Monthly Archives: September 2014

NJ Bizarro World: Where “Choice” Actually Means “No Choice”

Save Our Schools New Jersey posted this press release–and accompanying joint letter to legislators from Susan Cauldwell at SOSNJ and David Sciarra at the Education Law Center–this morning:

PARENT ADVOCATES CALL ON LEGISLATURE TO HALT UNPRECEDENTED EXPANSION OF UNACCOUNTABLE CHARTER CHAINS IN CAMDEN

Senate President Stephen Sweeney is poised to pass S2264, legislation that amends the 2013 Urban Hope Act in order to accommodate illegally approved renaissance charter schools in Camden. Senator Sweeney is bringing this legislation to a full Senate vote on Monday, September 22, without first introducing it in committee. This legislation was already snuck through the Legislature once in late June.

“The handwriting is on the wall,” said Susan Cauldwell, Executive Director of Save Our Schools NJ Community Organizing.

“If the legislature allows this undemocratic transfer of Camden public education to private control, district schools will be forced to close, and the education of Camden schoolchildren and the oversight of hundreds of millions of our tax dollars will be in the hands of entities that are unaccountable to New Jersey families and taxpayers.”

“The people of New Jersey deserve more transparency and accountability from their elected officials, especially when our children’s futures are at stake,” Ms. Cauldwell added.

Last spring, Commissioner of Education David Hespe approved renaissance school proposals submitted by out-of-state charter chains, Mastery and Uncommon, knowing they did not comply with the current Urban Hope Act law.

Save Our Schools NJ objected to the illegal Mastery and Uncommon approvals in three letters to the Commissioner. In what appears to be an acknowledgment of the validity of these objections, a bill amending the Urban Hope Act to allow some of Mastery and Uncommon’s illegal activity, was quickly passed through the Legislature in late June. That bill was vetoed by the Governor.

In August, after Senator Sweeney indicated that he would support a reintroduction of this legislation, Save Our Schools NJ and the Education Law Center sent a letter to Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto calling on him to reject the new UHA legislation. The two organizations recently sent the same letter to all State Legislators (please see below).

“The Camden school district currently turns over $72 million, or 26% of its budget, to charters, because of the new KIPP, Mastery and Uncommon schools that have opened this year. That number will continue to grow,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “We urge Legislators to oppose any expansion of the Urban Hope Act. The purpose of the act was to encourage construction of new school buildings in Camden, not to privatize public education in the district.”

What is happening in this state?! Let’s take a closer look:

Regular New Jersey

Bizarro New Jersey

Legislators follow the laws that they themselves made. Legislators change laws they made at a whim to suit their political and social ambitions—or to thwart lawsuits that expose and challenge illegal charter chain approvals.
Public hearings are part of the legislative process, and legislators have adequate time to review the legislation they’re voting on.
Legislation goes up for a hasty vote without public hearings–and without adequate time for legislator review.
Tax dollars are used to fund traditional public schools, which are accountable to the State. Tax dollars are shipped to out-of-state corporations that are subject to less oversight than traditional public schools.
Parents, students, and taxpayers have a say about education in their cities. White Some NJ parents, students, and taxpayers have a say about education in their cities, but minority other NJ parents, students, taxpayers do not.
Public education is a cornerstone of a democratic society. Public education is privatized without community input. What’s a democratic society?  

 

Yes: the New Jersey Bizarro World is very real. The Norcross/South Jersey political machine is alive and well–and backwards backroom deals are becoming the norm when it comes to shaping education policy. But that’s okay–because we all know that legislators, not parents and educators, know what’s best for children.

And let’s not forget that politicians are “the deciders” here in The Garden State.

 


 

“It’s like Bizarro Superman—Superman’s exact opposite who lives in the backwards Bizarro world. Up is down; down is up. He says ‘Hello’ when he leaves, ‘Goodbye’ when he arrives.”–Jerry Seinfeld

*Call, email, and tweet your legislators and tell them to vote “no”–and send a message to @NJSenatePres that shady backroom deals aren’t okay.

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The day when NJ ed bloggers met @Lily_NEA

It didn’t take long for the National Education Association’s new president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, to get to work.

Eskelsen Garcia has only been at the helm of the nation’s largest teachers’ union for a couple of weeks, but she’s already five states deep into her 2014 Back to School tour, which she’s using as an opportunity to meet educators, students, and parents from all over the country.

On Saturday, September 13th, some of my best edu-friends and I had the opportunity to spend time with Eskelsen Garcia and chat about the issues facing our nation’s public schools. With so much to talk about and only an hour and a half in which to do it, we started a general but very important conversation about some of the issues that are directly threatening public education in the United States. At the top of that list: the testing mania that’s sweeping the country.

 IMG_4822

Toxic Testing

It should be clear to anyone who’s paying attention that Eskelsen Garcia is on a crusade against what she describes as the “toxic testing” to which American children are being subjected. And for good reason: flawed high-stakes tests are at the heart of the education “reform” movement–and they’re being used to label students, schools, and teachers as failures.  They’re also driving curricular decisions, putting undue stress on even the smallest of children, and consuming shocking amounts of instructional time. (Consider this Miami-Dade County Public Schools 2014-2015 testing schedule, which is evidently okay with standardized-testing cheerleaders like Jeb Bush.)

While at-risk students are the ones who are most vulnerable to punitive testing (consider that in 2013, nearly 70% of New York City students failed the state’s Common Core-aligned tests, effectively widening the black/white achievement gap), Eskelsen Garcia notes that even the highest-performing students in some of the most affluent suburbs are falling victim to the pressures associated with high-stakes tests. She spoke of a student who was under such pressure to be at the top of her class, get a top score on her SATs, and get into a top college that she had to be medicated for depression and anxiety.  Indeed, even our best students feel the increasing pressure of high-stakes environments.

But perhaps the most egregious and disturbing example of testing abuse, says Eskelsen Garcia, is the story of Ethan Rediske–a Florida boy who was required by his state’s department of education to take a standardized test when he was in a coma.

How is this kind of abuse allowed to happen? Part of the problem, Eskelsen-Garcia says, is that despite calls for increasing “accountability” for teachers and schools, policymakers and legislators refuse to take responsibility for their roles in the testing madness that, says the NEA president, has “corrupted teaching and learning.”

The key to opposing abusive policies, says Eskelsen Garcia, is to force those who support and promote them to take responsibility. (Eskelsen Garcia notes that not even Arne Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education who’s responsible for Race to the Top, will claim responsibility for the high-stakes environment that his initiative forced.) So who, exactly, was behind the prolonged insistence that Ethan Rediske–while in a coma–needed to somehow “take” the FCAT? Eskelsen Garcia is adamant that answers like “the state” or “the department of education” aren’t sufficient–so parents and educators must demand that the people behind corrupt testing policies are held accountable. All student advocates should ask: Who mandated this? Who says teachers must test-prep their students incessantly? What’s the name of the person who says that a child like Ethan Rediske must take a standardized test?  Who are the state legislators that support these policies?

Demand to know. Demand accountability.

And Eskelsen Garcia has advice for teachers who must administer tests they know to be bad for students: state your concerns in a respectful yet strongly-worded letter to your principal–and ask that the letter be placed in your personnel file. Is the protocol you’re being asked to follow harming students?  Do the district’s testing policies betray IDEA’s guidelines for appropriate testing practices? Do you believe the district’s testing policiers could open the door for legal action from parents who are seeking to protect their children from abusive testing policies?  If so, say it in writing.

Charters

Another topic of discussion: the growing number of charter chains that are setting up shop in many of our nation’s poorest cities.  The day before our meeting, Eskelsen Garcia visited Pyne Poynte Middle School in Camden and spoke with the schools administrators, teachers, and students. The school, which is slated to close in two years, is currently co-located with a Mastery charter school–and as Garcia learned from the Pyne Poynte community and a group of unhappy parents with whom she spoke after her tour of the school, Camden students in traditional public schools are being short-changed because of the charter takeover that violates New Jersey’s Urban Hope Act.  (See here for a New York teacher’s experiences in a co-located building.) As is the story in urban areas all over the country, traditional district schools in Camden are grossly understaffed and underfunded–and it’s hard to argue that such neglect isn’t part of a deliberate effort by reform proponents to drive students to charters.

In the same day that she visited Camden, Eskelsen Garcia toured West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North–an example of a school that’s thriving because, unlike the public schools in Camden, it’s well-resourced:

The school offers state-of-the-art technology, teams in 29 sports, various student publications, acclaimed performing groups in vocal and instrumental music and over 40 clubs devoted to specialized interests. Diversity is also celebrated at West Windsor-Plainsboro, where students speak 33 languages.

“I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of challenges, and I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of resources. And I want to talk about how we close that gap.” Eskelsen García explained at an afterschool meeting with educators at West Windsor-Plainsboro.

The answer? Educating the whole child. “You put the kid together first, and the world will follow,” said Eskelsen García as she wrapped up the day at a meeting with NJEA’s executive committee and county presidents.

The obvious conclusion (and one that’s been proven again and again by experts like Rutgers professor Bruce Baker): funding matters–and students in Camden–and in urban areas all over the country–deserve the same opportunities and educational experiences as their suburban counterparts.

What we didn’t get to…

Because our time with Ms. Eskelsen Garcia was so limited, we didn’t get to discuss the Common Core and its role in the toxic testing we spent so much time discussing.  The NEA’s official position is one of support for the Common Core (the association is critical of the implementation of and testing associated with the standards), but the growing amount of opposition to the CCSS initiative–from parents, teachers, taxpayers, and legislators alike–is undeniable.  A recent Education Next poll showed that the percentage of teachers opposed to the Common Core has tripled in the last year, and a growing number of state/local teachers’ associations–most notably, the Chicago Teachers Union–are formally opposing the standards.  Many educators believe that the CCSS and the toxic testing Eskelsen Garcia describes are inextricably connected, so it seems inevitable that the NEA–along with the AFT–will need to aggressively address the issue of growing opposition to the standards among educators.

Going forward

When it comes down to it, a union is only as powerful as its members: and that’s precisely why Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s work is so important.  It’s glaringly evident that she values the input of teachers, of students, and of parents, and her desire to engage all public education stakeholders in a long-overdue discussion about damaging education reforms is so encouraging.

In short, Lily believes in empowering NEA members to be fearless in their defense of their students and of public education, and she knows that such fearlessness needs to have its roots at the local level.  She’s excited to unite parents and educators in the pursuit of a common goal–achieving what’s best for America’s public school children–and I have no doubt that under her leadership and direction, advocates of public education will accomplish great things.

 

Lily

Left to Right: Rose Jorgensen, Darcie Cimarusti (Mother Crusader), Rosi Efthim, Melissa Katz, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, Marie Corfield, Ani McHugh (me!), Melissa Tomlinson (Badass Teachers Association), Mark Weber (Jersey Jazzman), Ronen Kauffman, Susan Carlsson (Save Our Schools NJ)

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An Open Letter to Star-Ledger Editorial Board Director Tom Moran

Dear Tom,

This week, you crossed a line.

Until now, your pieces in the Star-Ledger about Newark’s school system and the reorganization of the district have been ill-informed and reckless. You’ve ignored the warnings of teachers, parents, community leaders, researchers, and students, preferring instead to cling to recycled talking points crafted by those with little experience in education policy, but much to gain in profits.

You’ve paid a price: like your ridiculous attempt to walk back from your disastrous endorsement of Chris Christie, your continuing effort to support State Superintendent Cami Anderson while distancing yourself from the consequences of her catastrophic leadership has shredded any integrity you had left as a journalist. Any standing your newspaper had left as a champion of the people of Newark has also eroded: as with Anderson, no one in the city trusts you or the Star-Ledger’s editorial page anymore.

“Shame on you for refusing to educate yourself about the policies you endorse.”

But as awful as your previous meanderings about Newark’s schools have been, at least you never had the bad taste to try to pawn off Anderson’s failures and your own poor judgement to others. At least you never tried to make the case that the impending disaster of One Newark was the fault of anyone but the Christie administration, its appointed superintendent, and her enablers in government and the press.

This week, however, you crossed that line. We have tried individually in the past to get your attention and set the record straight to no avail (see all the links later in this piece). Therefore, we—professional educators with a combined total of seven degrees, a PhD in the works, and 38 years of teaching experience—who, along with countless others across this state, have stood against the illogical, faith-based, and racist education policies you espouse for Newark regularly from your position of influence, have come together to deliver you a message:

Shame on you, Tom Moran

Shame on you for sanctioning One Newark, a plan so controversial and discriminatory that it’s the subject of both state and federal civil rights complaints. Shame on you for ignoring and then blaming the people your newspaper is supposed to serve. Shame on you for refusing to educate yourself about the policies you endorse.

Why do you insist that educators must be held accountable for the sins of greed and the failure of government to address generational poverty, while no one holds you, the editorial director of the state’s largest newspaper, accountable for the half-truths and misinformation you spread?

Fact vs. Fiction

Fiction:

You claim: “At the same time, the city’s most successful charter school chains will take over management of three district schools, fueling their explosive growth.” As we have explained to you over and over again, the ‘success’ of these charters hinges on the fact that they do not serve the same population of students as their neighboring public schools.

Fact:

Percentage qualifying for Free Lunch

NPS: 80%

North Star (Uncommon): 68%

TEAM (KIPP): 73%

Robert Treat Academy: 60%

 

Fact:

Percentage Limited English Proficient

NPS: 9%

North Star (Uncommon): 0%

TEAM (KIPP): 0%

Robert Treat Academy: 1%

 

Fact:

Percentage Special Education

NPS: 17.7%

North Star (Uncommon): 7.8%

TEAM (KIPP): 12.3%

Robert Treat Academy: 5.8%

(All enrollment data 2014 from the NJDOE; special education classification data 2013 from NJDOE.)

Fact:

The small number of special education students within Newark’s charters overwhelmingly have low-cost special educational needs: milder learning and speech disabilities. And both TEAM and North Star have engaged in well-documented patterns of student cohort attrition: according to Julia Sass Rubin of SOSNJ, nearly 60 percent of the black males from North Star’s Class of 2014 dropped out between 5th and 12th Grade.

Fact:

Mark Weber and Dr. Bruce Baker have published several policy briefs explaining, in painstaking detail, why One Newark has little chance of succeeding:

We would think this last issue would concern you, a journalist, the most. You claim that Newark’s parents are clamoring to get into charter schools. What if, however, those parents are making their choices based on false information from Anderson’s administration? What if the waiting lists you point to—lists, by the way, whose lengths are wildly exaggerated—are the product of both the state’s neglect of Newark’s public schools and oversold claims from NPS—and your editorial page—of charter schools’ successes?

Separate and Unequal Education 

Separate but unequal

The sad truth is that parents in your town of Montclair (or any other mostly white, mostly wealthy suburban community) would never willingly subject their own children to what’s happening in Newark right now:

In fact, the parents of Montclair are fighting back right now, but you have not written one word about it. Why is it okay for them to fight back, but when the parents of Newark do so, you accuse them of “shrieking” and being “shrill and unreasonable”? Are the parents of Newark not smart enough to know what’s good for their own children? Don’t you think they can smell a rat as well as someone from the ‘burbs?

Public education belongs to the public. The board of ed is answerable to all the people. But in Newark? Meh, what do those people know? They have no money, so they have no voice. They aren’t the right skin color, so they have no voice. They can’t write big campaign checks, so they have no voice. They aren’t concerned parents. They are, in your words:

 

“CONSPIRACY THEORISTS”

Parents

Yea, these parents look really crazy…

 

Students

…so do these students

 

Were these people “conspiracy theorists” too…?

Segregation

 

Tin Foil Hats and Fox Mulder: The Truth is Out There

The message Newark parents hear from you is that if they would just shut up, take off their tin foil hats and let all these rich, smart (that term is used very loosely) white folk completely up-end their lives, they’ll crawl back on their hands and knees someday in thanks and praise.

But you’re wrong. Just because many are working class or poor, don’t speak the King’s English as well as you, refuse to stand on protocol at board of ed meetings because they’re sick and tired of the people in charge not listening when they use their ‘indoor voices’, are “voting with their feet” (as you so love to say of all those charter parents) by boycotting the first day of school, you accuse them of being crazy and—perhaps the cruelest cut of all—not giving a damn about their own children:

“[Anderson] is facing determined opposition from local activists and politicians who don’t seem to give a damn about the children.

“why not organize a protest march, or a sit-in, or even acts of civil disobedience? Why would your first big move be to keep kids out of classrooms when so many of them can’t read at grade level?”

Tom, the activists are parents. Keeping children home from school is an act of civil disobedience. The parents of Newark are not “conspiracy theorists”; they are concerned citizens who want what’s best for their children—just like parents in your town—but they’ve been shut out of the conversation. And you owe them an apology.

The fact is, Tom, the majority of opposition comes from parents and students who are supported by the clergy, unionized education professionals (whom you seem to hate for some reason even though NJ consistently ranks at the top in public education) and elected officials, some of whom also happen to live in the community. In case you hadn’t noticed, Mayor Ras Baraka ran and won on a platform to stop this madness. He was elected by a majority of the citizens of Newark, and he has dedicated his professional career—most recently as principal of Central High School—to the children and families of Newark.  But you, Tom, wonder “if the kids fit into the mayor’s political calculus at all?” Do you really believe that Ras Baraka is less committed to the children of his city than Cami Anderson, an outsider from California who lives in the suburbs?

In your X-Files world, conspiracy theorists are people who see charter schools as a dark plot by Wall Street to somehow suck money out of the public system.” Should we assume you aren’t aware of the ways Qualified School Construction Bonds enrich charters while neighborhood schools starve—and at the same time translate to big profits for banks? (Are you also unaware that David Samson, who just resigned from his Port Authority position because of that pesky Bridgegate mess, is a partner of the law firm that oversees bond transactions between charters and banks?) The fact that you flat-out refuse to accept the mountains of evidence (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) linking Wall Street profits with the explosion of charter schools completely discredits you as a legitimate journalist.

“The fact that you flat-out refuse to accept the mountains of evidence linking Wall Street profits with the explosion of charter schools completely discredits you as a legitimate journalist.”

And as for children not being able to “read at grade level,” it’s important first to note that the link you reference details students’ scores on standardized tests, which are inherently flawed and economically-and racially-biased—and which are not indicators of students’ “grade level.” But if we are to keep with your language, there are a myriad of reasons children can’t read at grade level; many have little to do with what goes on inside a classroom. And setting up a system that closes schools, replaces veteran educators with inexperienced ones, and prevents hundreds of parents from enrolling their children does nothing to help those children.

How many times do we have to say this?

We’ve tried to reason with you and the rest of the Star-Ledger editorial board many times (here, here, here, here, here, and here), but your failure to acknowledge the evidence with which you’ve been presented makes your defense of Cami Anderson and her One Newark plan all the more troubling.

Unlike you, Tom, we believe that responsibility for the gross failures of One Newark rests solely on the shoulders of Cami Anderson and her supporters—not on the shoulders of the parents, educators, researchers, community members, and elected officials who recognize and denounce One Newark’s glaring flaws and Cami Anderson’s failed leadership.

Who will be sitting at this bus stop on the first day of school in Newark? It’s not hard to figure out, Tom. It won’t be kids from your town.

Bench

This photo is from apartheid-era South Africa

 

Sincerely,

Marie Corfield

Ani McHugh (aka. Teacherbiz)

Mark Weber (aka. Jersey Jazzman)

 

 

 

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