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

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Field Trip Report: Mr. Jazzman Goes to Trenton

If you are ever asked to testify before a legislative committee for your state, you should go.

Not just because, as I found out this week, it's a singular experience - which it is. No, you should go because... well, because these are the elected representatives of your state, and they want to hear your opinion, and that's not only a great honor but a great responsibility.

Others, apparently, have a different view on this matter...

I got up even earlier than usual this past Tuesday and schleped down to Trenton to give my testimony to the Joint Committee on the Public Schools, based on the two reports on Newark school restructuring I coauthored with Bruce Baker. The first, An Empirical Critique of One Newark, looks at the plan with a focus on students. The second, One Newark's Racially Disparate Impact on Teachers, concentrates on the consequences of the plan for Newark's teachers. I'm obviously quite proud to coauthor anything with Bruce, arguably the foremost expert in the country on school finance.

But I was doubly proud that Joseph Oluwole, from Montclair State University, agreed to coauthor our second brief; Dr. Oluwole is one of the nation's most eminent scholars of education law. His contribution to the brief, which outlines in great detail the historic context of racial discrimination against teachers of color, is worthy of its own publication.

Bruce, Joseph, and I had released the last brief the day before I was schedule to testify, so I presented evidence from both briefs. NJEA, my union, was there to capture the testimony of Vice-President Marie Blistan, but they recorded me as well:

Yeah, 50 is approaching fast, and it shows. Rub it in...

Let me add a few personal observations about the day:

- First and foremost: I will admit, to my mother's chagrin, that I am a lifelong Democrat. I've crossed the line a few times to vote for Republicans who I thought were good leaders and deserving of my vote; overall, however, I vote in the "D" column.

That said: I was extremely impressed by the bipartisan and serious tone of this committee. I know it's fashionable to universally beat up politicians as hacks and self-servers; I have to admit, I've engaged in that a bit myself from time to time...

Well, there are undoubtedly politicians who are disingenuous or obtuse at best -- on both sides of the aisle. But the statements I heard and the questions I and others received were uniformly insightful and well-versed -- on both sides of the aisle. For the Republicans, I have to particularly commend Assemblyman David Wolfe, who was exceptionally perceptive and asked me and others excellent questions.

- I was really happy I went first, so I didn't have to follow Marie Blistan, VP of NJEA:

(Uh-oh - looks like a problem with the embedding code. Here's a link to Marie's testimony - go ahead and watch it. I'll wait...)

Zing. Marie is pretty much the proverbial ball of fire; I was happy to spend a little time with her afterward over at NJEA's office building, which is right across the street from the Statehouse. The friendly folks who run my union gave me a quick tour, which I thought was only fair; it is, after all, a building paid for with my dues and the dues of teachers all around the state.

I know that our blustering governor loves to say that the NJEA headquarters is a "palace on State Street" -- but you know what the office building really is? An office building. People there work in cubicles and decorate their desks with pictures of their kids and grandkids and they eat lunch at their desks and make copies in the copy room and do all the stuff you do in an office. The notion that it's a "palace" is absurd. In any case, everyone was quite friendly and took the time to stop and say hi.

I've disagreed with NJEA on occasion in the past, and will probably disagree again in the future. But the cartoonishly evil and profligate characterization of the group, as exemplified by folks like Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger and Jim Gearhart of NJ 101.5, is just plain silly. Stop it.

- The other three witnesses were Liz Athos from the Education Law Center, who gave an excellent presentation on Newark and SFRA, the state's school financing law that Chris Christie is illegally ignoring; John Avignon of the Newark Teacher's Union, who had the best line of the day: "Cami Anderson says she needs to close schools because they're empty. But she created all these empty schools by emptying them!"; and Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Chairperson of the Newark School Advisory Board.

Baskerville-Richardson's testimony was a show-stopper. She described a school system where the superintendent has lost not only the trust of the elected school board, but most of the community. Most of the members appeared stunned at her claim that Anderson hadn't returned any of her emails for weeks. Senator Wolfe asked whether she had a staff or an office or a phone; Baskerville-Richardson replied: "Senator, we don't have a shelf. We don't have a pencil. We did get some Blackberries."

Baskerville-Richardson, as a former teacher herself, is a historian of the Newark Public Schools. And what she describes is a system that, at one time, at least tried to work with the elected board even as the schools were under state control. That era is over, and Baskerville-Richardson knows exactly how it happened: testing, she said, has become the mechanism through which the state justifies its continuing control over the pursestrings and policies of Newark's schools.

I asked this at my ALI talk, and I'll ask it again: couldn't we have taken a tiny fraction of the Facebook money for Newark's schools and studied these tests? Figure out if they're really measuring what they are supposed to measure? I know, crazy talk...

- Probably the biggest bombshell of the hearing was when Senator Ronald Rice, the co-chair with Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, disputed Newark State Superintendent Cami Anderson's charge that she wasn't invited to testify. You could tell that everyone on the committee, Republican and Democrat alike, was having none of that. The committee was actually ready to vote on asking the Legislature for subpoena powers before Assemblyman Wolfe fairly pointed out that all of the committee members should be there to debate before a vote of that importance.

Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver was particularly incensed. I will always disagree with Assemblywoman Oliver on the pen-ben bill, but there's no doubt she cares about the children of Newark and wants them to have a public school system that needs their needs as well as Millburn's district meets their children's. The same with Senator Teresa Ruiz: I was not happy with some of the assumptions she made during the crafting of the tenure bill, and I stand by my criticisms. But she is clearly someone who has thought a lot about education and she made some insightful comments. And she was more than a little annoyed that Anderson had not deigned to show up before this committee.

But it turns out that Anderson does, indeed, have an answer for some of her critics...

- After chatting with people for a while, I made my way down to the Statehouse cafeteria (it's clean and nice and the food's good, but your senators and assemblypersons sure aren't living la vita loca, NJ - it's a cafeteria) and met John Mooney of NJSpotlight, who is my editor there (new column this week!). John asked me, "So, did you see the response to you and Bruce?"

"Response? What response?" Turns out that NPS had released, that very day, a rebuttal to our first brief on One Newark. Hmm...

Folks, believe me: we'll get to this response in due time. But there's one thing I'd like to correct immediately:

NPS claims our data source for building utilization rates is "unknown." Well, look right in Appendix A of the brief and you'll see we state our data source explicitly: the Education Law Center. Perhaps NPS has better data and ELC gave us the incorrect numbers... but it's not because ELC didn't try, over and over again, to get good data from the district.

In fact, NPS is long overdue in filing its Long Range Facilities Plan (LRFP), as required by state law. Just before I went up to testify, Liz told me ELC had received an amendment to the 2005 LRFP. We're trying to get a copy and will happily correct any errors when we do.

Until then, you can be confident we'll have a few things to say in response to NPS. More to come...

- One last thing: the nicest part of the day was meeting a terrific young woman named Melissa Katz. Melissa is studying to be a teacher at TCNJ, one of this state's outstanding institutions of higher learning and great teacher training centers. This brilliant young woman couldn't have been nicer, and we had a great talk (albeit too short) about education policy and her career plans.

I don't think New Jersey understands how lucky it is that young people like Melissa, in spite of the stupid and unproductive War On Teachers being waged across this state and across this country, still want to enter the profession and educate kids. I hope she sticks with it - but I wouldn't blame her at all if she didn't. Someone like Melissa could do whatever she wanted with her life, including many jobs where she'd make a lot more money.

It heartens me to meet young people who want to serve in our public schools. Instead of vilifying the profession and its professional organizations, why don't we instead raise the prestige of being a teacher? Why not honor her commitment by keeping the commitments to teachers and providing them with decent salaries, good benefits, and a dignified retirement? No one goes into teaching expecting to make any more than a comfortable middle-class wage; why can't we at least meet that reasonable bar?

And why not give young people like Melissa the chance to earn the autonomy that comes with every other profession? Why should she spend her time and her money getting a degree in education when others who won't make that demand on themselves can use political connections and force policies on the schools that will undermine her ability to do her job?

I think Melissa would join with me in saying she and I and all the other teachers of this nation have absolutely no problem with being held accountable for our work. But let us hold each other accountable, with appropriate oversight from officials who have been trained in our field, our elected representatives, and the citizens we serve. It's what every other profession does; why should we be any different?

Let's make teaching, once again, a profession worthy of people like Melissa Katz.


Unknown said...

I enjoyed reading this. This is my first comment but I am a long-time reader and wanted to THANK YOU for all of your hard work as an advocate for teachers.
Sincerely, Jason

Duke said...

Appreciate that, J.

Unknown said...

What a wonderful description of your day...you make me hopeful that we can improve our situation in Newark...thank you

P. Grunther said...

We are indeed lucky to have you on the side of what's right. Hoping to see anyone who reads this blog at 4:00 pm on Tuesday, March 18th down at the corner of Broad and Market Streets in Newark to voice a protest against Cami Anderson and Newark One. We must make our voices heard - thanks again Mark for all that you do.

edlharris said...

Oh, Lordy.
Cami's retort has that line "voting with hteir feet"
It he day when that phrase is confined to the dustbins of history can not come too early.

Anonymous said...

Duke, I would like to thank you and Dr. Baker for all your hard work.

In their rebuttal, they stated: "Our students with the greatest challenges – from the poorest homes, with disabilities, English language
learners and those involved with the court system – will be served with excellent schools first, not last."

If they truly believed this then following their "logic" these students with the "greatest challenges" should be assigned to their "best" rated schools, which would be Team and North Star!

I won't hold my breath until that happens!

Unknown said...

Very excellent!