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

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Reformy Right: "Democracy Is a Myth!"

Meanwhile, in Newark:
In an unprecedented move, the Newark Schools Advisory Board tonight voted against approval of a budget submitted by state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson.

The board voiced its dissatisfaction with the way the budget was submitted, bereft of details, according to at least one member.
"We were all in agreement that there was a lack of transparency," said Board Member Eliana Pintor Marin. "I asked the question tonight 'where are the programs being cut,' and I got no answers."
Up against an April 8th state imposed deadline, the budget as submitted to the board totals just under $1 billion.
"There is no number of fulltime jobs losses itemized in the budget," Pintor Marin said.
The vote, which puts the school district in jeopardy of losing critical funding, was a slap at the Gov. Chris Christie-appointed Anderson.
Last year, the commisisoner took credit for getting the local teachers to embrace a new contract that includes a Christie-endorsed merit pay system based on student performance.
Board member Shavar Jeffries, a likely 2014 candidate for mayor, said he sympathized with Anderson's position.
"She has a very difficult job and she's working to do the best she can," he said. "But before I can vote on a billion dollar budget I need more information. I cast the vote reluctantly."
Jeffries said he was troubled by the lack of specifics regarding the schools-based budget cuts.
"I have a lot of questions about those cuts," he said. "Some high schools increase their budgets by 9% but others cut as much as 25%, including West Side High School. Science and Technology schools are cut and it's not clear why." [emphasis mine]
You know, the Newark board really needs to take a cue from RiShawn Biddle and embrace the idea that local control is a "myth." Only a "traditionalist" would think that the elected citizens of a city have the right to know how their schools budget was constructed:
Your editor won’t spend time on the whole state-takeover-is-anti-democratic claptrap because it makes no sense on its face. After all, Christie was elected by New Jersey’s citizens, as is the state legislature (which passed state law allowing for the state to take over districts and schools in the first place), while Cerf was chosen and confirmed by the state’s elected players. Democracy is plenty involved here. Nor will I indulge the race-baiting and class warfare rhetoric. There’s no reason to even address the demagoguery of traditionalists who are justify letting the futures of children fall into the economic and social abyss. The bigger issue is that traditionalists are once again using the myth of local control to argue the Garden State has no right to take control of Camden’s operations. And that isn’t so. [emphasis mine]
This "rabid" "traditionalist" has never said the state doesn't have the right, by law, to take over a local school district; clearly, they do. What this "rabid" "traditionalist" has pointed out - to the apparent discomfort of those like Biddle - is that:
1) No one has demonstrated that local control and an elected school board is the problem in Camden, Newark, or any other city. 
2) It is most certainly a double-standard to allow wealthy suburban districts to control their own schools while poor cities are denied the same access to local control. 
3) "Local control" is not a plan to "fix" Camden's schools.
Look at Newark: the state has held control of its schools for almost two decades, and what do they have to show for it? What has improved? Is Newark "beating the odds" in its performance? How about Jersey City and Paterson?

As Matt DiCarlo points out, adherents of state takeovers look at the relative low performance of urban districts and say, "Well, this proves the schools don't work!" They justify their actions with the y-axis, but they ignore the x-axis:
To reiterate, the point here is not really about whether Camden schools should be taken over, nor is this discussion intended to suggest that the choice to do so was not deliberated extensively, using a variety of different types of information. Rather, this is about the more basic fact that NJ officials have justified their decision to the public based in large part on the argument that Camden schools are severely ineffective, but their evidence doesn’t really come close to supporting that conclusion. [emphasis mine]
So let's not pretend, as some have, that Newark is a "success" while Camden is not. The three districts that have been under state control for years have not shown any ability to overcome poverty's effects on educational outcomes: they lie right where they should be when taking student poverty into account.

Now, I will give Biddle credit for one thing: at least he hints at a plan of action. If I read him correctly, he wants to bring what he calls the "Hollywood Model" to Camden: a portfolio structure, much like the one proposed by the Broad-paid interns at the NJDOE, that calls for lots of choosy choiceness. Here's the problem:

Newark has embraced the "Hollywood Model" more than any other district in the state, with Jersey City not far behind; in other words, there's more "choice" in Newark than anywhere else in New Jersey. Has it helped? Are either district "beating the odds"? Or are there not "enough non-poor girls in Newark to create (or expand) a whole bunch of these schools!"

Perhaps Biddle thinks Newark needs to get even choosier. OK, fine, we can argue that. I don't think it will do a damn thing: vouchers will be useless, and charters can't be scaled up. But if you want to debate that, great: it's why I'm here.

But what does that have to do with local control? Why can't a district make its own choices as to the strategy that works best for them? And shouldn't they, at the very least, have the information available to them to oversee the governance of their schools?

As I have argued: if the people of Newark and Camden want to have an open and honest debate about whether or not they want a system of "choice" for their schools, let them have it. But why shouldn't they make the decision? Why does the state need to come in and impose its will?

To me, it's a sign of the weakness of the arguments of StudentsFirst and Biddle and FEE and DFER and B4K and all the other choicey choosers that they believe the only way to structure schools the way they want is to put autocrats in charge of the systems and impose their wills. If the "Hollywood Model" is so awesome, why not put it in front of the people of those cities and let them choose it for themselves? Can't they be trusted to do what's best for their children?

And if you don't feel that you can get a fair hearing in the public and political arenas because the political system is corrupted by money, let's all agree to fix the election process, get the money out of politics, and have these ideas debated and decided on their merits. I agree that's it's wrong to have money corrupting local school board elections and mayoral races.

What do you say, RiShawn? Will you join with me in calling for full public financing of elections, so we can remove the influence of teachers unions and... others... from doing what's right for our kids?

Or is it just easier to take over districts, have reformyists do whatever they want, and leave local citizens wondering how funds for their schools are being spend? Should we continue to keep people in the dark while their "betters" make all the decisions?

Trust us - we know what's best...

ADDING: Biddle and I had a little Twitter debate over this:
Just 50 percent of the district’s eighth-graders in its original Class of 2010 graduated from high school in five years, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of state and federal data; although slightly better than the 42 percent five-year graduation rate for its original Class of 2001, but the improvement only came because 211 fewer eighth-graders were in the Class of 2010 than in the Class of 2001.
Apparently, we can only say a district's graduation rate is improving if they graduate more numbers of students; the rate doesn't really count. So if, for example, Camden lost one-third of its teenaged population, but still graduated the same number of students, that wouldn't be an improvement.

Why, then, report the graduation rate at all? Why not just post the number of graduates? The obvious answer is that "rabid" bloggers like me would then point out how silly that would be.

The great thing about being in the reformy right is that you get to move the goalpost wherever you need it to be...

BTW: No matter what, the graduation rate in Camden is not good. But that's not any reason to say that the schools, given the characteristics of the students, have "failed." Reread Matt DiCarlo if you don't get this.

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