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, October 16, 2012

Who Stands For New Jersey's Students?

Cross-posted from Blue Jersey.

Yesterday, we had an interesting juxtaposition of views on child advocacy here in the Garden State. On the one hand:
Dear Secretary Duncan,
We are writing to express our grave concerns about the negative impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver on New Jersey’s most vulnerable children.
We understand that the waivers were an effort to return more control to the states to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. Unfortunately, here in New Jersey, it is quite clear that the NCLB waiver is being used to apply measures that are more damaging than NCLB would have been, particularly to low-income Black and Latino children.
Below, we detail our most pressing concerns with the program the State is implementing under the waiver: 1) introduction of a punitive accountability system that disproportionately impacts school districts populated by low-income children of color while rewarding selective schools and those populated by wealthier, majority white students; and 2) a process of State intervention that excludes low-income communities of color from substantive input in the planning or implementation of the proposed interventions.
Click through and read who signed this: parent groups, children's advocates, school board members, civil rights groups, teachers unions, scholars, labor, politicians... it reads like a who's who of NJ education policy.

The two problems the letter outlines can be laid directly at the feet of NJ Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. He implemented the system by which schools can be classified as "Priority," "Focus," or "Reward" schools, a system that does nothing to acknowledge the very real differences in student demographics between these schools:

This graph comes from Bruce Baker; it shows quite clearly that "Priority" and "Focus" schools are far more likely to have poor and/or minority students than "Reward" schools. If that isn't racially and economically discriminatory, I don't know what is.

Cerf's other problem goes back to his autocratic nature. He wants to strip local control away from "Priority" schools and districts. You know, because state control of Newark and Paterson and Jersey City has worked out so well...

At this point, the NJDOE's stance is fairly clear: we are going to use waivers from NCLB to take over schools with large poor and minority student populations, and the local communities will pretty much have nothing to say about it. The people who signed this letter stand in opposition to the state's coup d'etat.

Compare their reaction to this one:
The mothers of three students have asked the state Department of Education to find new schools outside the failing district immediately for their children.
Citing DOE studies and the comments of EducationCommissioner Chris Cerf, the students’ lawyers assert that Camden schools are among the worst in the nation and students lose time in their academic life as long as they have to attend them.
“What do we do with children who we know are being deprived of their fundamental right to an education?” lawyer Patti Bombelyn said at a news conference in Trenton.
The DOE last spring said 23 of the city’s 26 schools are failing.
The parents filed a petition Monday with the state. They are seeking class-action standing.
Because the three students can’t jump ahead on charter school waiting lists — one city charter has a list of 500 students — class-action status would open the way for the district’s 12,000 students to transfer to public schools with unused capacity in the region, according to Bombelyn.
Here, the parents filing suit are actively seeking the state's intervention. It's hard to argue their point as presented. I've long said that every parent must do what's in their child's best interest; no child should be used to make a political point.

And there's no denying that segregation runs rampant throughout New Jersey, if not the nation, in our public schools. Of course, if that's the issue the lawsuit is trying to address, I don't much understand how making the case that there aren't enough charter seats to go around helps make the point. Charters are increasingly becoming hotbeds of segregation: by race, class, gender, ethnicity, language, and special need. Expanding charters isn't going to ameliorate segregation; it will most likely make it worse.

So what exactly is this all about? Maybe we can find a clue in who is sponsoring the lawsuit:
Groups supporting the filing include E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone), the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, and the Latino Leadership Alliance of New Jersey.
These groups also support a bill that would use public money to pay for scholarships for students in some state towns.
The money would be used to allow students in those towns attend private schools.
Ah, now it's clear: this lawsuit is being sponsored by private school voucher advocates.

These three groups have been tight for some time. Christy Davis Jackson, President and CEO of E3, is married to Reginald Jackson, head of the Black Minister's Council. The members of the BMC have shown great interest in starting their own schools using taxpayer monies, be they charters or privates. As the tale of Pastor Amir Khan showed us, the revenue streams from schools housed in churches can be quite useful to the ministries who own those churches.

Martin Perez, President of the Latino Leadership Alliance of NJ, also serves on E3's board. Perez is such a rliable voucher cheerleader, he's available through the right-wing Friedman Foundation for speaking engagements focused on school choice.

E3 has been trying to get vouchers passed in New Jersey for 13 years; they failed once again this past summer. Well, if rich guys like Peter Denton are willing to keep forking over money to keep the lights on at E3, I don't know why they shouldn't stop plugging away at this lost cause. And it looks like this might be the perfect way to start a new campaign.

The sad truth is that private schools will never have enough seats to serve more than a small number of Camden's children. I can certainly understand these parents' desperation; again, they've got to do what they've got to do to stand up for their sons and daughters.

But who is really standing up for New Jersey's students? Those who demand local control and adequate resources...

... or those who would take money out of public schools and put them into vouchers?

ADDING: A quick thought: I didn't see much local press about the letter to Secretary Duncan. I saw quite a bit of local press about the lawsuit.

Just one more bit of proof that the Jersey media loves reforminess.


Deb said...

Working from Camden to Newark in the past year, I have found amazing local activists who stand for the students. Truly dedicated, determined, fearless advocates some of whom have children and many who do not - but who get the reasons for high quality public schools and get that the current policies will destroy any chance of preserving and improving the schools. These activists, especially in urban areas under state control get that the NCLB waiver will do more harm than good as the actions justified under the waiver give the state more sticks. These activists are organizing, gaining strength in numbers and conviction. Together we will force the changes necessary to preserve and improve our public schools.

ad77 said...

The NJ waiver is an absolute disaster and more so than what this article references.

Do people in Priority and Focus schools know that they have to hand over 30% of their federal Title 1 funding to Cerf's RAC system? These schools have absolutely no say in how this money gets spent. It's to underwrite the RAC's - an unproven and still really undefined system that is supposedly going to turn disadvantaged schools into academic super stars.

It's the needy students in needy districts that drive the very basis of federal funding that has always gone directly to the needy students in the needy schools. Now under Cerf's waiver, this money is being taken away from the schools!

How can this be? So instead of addressing students on a more personal and direct basis as to their needs, we are now dependent on a distant level of bureaucracy. What happened to local control?

It's one thing to have the state take away state funds. But this takes things to a whole new level - the State taking federal dollars away from disadvantaged kids to fund bureaucracies.

How can federal law allow this?