I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Dog Ate My Pension Report

I swear I wanted to write about pensions last week - really, I did - and then we had the Bret and Chris show, and the LA Times decided to treat teachers like they should be subject to Megan's Law, and the T@x Foundation stared stalking me, and...

So instead of the clear, nuanced, well-sourced writing you've come to expect from the Jazzman, here are some completely random thoughts about teacher pensions:

- I know the Hall  Institute and Fred Beaver and whoever else think that we need to change the management of the pensions, and they're probably right. But let's get real - we are in the hole for one reason and one reason only: the government employers - not the employees, the employers - didn't want to pony up their fair share.

- If the local, county, school, and state governments of NJ ever decided to actually do what they should and fund pensions properly, it would further highlight the fact that this state relies too heavily on regressive property taxes. And that problem must never, ever be confronted. Hence, keep kicking that can down the road.

- The notion that NJ's pension benefits are out of control is just not true.

- There is an idea floating around that government employees ought to move to 401k's instead of pensions. Although I continue to be astonished of what Chris Christie is capable of, I don't think even he will push that. Not because he's an honorable guy who wants to follow through on promises the state made to its workers; far from it.

No, I think even Chris gets that if he moved everyone off of pensions to defined-contribution (401k) type plans, he would implode the finances of the state.

There are only three sources of revenue for a pension: the employee's contribution, the employer's (the government's) contribution, and investment returns. Well, we all know how the market is doing, and we all know that the government hasn't contributed since Christie Whitman declared a pension holiday for every public employer in NJ. Only Jon Corzine made a significant contribution to the pension; great political move, huh?

If we move public employees off of pensions, there will be absolutely no money coming into the system. It will destroy itself faster than a Hollywood child star with an unlocked trust fund. Even Christie isn't so craven as to allow that.

I think...

For Those of You Who Think I'm Nuts:

I believe that the RTTT "mistake" was a deliberate attempt to disappear Christie's school aid cuts. Some of you may think I'm being crazy: how could he cover up his huge cuts? Why would he even try? Everyone knows he did it - he couldn't be this clueless.

You have to understand - it is a hallmark of the modern conservative mind that one disavow his or her most obvious sins, even as one continues to commit them. For George W Bush, it was looking us all straight in the eye and saying, "America doesn't torture" even as we we were waterboarding.

For Chris Christie, it's saying he is increasing funding to schools even as he's presided over massive cuts. He did it in the RTTT "mistake," and anything that contradicts this fairy tale must be cleansed at the Ministry of Truth:
A review of New Jersey’s state education spending is due Wednesday, but Governor Christie Tuesday said he has advised the education department not to release the report because it could hurt the state in a current legal challenge.

Though Christie stopped short of saying the state would not produce the report, due by law every three years on Sept. 1, he said he recommended delaying it while the state fights litigation filed in June by a New Jersey education advocacy group.

The Education Law Center filed a motion challenging New Jersey's budget, charging that school aid cuts "indisputably violated" the state's legal obligation to distribute funding based on a formula upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Christie said he wanted to wait for a determination from the court. Oral arguments have not been scheduled.

I’m not so sure that should come out tomorrow or that we should be putting forward any report until we get a resolution of the current legal challenge before we buy ourselves another one,” Christie said. “I’m going to [put] one legal challenge behind me before I buy myself the next one.”
Well, isn't that convenient! 

This is the same logic that leads you to say you won't make a pension payment because the system is broken (when it's broken because you won't make your pension payments!).

Why you can't just put out the facts as they are is absolutely beyond me - unless maybe you don't want to affirm you are the largest slasher of funding to schools in the history of forever.

Again, in the wake of a $1.3 billion cut in education, here is what Bret Schundler put in his "error" prone answer on the RTTT application:
In fiscal year 2011, despite huge budget strains, the Governor is proposing an increase in state revenue-based support for education by 2.2% ($238 million). As proposed, preschool-12 education spending as a percentage of the state budget will be 35.4%. Federal ARRA funding will not be available to school districts in FY 2011, but the Governor and the executive team remain committed to funding education even as state revenue-based support for most other areas of state spending has been cut. This demonstrates that, despite severe fiscal challenges, the leadership in the state of New Jersey remains committed to education. (emphasis mine)
I'm really not kidding about this folks - he really will try to tell you that he is increasing education funding. He's already done it. What's amazing is how many people will fall for it.

"Time To Move On..."

Of course Christie wants to move on: RTTT was an enormous embarrassment and highlighted both his hair-trigger temper and his rush to judgement.

Problem is, even though Schundler now admits he made the changes that created the error on the final RTTT application, his explanation for why he made the changes is very, very weak:
Schundler said today he "must have" edited out the previous years’ information because he didn’t have the question in front of him — just the answer — and assumed the federal government would want current information.
"That’s the thing I can’t understand. That’s so fundamental and such a big screw-up," he said. "It’s amazing to me that we screwed up in this regard. It’s amazing to me that I screwed up in this regard, and that others — that we screwed up as a team."
Schundler said a bevy of lawyers, consultants and education department employees were editing and fact-checking the application throughout the week before it was due June 1. He said he spent much of last week trying to piece together the edits before the deadline, checking through his computer files, but could not pinpoint when the error was made.
I'll tell you when the error was made: right after your boss sold you out by reneging on your deal with the NJEA because a radio DJ got angry. But as I've blogged before, there's no way to read the two answers and conclude that this was an innocent mistake. The corrected answer disappeared the fact that Christie slashed the school aid budget in 2010.

Is it a coincidence that you just happened to change the one answer that made your boss's education cuts look bad? I don't think so. I also think those cuts would have demonstrated to the judges that NJ's new leadership is not at all interested in maintaing adequate funding to schools, a "necessary pre-condition" for school reform - it's quite possible we would have scored WORSE had the original answer been left in.

Some are saying, "Who cares? There were lots of other things wrong with the application." NJ Left Behind does make a few good points - here as well - as to the other reasons why NJ lost out in the final round - although I'd argue that the low buy-in from local districts and the nearly total lack of union support hurt the application more than anything (why the districts and unions would want to buy into the entire premise of RTTT anyway is another matter).

But "moving on" and "focusing on the real reasons we lost" keep us from looking at the fundamental lessons to be learned from all of this:
1) Chris Christie, like almost every other Republican these days, is a slave to his talk-radio-lovin', tea-gulpin' base. 

2) Chris Christie will always put his own political ends above policy - even policy he espouses. 

3) In the face of overwhelming evidence of Christie's craven pandering and cowardice, the NJ media will continue to portray him as an honest actor, no better or worse than his opponents. 
There are big debates coming this year about two things that matter a great deal to teachers: pensions and teacher assessment using value-added modeling (VAM). If we are to win these debates, we can't afford to forget the lessons above.

More Like This:

Now that's what I'm talking about:
“The disparaging and partisan attack on our federal education officials that you engaged in during last week’s press conference was a shameful attempt to rationalize a careless error by your administration that cost New Jersey taxpayers $400 million in federal funding,” wrote Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) in a letter to Christie.
“The blame that you foisted on the Obama administration was misdirected and your display completely at odds with the actions expected of a state leader,” they continued.
This is what we need from the Democrats at the moment. The only way to take on a bully is to stand up to him; especially an incompetent bully.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Al Doblin Gets It All Wrong

Zombie lies - you can't kill them over at the Record:
The state's failure to supply a correct budget number on one page of a 1,000-page application has been made a cause célèbre....The notion that the omission of one budget number was the ultimate deal-breaker for Race to the Top funds is pure spin.
It is indeed - just not the way Al Doblin thinks it is.

That "error" was not just a budget number someone forgot to add; it was a deliberate rewrite in an attempt to remake the image of Christie as something less than the greatest threat to public education this state has ever seen.

Pundits like Doblin need to see this for what it really is. Christie reneged on a deal Schundler made with the NJEA because a talk radio DJ told him to. His staff then deliberately changed the answer to a specific question to make it look like Christie was increasing school support, when, of course, he has slashed it like no other governor before him.

The legislature's hearings have got to make this point crystal clear, so even partisans like Doblin can't ignore it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

How Much Merit Pay Are We Talking, Here?

I was just watching This Week's show on education. Michelle Rhee, the DC superintendent, was touting her merit pay program, which she claims will nearly double  the salaries of her best teachers.

Huh. Are we thinking about that here in NJ?

Well, if we had won the Race To The Top funds, $63.5 million would have been set aside for merit pay. That's over four years. There are roughly 140,000 teachers in NJ, making an average of about $65K a year.

Let's say merit pay would go to the top 5% of teachers: ($63.5 mil/4 years) / (140,000 x 5%) = $2,268.

That's a merit pay raise on average of about 3.5%. Oh, but teachers are now paying 1.5% of their salaries into their health insurance anyway.


The Next Big Fight in Education...

... is using student test scores to evaluate teachers. Large portions of the media and many political factions have already invested themselves in the idea, so expect them to sweep reports like this one, released today from EPI, under the rug:
While there are good reasons for concern about the current system of teacher evaluation, there are also good reasons to be concerned about claims that measuring teachers’ effectiveness largely by student test scores will lead to improved student achievement. If new laws or policies specifically require that teachers be fired if their students’ test scores do not rise by a certain amount, then more teachers might well be terminated than is now the case. But there is not strong evidence to indicate either that the departing teachers would actually be the weakest teachers, or that the departing teachers would be replaced by more effective ones. There is also little or no evidence for the claim that teachers will be more motivated to improve student learning if teachers are evaluated or monetarily rewarded for student test score gains.
A review of the technical evidence leads us to conclude that, although standardized test scores of students are one piece of information for school leaders to use to make judgments about teacher effectiveness, such scores should be only a part of an overall comprehensive evaluation. Some states are now considering plans that would give as much as 50% of the weight in teacher evaluation and compensation decisions to scores on existing tests of basic skills in math and reading. Based on the evidence, we consider this unwise. (emphasis mine)
This has got to be hammered home again and again by the teacher advocates so that these concerns do not get brushed aside; unfortunately, it seems we may already be too late.

For my last project of the summer: a primer for teachers about this issue. Stay tuned.

The Star-Ledger's getting a little better...

... on this whole "education reporting" thing - but they've still got a way to go.

Today's recap on the week's Race To The Top disaster has some good points, not the least of which was their interview with Bruce Baker:
Some officials and experts who did not necessarily agree with the Race to the Top proposals see a silver lining in an otherwise cloudy week.
"They weren’t necessarily thoughtful reforms to begin with and there was little buy-in," said Bruce Baker, an associate professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education. "Better to regroup and rethink."
Of course, it would have been nice to spare him another graph or two to let him tell you WHY these reforms aren't very thoughtful.

And the S-L is still buying into the false premise that the error was a simple omission, when quite clearly it was a calculated rewrite designed to play down Christie's destructive education cuts. And the talk-radio driven decision to rewrite the application in the first place has been totally lost.

Still, give the S-L a lot of credit for taking a look at whether Andy Smarick is really up to the job of Ed Commish:
But some question Smarick’s credentials. The deputy commissioner is not from New Jersey, has not worked in schools as a teacher or administrator, and does not have robust experience in government, said Baker, the Rutgers professor.
"I’m not necessarily one who believes that the commissioner has to be a life-long public school employee, or education system bureaucrat, or even has to be tightly connected to the public schooling system," Baker said. "But Smarick in particular is completely unqualified."
Amen. Give the S-L credit as well for detailing some of the consequences of Christie's cuts. The start of school this year is really going to open some parents' eyes. It was all just an abstraction before; now it's real.

Finally, today's S-L editorial does take Christie to task for the way he's handled things. I do wish they had pointed out that his "blunt" style was the cause for him to take a swipe at the Obama administration without knowing all the facts, which is why he wound up so embarrassed. This is a hallmark of his personality and it's what has kept him from being an effective leader.

Unfortunately, the editorial - like this one from the NY Times - buys into the premises of RTTT far too easily. From the NYT:
Education Secretary Arne Duncan made clear that the process would favor bold reform plans from states with proven records of improving student performance. The states were required to create data-driven systems for training and evaluating principals and teachers; encourage the establishment of high-quality charter schools; develop plans for turning around failing schools; and demonstrate a strong political consensus for reform.
It's hard to imagine how much more credulous the Times could be. I'll say it again (and again and again if I have to):
Let's think about all the great stuff that's coming so that we "put the kids first":

- Merit pay. Hasn't worked yet, but full speed ahead!

- Charter schools. Weak to no gains so far, but full speed ahead!

- Teacher evaluations and dismissals based on standardized tests. Error rates of 25%-35%, but full speed ahead!

- Institutionalizing the testing culture of schools. Big problems looming with cheating as the stakes in these tests get higher - really big problems - but full speed ahead!

- Rewarding states for their commitment to educational reform. So far, some of the worst states have been rewarded, but full speed ahead!

Some race...

We may be lost, but we're making great time!

What To Get Cory Booker This Xmas:

Books of quotations. His Twitter feed:
  1. "Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly." Langston Hughes

  2. “Life is short, and it is up to you to make it sweet.” Sarah Louise Delaney

  3. ....

  4. A democracy without strong schools is like a plane without wings: it will either fail to take off or descend very rapidly

  5. ....

  6. "Don’t allow your wounds to turn you into a person you are not." Paulo Coelho

  7. ....

  8. Clear goals are necessary but not sufficient 4 success. A goal without persistent, unyielding, determined action is mere fantasy.
It's like an episode of Kung-Fu...

ADDING: Hee-hee! Right after I posted this:

  1. Cory BookerCoryBooker 
    In sports or life: up or down, no matter what the score or how many seconds left on the clock, you play your heart out til the game is over.
  2. Jersey Jazz Guyjerseyjazzman 
    What To Get Cory Booker This Xmas:http://goo.gl/b/cHk7

Saturday, August 28, 2010

We Don't Need No Stinking Training!

Great catch from Bill Orr at Blue Jersey about the RTTT fiasco:
Note to the Governor: Trying to re-write a large and complex proposal over a long weekend when so much is at stake is a fool's errand. Errors creep in and there is the danger of making spur-of-the moment changes that have not been well thought out. Also why did NJ not send a delegation to the Technical Assistance Workshop? 41 other states did. It might have helped.  
 From the link above:
The workshop was held in Minneapolis, was open to the public, and included a conference call option
Schundler couldn't pick up the phone? Seriously?

Hold my calls...