Over the past few months, the Christie Administration has intensified its focus on New Jersey's failure to provide educational equity. While our wealthier kids score top marks on assessments of national achievement, many poor students attend schools where most kids don't meet basic levels of proficiency in reading and math. In some of our neediest schools over 40 percent of third graders can't read at grade level.
This disparity in achievement is old news, inflated by our rampant home-rule ethic, which segregates schoolchildren into 590 economically disparate school districts, and by New Jersey's relatively high test scores, which statistically compound achievement gaps.
But here's what's new: New Jersey seems poised to formally acknowledge this bifurcation of our K-12 public education system by forging ahead with a reform-oriented agenda mostly oriented towards failing schools.
Reward Schools, on the other hand, are eligible for cash awards. Christie reiterated this separation of low-performing districts from high-performing ones in his budget address last month. From the speech: "[we] have great outcomes in some districts. But we have terrible performance in others. That is not right. It is not fair. It is not moral." The governor signaled his intent to deviate from court-ordered school funding compensation for poor districts because we'll see better educational outcomes from changes in tenure law, expansion of school choice, and teacher merit pay. [emphasis mine]Let me get this straight: the more affluent districts do very well in New Jersey, but the poor districts don't do as well. Both types of districts have tenure, little school choice, and no merit pay. There is no evidence that any of these three has any effect on student achievement, and logic suggests that they are not the independent variable that leads to the disparity in test scores between wealthier and poorer districts.
But the solution to the "achievement gap" is to gut tenure, install questionable charter schools, and keep a hopeful eye out for the Merit Pay Fairy - in all districts. Because...
The incoherence continues:
First of all: the "achievement gap" has NOT been resistant to New Jersey's commitment toward adequate funding, no matter how much ACTING Commissioner Cerf abuses the data. Money matters, as Linda Darling-Hammond explains:The release of the state aid numbers was accompanied by acting education commissioner Chris Cerf's "Education Funding Report," which reprised the same refrain: NJ has failed to provide equitable educational opportunities to poor children through the mechanism of money, so it's time for a set of qualitative initiatives."In writing this Report, the Department began with a single question: Why has New Jersey's achievement gap proven so resistant to the combination of Robinson, Abbott, and tens of billions of dollars? The Department quickly found the answer: New Jersey courts, the Legislature, and past Governors only got it half-right. They took an inarguable proposition -- namely, that a school must have sufficient dollars to succeed -- and twisted it into the wrongheaded notion that dollars alone equal success."Here, Cerf echoes Gov. Christie's lead: educational equity for poor kids won't come from increased Abbott money, but only from systemic reforms to tenure laws, teacher incentives, and public school choice.
I also describe how states like New Jersey, now arguably now the highest-achieving state in the U.S. if student demographics are taken into account, raised overall achievement and cut the achievement gap in half after being pushed by 30 years of school finance reform litigation to substantially increase spending in its poor urban districts. New Jersey – serving 45% minority students and a large and growing number of new immigrants – ranks in the top 5 states on NAEP on every measure and is first in the nation in writing, having invested in quality preschool for all children and quality pedagogy, with a focus on early literacy now expanding to other subject areas. [emphasis mine]In spite of this evidence, Chris Christie has still fought tooth-and-nail to keep these less-affluent districts from getting adequate funding. He has admitted he wants to stack the court so he can keep these former Abbott districts from receiving what they need to teach the children who are often the most difficult to educate. His "reforms" - again, which have no evidence of affecting student achievement - are actually a pretext for cutting education funding for the children who need it the most.
Everyone understands this; everyone knows what Christie is doing - except, apparently, Laura Waters, who believes that the push to strip teachers of their workplace protections is actually addressing the very real problems in the lives of poor and minority children. To convince herself of her thesis, she actually invents arguments for the reformers they themselves haven't even advanced:
This political, fiscal, and philosophical distinction between high-performing and low-performing districts also appears in new legislation like the Urban Hope Act (enacted), the Opportunity Scholarship Act (proposed), and the Christie administration's informal decision to restrict charter school expansion to needy districts. Senator Teresa Ruiz's tenure and teacher evaluation reform bill encompasses all districts, although there's been some discussion about focusing energies towards failing ones.There has?!? I sure haven't heard it - because the notion is foolish beyond belief. Can you imagine trying to recruit teachers into less-affluent districts without tenure while teachers in more-affluent districts retain their workplace protections? Can you imagine putting in a test-based merit pay system in Newark while right down the road, Millburn negotiates its pay scales through collective bargaining? The notion is insane even for the corporate reformers, which is why no one - no one - has mentioned eliminating tenure only for teachers in former Abbott districts.
And as to this "informal decision" to restrict charters to the cities: tell that to the people of Cherry Hill and Voorhees. The plain truth is that Christie's DOE tried to foist charters on the 'burbs, and the notion laid an egg. He's been able to back off in most places, but not all. And were it not for the diligence of committed parent activists, there's little doubt charters would be coming to Princeton, Teaneck, and East Bruswick.
To tell the truth, I can't really blame Waters for her arguments; in a way, they are a logical extension of the case Christie and ACTING Commissioner Cerf have been making all along. They admit the schools in the 'burbs are doing a great job; they say all they want is to close the achievement gap. The problem, of course, is that they are concurrently pushing to "fix" schools that aren't broken; they are gutting tenure for teachers in schools that are among the best in the world.
Which begs the question: what are they really after? Why are they insisting on "reforms" for schools that don't need "reform"?
Maybe Laura needs to spend half a minute asking herself that.