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

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

NJDOE Coup d'Etat

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey

A couple of bombshells dropped out of the NJ DOE yesterday. First, from Kevin Shelley at the Courier-Post:
CAMDEN — A secret Department of Education proposal called for the state to intervene in the city’s school district by July 1, closing up to 13 city and charter schools. 
But while reserving the right to exercise his “statutory authority,” Gov. Chris Christie has no plans to enact the DOE scenario, according to his spokesman. 
“It never made its way to the governor’s office,” said Michael Drewniak. No one from the governor’s office was involved in preparing the document, he added.
Justin Barra, a DOE spokesman, called the proposal one of many “recommendations” for the city’s struggling school system. 
“It is irresponsible to portray this document as anything other than a preliminary look at the options the state would have to improve failing schools or to portray this as a plan for intervention in Camden. It is not,” said Barra in an emailed statement.
He said the DOE is conducting “an in-depth evaluation of Camden … to identify the role the state can play to better support school and district improvement. No determinations will be made about how best to support student improvement in Camden until this detailed evaluation is complete.”
Well, looks like everyone in the Christie administration is running away from this one. But is anyone surprised they might try this? The DOE is running Newark with a minimum of citizen input, tightening its grip on Paterson, clearing the path for Broadies in Jersey City*, meddling in Perth Amboy, overriding citizens voices in Trenton, laying plans in Cherry Hill, helping friends in Highland Park... Why would Camden be let off of the hook?

So, who's coming up with the big takeover plans?
The intervention proposal, which was obtained by the Courier-Post, was written by Department of Education employee Bing Howell. 
He did not respond to a phone call and email seeking comment. 
Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick.
Howell’s proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. [emphasis mine]
Kinda like Old Faithful at this point. The proposal calls for the usual round of school closings, because instability is just so freaking great for kids living in difficult conditions. But here's the part that's going to raise eyebrows:
Control the school board by taking away members’ ability to vote for at least six months, plus adding three state-appointed members. Place all hiring and firing decisions in the hands of the state Board of Education
• If a superintendent vacancy happens during state intervention, the commissioner would recommend a replacement with confirmation by state board. 
• Increase charter schools and attract charter management organizations such as those run by the KIPP chain. Send Camden students out of district to choice and vocational schools. 
The proposal also calls for passage of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a proposed corporate tax credit scholarship bill. This would be used to send children to religious schools and private schools, including boarding schools.

Howell also said the state should partner with Teach for America, Knowledge is Power Program and The New Teacher Project . The three programs have or had links to Broad Foundation board members Wendy Kopp (TFA), Richard Barth (KIPP) and Michelle Rhee (formerly of TNTP and a TFA alumna). [emphasis mine]
All the usual suspects. They want to strip local control and turn the whole thing over to people who won't attempt to run an entire district (Barth) or failed when they tried (Rhee). And, of course, OSA rears its head again, despite the fact that Camden only has a small number of private school slots available (not that vouchers work anyway).

Now, what's interesting about the timing of this story is that it surfaced at the same time as another power grab is coming to light; Darcie Cimarusti gives us the details:
And hold onto your hats folks, because we are on the cusp of perhaps our biggest charter battle to date in the state of New Jersey.  The NJDOE and Governor have faced steep opposition to their charter agenda, leading WNYC's Nancy Solomon to conclude that the suburban charter school battle could be Christie's Waterloo.

Not so fast says the NJDOE!  Tomorrow morning the State Board of Education will meet at the NJ Department of Education and on the agenda are proposed changes to the charter school regulations. 

The board will get its first look at new charter school regulations that the administration contends will add both flexibility and accountability for charter schools. The proposed regulations would create a two-tier application process that will allow the department to focus more on applicants ready to open, but also provide more time for local districts to review applications as well. The new regulations would also provide new options for the commissioner to deal with lower-performing charters, and ease some provisions in the existing regulations that have been seen as an obstacle to online charter schools.

I got a sneak peek at the new regulations yesterday before NJ Spotlight published them this morning and have already done an analysis, which I hope to post shortly.  The proposed changes exemplify EVERYTHING that is wrong with the NJDOE under Acting Commissioner Cerf.  They give the Acting Commissioner  unlimited power to put charters in former Abbott districts or any district with a Priority School, the ability to control how charters grow and expand into other districts, and grants him limitless control over the renewal or closure of a charter.  All of these new powers come with next to no input from the districts and communities that will pay for these charters.    

The sweeping changes proposed to the regulations, without the careful review of the legislature, are unconscionable, but par for the course for this administration and this Acting Commissioner.
Not enough autocracy for you? Take a look at TEACHNJ, the tenure-gutting bill working its way around legislature. It will give all sorts of new powers to the ACTING Commissioner, including the power to override local boards' ability to set the rubrics for evaluating their teachers.

There is a legitimate case to be made for school district consolidation. There is a legitimate discussion to have about the role of local school boards in setting policy. But let no one labor under the delusion that this is what we have here.

This is a power grab. ACTING Commissioner Cerf made his bones in the NYC system while Tweed was under Generalissimo Bloomberg's control. The m.o. there was to disempower local school boards, parents, and educators and pass all the important decision making to the top (thank the lord Leonie Haimson and crew were there to document all the sordid details). It didn't help students then, and it won't help students now.

These schools belong to the people of New Jersey, not California billionaires. They are here to serve the children of New Jersey, not the private interests of corporate reformers. Lord High Executioner Cerf moves as if he has been granted carte blanche to appropriate powers from localities whenever he see fit.

Well, he may claim these rights, but that doesn't mean he has them - provided, of course, someone in the legislature is willing to stand up and say, "Enough." Until then, we are all on his little list.

* A source in Jersey City tells me rumors are flying about big changes in the district. Stay tuned.


Deb said...

These are dangerous times for public education in NJ. But we should not be surprised - look at neighboring Phili and NYC and realize that all that is happening in NJ, sandwiched between the 2, is a slightly more nuanced (well, underhanded) attempt to do the same things that are going on in those cities. Close down the public schools in urban areas at the same time as vastly expanding the role of the Commissioner in granting charters - allowing him to allow chains to spread like McDonalds without asking for any local input or control. If we OPRA the right documents from the NJ DoE, we would probably find there are talks with KIPP or some other charter chain to take over urban education in NJ. Let's hope that revealing the 'secret' plan to take over Camden gets a few more people riled up to fight this. And this Saturday in Camden is a community meeting regarding Urban Hope Act, charters and vouchers - planned event before this bombshell dropped.

Galton said...

Great post!
Imagine if George Soros offered to "buy" the NJDOE for a billion dollars. Would the citizens of NJ allow it?

If we are going to let the BROADIES colonize and take over the public school system of NJ like this, why not sell the naming rights to the NJDOE to the highest billionaire?
We could also sell the job positions, school & district names, buildings and everything. Put it all up on eBay!

It might wind up costing the Broad Foundation a little more to get control of the public school system but it would be more honest and open.
I' m guessing if George and Joey D. Say so, Sweeny and Ruiz would cheer it onward!
I hope the people of NJ who were well served by their public education DO SOMETHING!

Duke said...

Thx for those, Deb and Galton.

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Unknown said...

Good piece Kevin Shelley .It seems that a number of inner city areas in the US face similar problems to those also faced in the UK

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