses and costs. A 3077 was unanimously approved by the New Jersey Assembly on March 9, 2015.

Senator Teresa Ruiz, Education Committee Chair, and Commissioner David Hespe

Senator Teresa Ruiz, Education Committee Chair, and Commissioner David Hespe

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PARCC Study Commission Member: PARCC is Great

I’m not sure whether Dana Egreczky and Melanie Willoughby–co-authors of a pro-PARCC opinion piece published yesterday on–are parents of children in New Jersey’s public schools, but I do know that they’re not educators: the bio at the end of their piece lists Egreczky as a Senior VP of Workforce Development at the NJ Chamber of Commerce and Willoughby as a Senior VP at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

The bio fails to mention, however, that Egreczky is also a member of the Governor’s Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessment in New Jersey.  (How’s that for objectivity? I wonder what Egreczky will contribute to the Commission’s final report–and whether her staunch support of PARCC, including her organization’s membership in We Raise NJ–should preclude her from having input into it. Let’s not forget that David Hespe, Chair of the Study Commission, published a similar defense of PARCC on February 24th. But I digress.)

According to Egreczky and Willoughby, New Jersey employers have been increasingly plagued–specifically in the past decade–by high school and college graduates who are “underprepared for the workplace.” The solution, according to Egreczky and Willoughby, is clear: Common Core and PARCC.

But even a cursory reading of this piece exposes the many problems that arise when people who have no understanding of the intricacies of K-12 education drive reforms that reshape it–particularly when such reforms are met with overwhelming opposition from parents and educators. Some specific issues:

  1. It’s not surprising that the OECD report the authors cite links directly to the Educational Testing $ervice website, where the preface notes that the report’s authors chose to focus on millennials’ job skills because millennials are “the most recent products of our educational system.”  While the results of the report are content for an entirely different post (see Jersey Jazzman here), it’s important to note that the millennials in question, “the most recent products of our educational system,” are actually products of No Child Left Behind–the 2001 standards-based ESEA reauthorization that relies heavily upon punitive high-stakes standardized testing.  Why would anyone believe that more standardized testing–with higher stakes attached–will “fix” public schools or our “unprepared” future workers?
  2. The authors claim that “47 percent of first year, full-time public college and university students in New Jersey have to retake high school math or English classes”–a statistic they attribute to (without providing documentation) the NJ Secretary of Higher Education. Such a statistic without context is virtually meaningless. Why were these students forced to retake English or math courses? (Was it because of Accuplacer or other test results? Did the colleges/universities require the courses?) Are these students from public, private, or charter schools? Are they all from New Jersey–or just enrolled in college here? Does the statistic include non-native English speakers? students with learning disabilities? students who returned to college after years without schooling? (See Rowan mathematics professor Eric Milou’s challenge of similar misuses of statistics here.)
  3. The authors claim that “our children are missing out on a considerable advantage because we have become complacent with their education.” Complacent? Who has become “complacent”? Educators? Parents? The thousands of parents and educators who are speaking out against reforms they know are bad for students? As a teacher, I find this statement to be wildly offensive, and I’d venture to guess that most educators who have dedicated their professional lives to educating New Jersey’s students–and most parents who advocate daily on behalf of their children–would agree.
  4. Not surprisingly, the authors include one of the most frequently-cited (yet most-ridiculous) PARCC selling points: that the test results will “provide detailed information that help parents and teachers work with students to improve their performance and better prepare them for the later stages of their academic and professional careers.” I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again: I have never learned anything new about any of my students from their scores on a standardized test. Ever. And while PARCC cheerleaders claim that the PARCC assessments are “different” from and “better” than other standardized tests, there is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. (I also refuse to believe that Pearson-scored test results which will be returned half a year after my students take the PARCC assessments will be useful to teachers or parents in any way–even if the score reports are printed in pretty colors.)
  5. Returning to Dana Egreczky’s position as a member of the Study Commission: Ms. Egreczky says in this piece that her organization, the NJ Chamber of Commerce, “enthusiastically joined the We Raise NJ coalition and pledged to support the transition to better quality standardized tests for our teachers and students.” As such, Ms. Egreczky should be removed from the Study Commission, as she cannot possibly be objective in her participation.

Ultimately, it’s glaringly evident–especially from the dozens of reader comments on the Egreczky and Willoughby opinion piece–that New Jerseyans have grown tired of people who have no experience with education using superficial arguments to create and promote education policy that’s inherently flawed.

Perhaps if groups like the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Business and Industry Association are interested in attracting more prepared workers to New Jersey’s businesses, they should advocate for vocational education, which has been cut in the name of the reading- and math-prep that PARCC promotes; insist on high-quality on-the-job-training instead of suggesting that PARCC reading and math tests will do anything to prepare students for the workforce; support–instead of oppose–minimum-wage increases; and advocate for–instead of against–paid sick leave for New Jersey’s workers. Because as we focus almost exclusively on ensuring our students are good test-takers, and as the middle class diminishes, and as poverty and hardship become increasingly common in New Jersey and around the country, our students and their families will suffer–and so will the sacred test scores that misguided reformers value above all else.


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