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, May 25, 2014

Hey, Buddy: Can You Spare $2.5 Billion?

Now that Chris Christie's utterly fraudulent budgeting has been laid bare, we're left with a problem: how will New Jersey make up for its two decade-old pension holiday?

It's nice to talk about bi-partisan commissions and proclaim that "everyone must make sacrifices," but that's really just a way for pundits to avoid giving a straight answer. So let's, for once, not waste a lot of time talking about the politics, but instead talk about the policies. How is New Jersey going to solve its current pension mess?

One idea that's floated around a lot is to change the benefits of new workers: move them out of pensions into 401Ks. But that really doesn't solve the problem; arguably, it makes it worse, because the system will no longer be shored up by new employee contributions.

And while the labor market is undoubtedly soft, it's not so bad that the state won't have to make up at least some of the loss in compensation. Is it really a good idea to pay employees more up front in exchange for having them give up their pensions?

I don't see it. Pensions allow the state to utilize the markets to offset the costs of compensation: if an employee is willing to defer compensation, the interest earned on a pension is money the taxpayer doesn't have to pony up to pay the public worker.

Of course, for many folks pushing "defined contribution" plans, cutting the salaries of public employees is really the end game. Very rarely do they actually come out and say it, but the implication I read quite often is that we have to go after current employees' pensions: take more in worker contributions, pay out less in benefits, and do so immediately.

Aside from being morally reprehensible, this would almost certainly be illegal. There's just no way that the state can claim they can't make the payments when other sources of revenue are available. And remember, public employees aren't given an option: we are forced into these plans. If we must pay, the state must pay as well; that's what a contract is all about.

The state isn't allowed to default on its other creditors just because Chris Christie -- and, to be fair, many politicians in both parties -- doesn't want to face the political backlash of raising taxes or cutting expenditures. There isn't a court in the land that is so brazen as to allow the state to weasel its way out of this contractual obligation -- nor should they.

So we're back to the initial problem: where is the state going to get $2.5 billion? Here are some ideas, courtesy of the analysts at the Jazzman Institute:

#1: The Millionaires Tax. It has to come back. We had it before, and, contrary to the myths the courtesans of the plutocrats keep spinning, wealthy people weren't fleeing the state. We could get anywhere from half-a-billion to a billion dollars if we brought this tax back.

One of the arguments against the millionaires tax is that the state is already taxed too much. That's certainly true of the working poor:

But the wealthy? Not so much. Yes, I know almost all states are regressively taxed; so what? We have to do the same to coddle our millionaires? We have to give into their blackmail, or they'll move away? If they aren't paying their fair share to begin with, why would we care? Why would we want to continue to subsidize a moocher class if they're not creating jobs anyway?

The rich are doing very, very well. If public workers have already given up their cost of living increases on their pensions, the wealthy can afford to pitch in as well. It's only fair.

#2: Cut Back Corporate Subsidies. Christie's corporate tax subsidies haven't worked: the state lags in economic growth and job creation. Most of these subsidies make no sense: why spend millions to help a company move within the state on the promise of retaining a few hundred jobs?

Much as I loathe these tax breaks, I understand our current system is so screwed up that NJ has to play the game with other states. But I think it's more than reasonable to think we could get a billion dollars a year from a combination of a millionaires tax and a cut back in Christie's corporate tax subsidies. Not a bad start, and certainly not the drain on economic growth the mouthpieces for the ruling class pretend it would be.

#3: Cut Back Other Tax Expenditures. Perhaps the most underreported yearly story in New Jersey is the publication of the annual Tax Expenditure Report. Take a look at it some time and marvel at the real special interests that dominate this state; interests that have bought themselves tax breaks that do not expire.

According to New Jersey Policy Perspective, only half of the actual expenditures for special tax breaks are included in the report. Even still, there's plenty at which to marvel. Perhaps my favorite is on page 59: a $38 million exemption from sales tax on baked goods, so long as they aren't sold with utensils (Don't use that knife! Just dip your bagel into the cream cheese cup; see, you've saved the economy!).

It all adds up to $20 billion a year -- and maybe even more. If we cut back these tax expenditures by a mere 5 percent, we would have an extra one billion dollars in revenue. Is there anyone out there who doesn't think this is manageable? That we can't find at least a few items in here that we can easily live without?

#4: Start Managing the Pension Better. Here's David Sirota in Salon:

The second choice was the Christie administration’s decision to invest so much of New Jersey’s pension fund in high-risk, high-fee investments. As Pensions and Investments magazine just reported, New Jersey now ranks second in the nation for public pension investments in hedge funds.
In a radio interview, Christie recently bragged that this investment scheme delivered 12.9 percent returns last year. He didn’t mention that number was well below the 16 percent returns the median public pension delivered, according to Businessweek. Comparing the New Jersey returns with the median, pension consultant Chris Tobe said the gap represents $2.5 billion in returns New Jersey could have generated had it performed like the typical public pension. Tobe estimates that $1.2 billion of that difference came from the fees paid on the hedge funds, private equity firms and other so-called “alternative investments.” [emphasis mine]
If all this is true, we should be able to get a billion out of lower management fees and better returns. I think it's well past time to start asking the pension boards to justify the relative poor performance and high fees of New Jersey's public pensions.

#5: The Colorado Option. I'll admit it: as the parent of two teenagers and as a teacher, I'm more than a little squeamish about the thought of legalizing marijuana. I think there's a lot we don't know about pot's ill effects, and an automobile-centric society like ours probably shouldn't be legalizing more controlled substances until we figure out how people can get buzzed and still get back home safely.

But there's no doubt the taxes on marijuana would go a long way toward helping to pay off the pension obligations. We ought to at least have a frank discussion about the idea.

That said, let's put it aside for now and consider the other four: higher taxes on the already under-taxed wealthy; a cutback in corporate subsidies; a cutback in tax expenditures; and a cutback in pension fees. Unlike Christie, I'm willing to be conservative in my projections; maybe this won't be enough. Maybe we'll only get $2 billion or less from these changes.

But it's at least a good start. At some point, the state is going to have to consider some other things as well: consolidation (probably overblown, but it would likely save something substantial), the gas tax (it's way too low; come on, you've been to Pennsylvania, you know it's true), local income taxes, reining in health care costs (Obamacare isn't going to get the job done), etc. Until then, we've got some other options. We could do this if we had the will.

New Jersey has never been a ridiculously high tax state:
New Jersey does have one of the nation’s highest property taxes as a percent of residents’ personal income, ranking 3rd highest in 2006-2007 (the latest Census Bureau data available). This reflects New Jersey’s choice to rely almost exclusively on property taxes to support local services. If one considers total revenues local governments collect to support services (excluding state or federal aid), New Jersey ranks 24th among the states.
Local government revenue tells only part of the story. If one looks at total state and local revenue from their own sources as a percent of residents’ personal income, New Jersey ranks 31st in the country — i.e., in the lower half of states.
New Jersey’s income tax revenue ranks 20th in the country as a share of residents’ personal income, while its sales tax revenue ranks 38 th and its excise taxes rank 45th. In addition, New Jersey and its localities impose few fees or charges for services, ranking 48th in the country.
So let's stop the propaganda and figure out how we're going to fix the pensions. The first step was politically easy: public workers have done their share. Now, it's time for the wealthy and special interests to kick in as well. It's not too much to ask.

Well, Richie, I think we know just what to do about that...

Saturday, May 24, 2014

How To Destroy the Teaching Corps: Use Charter Schools

Charter schools have proven very useful to plutocrats for a variety of reasons:

- They help make already wealthy people even more money: see here, here and here for just a few examples. Those of you on newspaper editorial boards who live in denial of money making potential of charter schools are willingly obtuse.

- They provide an excuse for not raising taxes on the wealthy to full fund urban schools, as charter cheerleaders can claim they "do more with less." The problem is that they do not serve the same student populations as public schools, so the comparison is specious.

- They often engage in a pedagogy of compliance, training young people not to question authority through critical thinking. This, of course, is very useful if you have a corporation and you want servile employees who live in constant fear that you may take their jobs if you don't accede to their blackmail.

But there's another reason charters are so helpful to the hedgehogs and banksters and Masters of the Universe: they are breaking up unionized teacher workforces.

Here are some examples from my backyard [all emphases mine]. Let's start in Hudson County, NJ:
At least 63 employees of the Hoboken Board of Education will be laid off due to cuts in the board’s 2014 budget, Superintendent of Schools Mark Toback said on Thursday. Additionally, six of the district’s early childhood classrooms are being transferred to a contracted preschool provider, costing at least three teachers their jobs.

Toback said the layoffs are the result of a variety of factors, including a decline in the state aid typically offered to the district and the rising costs the district must pay the city’s various charter schools each year. 

Finally, the district will pay the city’s three charter schools $8.3 million this year, up from $7.5 million last year. That number has doubled since 2010, when the district only had to give $4.1 million for the charters. The district is given extra aid to cover the charters too, but recently the board has complained that the cost is still too much.

The board has aroused controversy recently by opposing the state-granted expansion of the Hoboken Dual-Language Charter School (HoLa) to eighth grade. The state is concerned that HoLa could cost around $1.25 million in the next few years – though it’s unclear how much of that would be covered by state aid. School officials have recently said the charters are “bankrupting” the district.

A spokeswoman for HoLa has called the district blaming layoffs on charter costs “unfair.”
Oh, it's "unfair" all right: unfair that Hoboken's charters serve far fewer kids in economic disadvantage proportionally than HPS does, all while getting results that are no better than other schools in Hudson County, which serve many more children eligible for free lunch:

Tell me: is the mediocre performance of Hoboken's charter sector really worth ruining the lives of the 63 families that will suffer from these budget cuts?

On to Camden:
Ever seen an old, worn-down punching bag hanging lonely in the back corner of a run-down gym? That's Camden, which has repeatedly suffered blow after blow following years of negligence, public corruption and gross incompetence.
It was delivered another body blow on Thursday, when news broke that in an effort to cut costs, Camden School District will lay off about 400 people, 300 coming directly from schools.
Noted in the news was the fact that enrollment has declined by nearly 1,000 over the last five years, making the current budget unsustainable. That decline isn't serendipitous or surprising - kids are increasingly being shifted to the 10 charter schools operating within the district. Four more charters have been recently approved.
In fact, back in March 2013, then-interim superintendent Reuben Mills told school board members that while he wanted to do everything possible to keep students enrolled in traditional schools, he expected about 900 students be lost to new charters. 

In 2012-13, Camden's charter schools enrolled 22.4 percent of all public students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. 3,644 students are enrolled in Camden charter schools, up from 2,545 just five years ago. 
There are your 1,000 students, seems Mills was right on the money. Expect things to get worse, not better, for Camden's public schools.
Charters do have the advantage of selecting their students, allowing them to cherry-pick the best and brightest while relegating students in need to decreasingly-funded public schools. Is it any wonder charters tend to outperform their public school counterparts?
All I'm saying is don't get behind a podium and pretend the declining enrollment in Camden schools isn't premeditated, planned and encouraged by all the major stakeholders involved in determining the city's education future.
That's from the great Rob Tornoe: apparently, a sports cartoonist is capable of understanding the truth about charter schools while the editorial page chief of the state's largest paper, the Star-Ledger, is not.

Tornoe is absolutely right: the charter shift is certainly premeditated, and the outcome -- the decimation of the professional teaching staff in Camden -- is unquestionably a result both Chris Christie and George Norcross have sought for some time.

Of course, the template for all of this is Newark:
Newark school officials are considering laying off more than 100 employees in the central office, according to union and school officials. In addition, district officials will cut teacher ranks through retirements and by not renewing about 100 non-tenured teachers who work on annual contracts, officials said. 
Also, as part of the restructuring, school officials said, as many as 55 parent liaisons who work in the schools will be laid off but the district said many may be rehired. 
The potential cuts were announced at several meetings Friday and are part of the state-operated district’s attempt to close a $42 million budget gap, School Advisory Board chairman Rashon Hasan said.
You have to give state superintendent Cami Anderson's administration (many of whom, like Anderson herself, were under the anti-teacher tutelage of Joel Klein and Mike Bloomberg in NYC) credit: they know how to manage expectations. Back in February, Bob Braun was reporting that NPS was considering laying off 700 teachers; now, cutting 100 looks like less of a big deal.

And Anderson's staff is now saying they don't need to pursue the illegal waiver to seniority they sought before; again, it looks like a victory for the teachers when it's really anything but.

Newark's public school system is being systematically dismantled. The plan was evident years ago: underfund the public schools, allow charters to spring up, oversell those charters' "successes," and leave many parents with no choice but to abandon their neighborhood schools.

But in Newark, there's been an additional twist: under Anderson, a culture of fear has been imposed on the teaching staff. A merit pay system that's a scam. Principals fired for daring to speak their minds. Employees sanctioned for their bathroom conversations. "Renew" schools, where the entire staff has to reapply for their jobs -- even at schools that perform well when accounting for their student population characteristics. It all adds up to a culture of staff repression: speak up for yourself, and you'll pay a heavy price. 

Just yesterday, the entire administrative staff of University High was terminated, even though NPS itself, in the One Newark application (which is an unjustifiable mess), says the school is "Great." There's only one reason for this action: it's designed to put fear into "uppity" staff members. Standing up for yourself, you see, is just not allowed in Chris Christie's New Jersey.

Of course, this phenomenon isn't limited to the Garden State. Chicago, New York City, Tennessee, North Carolina... teachers are under attack everywhere. And everywhere teachers are under attack, you're sure to find charter schools on the rise.

Right now, it's the best union-breaking and teacher corps-busting tool the reformy class has.

Copyright 2011 Barry Deutsch

ADDING: It would be wrong to say the culture of fear is limited to Newark; after all, Paymon Rouhanifard, state superintendent of Camden, also made his bones in the Klein/Bloomberg NYCDOE. And it looks like he learned his lessons about suppressing teacher dissent well:
Following Wednesday's student walkouts protesting teacher layoffs, Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard issued guidelines to district officials stating that while students should be shown some leniency, teachers who participated will be "disciplined." 
The email, provided to the South Jersey Times by the district, stresses that "students need to be in school," and that any protests should take place outside of the school day. He added that disciplinary actions against students who stage future walkouts should avoid suspensions and expulsions. 
"Students need to be in school, and suspending students will only take students out of the classroom," reads the email, sent shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday. 
"If students continue to leave school, responses should be adjusted accordingly. 
"But now is the time to engage students, in school, to hear out their concerns and share accurate information." 
School employees will be shown much less latitude with regard to their behavior. According to the email, staff members who left school early on Wednesday to join the protests "will be disciplined." 
In the email, Rouhanifard asked school principals to provide the names, positions and departure times of all staff members who walked out. 
"Obviously, staff members have the right to share their opinions, too, but any demonstrating needs to happen outside of the work day," said Rouhanifard in the email.
I'm sure Paymon Rouhanifard, with his whopping two years of teaching experience, would have known just how to handle this situation. Better to, say, chain the students into the schools and create a potential safety hazard than allow them to express themselves safely...

More to come.

Friday, May 23, 2014

"One Newark": A Market For "Lemons"

I've got a new brief over at the NJ Education Policy Forum out today about One Newark. As usual, I present my geekspeak-free (mostly) version of this brief here.

Here's the background: Cami Anderson, the state-appointed superintendent of Newark, has put out a plan to restructure the district's schools. Bruce Baker* and I have written a lot about the flaws in this plan, called One Newark: see here, here and here for our critques. The central problems are:

  • Certain schools were targeted for closure, "renewal" (where all of the staff is fired), or takeover by charter management organizations (CMOs), but the sanctioning of these schools, which are supposedly "ineffective," seems to be arbitrary and capricious.
  • Newark Public Schools clearly did not take student characteristics into account when rating the schools' effectiveness. In other words: they don't seem to care that a school with many kids in economic disadvantage, or who don't speak English at home, or have special needs, has a far tougher job than a school that doesn't serve as many of these kids.
  • The sanctions under One Newark are applied unequally under race and class lines: more kids who are black and economically disadvantaged will see their schools sanctioned, and more teachers who are black and teach the poorest students will lose their jobs.
  • To be frank: NPS does not appear to have a very good command of statistical methods. But even when judged by NPS's own criteria, the plans they offer make no sense.
This last one is the focus of the new brief, and it relates to how NPS is "selling" Newark's schools -- both charter and public -- to its families.

Under One Newark, every family fills out an application, listing their top eight choices. These choices include some, but not all, of the charter schools in the city. What's really surprising (and, to me, more than a little disturbing) is that NPS rates each school on the One Newark application itself.

So as a parent looks at the choices for her child, she will see that each school is listed as "Falling Behind," "On The Move," or "Great." Here's a part of the paper application (click to enlarge):

Think about this a minute: Anderson's NPS administration says that some of Newark's schools -- schools Anderson and her staff themselves are ultimately responsible for -- are "Falling Behind." It's a remarkable assertion, and one that has profound consequences: would you enroll your child into a school that, on the very application you must fill out, is listed as "Falling Behind"?

If NPS is going to make claims about these schools, they must have the data to back those claims up. And logic suggests that they must be taking student characteristics into account; otherwise, how could a school that serves poorer children and more children with special needs possibly "compete" with a school that does not?

What I've done in this brief is use a basic statistical tool -- linear regression -- to show that, when accounting for student characteristics, many of the schools NPS says are "Falling Behind" are actually doing quite well. Conversly, many of the schools that are "Great" are really "great" only because they serve far fewer special needs, Limited English Proficient (LEP), and free lunch-eligible (FL) students than most of the other NPS schools

Here's the breakdown:

I want to make an important point here: the prediction model I'm using is a model that NPS's analysts themselves used when answering our initial critique of One Newark. NPS themselves said that averaging scale scores is the preferred dependent variable (the brief points out the problems with this); NPS themselves said that a linear regression with these covariates is valid. I'm not substituting their dependent or independent variables**; this entire exercise is based on what NPS's analysts themselves say is valid.

Except it's clear it isn't. In the One Newark application above, Miller Street is "Falling Behind." But look at the graph: Miller Street is above prediction, based on NPS's own model! How can they justify labeling this school as "Falling Behind" -- right in the application itself -- when their own model says it isn't?!

I've got some other stuff in the brief about SGPs, another component of NPS's rating system (a system, by the way, that they have not, to my knowledge, ever explained in detail). But here's the real kicker:

If the rating system in the One Newark application isn't telling us about a school's effectiveness, what is it actually rating? Well, if you look at the student demographics of the schools in each classification, a pattern emerges:

Under One Newark's rating system, "Great" schools are actually the ones that have fewer black boys who are economically disadvantaged and/or have special eduction needs.

This is an ugly truth: "Great" schools, on average, have only 8 percent of their student population classified as needing special education services; "Falling Behind" schools more than double that percentage. "Great" schools have fewer children who qualify for free lunch, and significantly fewer black children. Even the difference in gender is significant.

So the rating system of One Newark is really about who goes to the school, rather than how effective the school is as measured by test scores (a dubious way to measure "effectiveness" to begin with).

The title of the brief comes from a classic economics paper written by George Akerlof. The paper asserts that markets are skewed by "asymmetrical information": when the seller knows something the buyer does not. Akerlof uses the used car market as an example: he contends that the effect of this asymmetry is not only more "lemons" on the road, but fewer "non-lemons" available to buyers. 

This is exactly what is happening in Newark. "Non-lemons" like Hawthorne Avenue are being turned over to private charter operators, taking away families' options to send their children to a relatively effective school. "Non-lemons" like Miller Street are tagged as "Falling Behind" when they really aren't. Meanwhile, only one Newark charter school is tagged as "Falling Behind," while several don't beat prediction (including some that interestingly declined to be part of the One Newark universal application).

I think "portfolio" districts are a bad idea for any number of reasons (more on this later this summer). However, if NPS is committed to this structuring of Newark's schools, they need to take the role of an impartial arbiter and an unbiased source of good "consumer information" for Newark's families -- kind of a Consumer Reports for parents. This brief shows they are anything but. The information they are providing to parents cannot be justified; it doesn't make sense, even by the district's own criteria. 

We have lemon laws to protect used car buyers; shouldn't we have at least the same protections for families that are forced to be in "choice" districts? 
One Newark: buyer beware!

* Bruce Baker is my advisor at Rutgers in PhD program.

** I am adding gender as a covariate, which is not only perfectly acceptable, but warranted in this case.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why Didn't Anyone Ask Christie About the Pensions in 2013?

If you are at all shocked by this, you just haven't been paying attention:
In a stunning reversal, Gov. Chris Christie today announced plans to grab, over two years, $2.43 billion meant for public workers' pensions to balance New Jersey's ailing state budget. 
The plan threatens to derail one of Christie's signature accomplishments in Trenton — a series of reforms to replenish New Jersey's strained pension fund over the long term — but it would solve an immediate crisis for the governor, who has to find $2 billion somewhere to cover budget shortfalls for the current and incoming fiscal years. 
At a Statehouse news conference today, the Republican governor said his plan is to take $2.43 billion budgeted for the pension fund during this fiscal year and the next one. He ruled out alternatives such as raising the state income tax or cutting funds for schools and Medicaid. 
A payment to the pension fund scheduled to be made before June 30 will be reduced — from $1.6 billion to $696 million — via executive order, Christie said. 
To all my fellow public employees who voted for Chris Christie: I hope you're happy. This clown broke an explicit promise to you, and now he wants to take money out of your pocket and put your pension at risk. But, hey, he was such a straight shooter back in 2013, dontchaknow! And you just loved his no-nonsense style! Plus, he was with you on marriage equity/guns/abortion/insert-your-favorite-conservative-social-wedge-issue-here...

Honest people can debate any of those social issues. But I've never understood how a public employee could think any of them are more important than being able to take care of yourself and your family.

Of course, back in 2011, when Christie - abetted by his Democratic allies in the legislature -- forced us to pay more into our pensions on the promise the state would start meeting its obligations, he told us that he was "fixing these systems in order to save them." Plenty of suckers appeared to believe this; only snarky teacher-bloggers, it seemed, bothered to point out that Christie had never put forth a plan to raise the revenue his legislation requiredOver and over, the warning signs were there: without additional revenue, the payments required by Christie's law -- the one he constantly touted across the country -- would not be made.

Flash forward to 2013 and the gubernatorial race: Christie still had not told us how he was going to come up with in excess of $5 billion by 2018. He refused to raise taxes on corporations or the wealthy, both of whom had making out like bandits under New Jersey's regressive tax regime:

This was Christie's signature legislation; his shining, bipartisan moment... but he still hadn't let us in on the plan. You would think someone -- anyone -- would ask him about this.

No one did.

Don't believe me? Here are the two debates from 2013 between Christie and his challenger, Barbara Buono. Number one:

And number two:

There were lots of serious questions about serious issues asked in the debates: marriage equity, minimum wage, gun control, property taxes, etc. There were also plenty of questions about issues that I think are far less important: Christie's political ambitions, the Christiecrats who endorsed the incumbent over Buono, Wawa vs. 7-11 (seriously), etc.

But pension underfunding cuts right to the heart of the fiscal health of New Jersey. If anyone cared one whit about whether New Jersey would weather its budget crisis, they had to be concerned about the pensions. Why didn't anyone bother to ask about the pension payments?

To be fair: Barbara Buono, whom I like and respect, never bothered to ask Christie about this either. I suppose she avoided the question because she figured she'd have to admit that she would have to raise taxes to make the payments. From my perspective, she would have been better off doing just that... but that is, admittedly, Monday morning quarterbacking.

In any case, the press didn't need for Buono to bring up pensions; they could have addressed the issue themselves. Unfortunately, the editorial boards of the state's newspapers utterly failed in their obligation to get an answer from Christie on this most basic of questions.

For example: when Tom Moran, chief of the Star-Ledger's editorial board, famously published his mea culpa for the paper's endorsement of Christie, he couldn't bring himself to address the problem of the pension payments:
But there is more to it. Christie has made good progress on education with a focus on struggling cities, especially Newark and Camden. His pension and health reforms helped contain public costs that were spiraling out of control. [emphasis mine]
Dear lord, what an obtuse statement. There is no cost containment without the state making its payments -- and Christie never told us how he would make them. The S-L's original endorsement worried that Christie hadn't come up with the funds to pay for open space purchase and transit projects. But any worry about the pension payments? Nope: the pension bill was "important." Unfunded, but "important."

Let's be fair: the Ledger wasn't alone. The Philadelphia Inquirer said Christie put "pension funding on a better track." The Asbury Park Press editorial board said: "Public employee pension and health benefits have been reined in, with the largest impact on taxpayers still to be felt." The Bergen Record editorial board didn't even mention pension payments in their endorsement.

The Atlantic City Press, in their endorsement of Christie, proclaimed: "Whether those reforms succeed in shoring up the pension system will depend on the huge payments they require in future budgets, but this legislation, pushed strenuously by Christie, is a step in the right direction." But how could there be a "step" without a payment plan? Did it occur to the paper's editorial board to ask what the plan was?


Pension payments are the central fiscal issue in New Jersey, but not one editorial board in the state bothered to address it in the last gubernatorial election.

And so now here we are: Chris Christie has reneged on his promises, the state's bond rating is now in free fall, and we are no closer to pension "reform" than we were four years ago.

I want to be clear: there are some very good reporters in the state doing some very good work. But on pension payments, the punditocracy of New Jersey utterly failed their readers and viewers. What happens next is as much on their heads as anyone else's.

NJ's Editorial Boards take a stand on pension payments...

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Chris Christie: Lying Liar, or Completely Clueless?

Give The Auditor, the Star-Ledger's weekly political insider column, credit for catching Chris Christie's latest lie - although, in my opinion, this merits much stronger language:
Gov. Chris Christie joined an exclusive club last week — governors who get shellacked with six downgrades of their state’s credit rating. The only other member in the entire country? Democrat Jim McGreevey.
The most recent ratings cut came last week from Moody’s Investors Service, a major Wall Street agency that found fault with Christie’s budgets and the slow recovery in New Jersey’s economy.
That downgrade, coupled with the previous five, hung over Christie like a rain cloud at an economic forum he attended in Washington with power players including Bill Clinton.
During a chat with CBS News’s Bob Schieffer, the Republican with an eye on the White House still called New Jersey’s recovery from the Great Recession "exceptional" and pinned some of the blame on his predecessors for skipping yearly payments into the pension system, which is now $52 billion in the hole.
"Christie WhitmanJim McGreeveyDick CodeyJon Corzine made no pension payments," he said. "None. Zero."
While it’s true that Christie’s predecessors did leave him with a huge pension hole to fill, The Auditor notes that "None. Zero" isn’t quite right. Most recently, Corzine did pump more than $2 billion into the pension system.
Christie specifically says Corzine did not make pension payments. As The Auditor points out, this is patently false.

For years, we public workers have been required to fund the pensions. Until Corzine came along, the state refused to do its part. It's not that the governor "isn't quite right" when he says Corzine didn't make payments; Christie is, instead, glaringly and completely wrong.

But give The Auditor credit: at least they pointed this out. Politico couldn't even be bothered to check whether Christie was telling the truth.

Christie has always played dumb about the pensions: he's stated he "had no idea the pension system was about to go bankrupt," when, in truth, everyone who was paying the slightest bit of attention knew the pensions were in trouble years ago.

Christie signed the law that forced public employees to pay more into the pensions and degraded their value. He claimed, repeatedly, that he was "saving" the pensions. And yet, on this signature issue, he was so clueless during his first campaign that he didn't know the pensions were in serious trouble? And he still doesn't know, to this very day, that Corzine had made pension payments?

If Chris Christie isn't a liar, he is recklessly clueless. The six credit downgrades are entirely on him -- not any previous governor, but him. His ignorance and/or mendacity got us into this mess, and no one else's.

This state has an obligation to every teacher, every cop, every firefighter, every social worker, every DPW worker, every clerk, every secretary, and every other public worker who was forced to contribute to the pension system. Christie doesn't get to go to the state's vendors and say: "Hey, folks, I'd love to pay you, but I refuse to tax the wealthiest people in the state at comparable rates to the working poor..."

"... or stop my massive corporate tax giveaways that have been miserable at creating jobs, or stop the looting of the treasury by continuing tax expenditures that are inadequately reported. So, too bad suckers!"

If the state owes money to someone who provided a good or a service, they must pay. Public workers are no different. There is a contractual obligation, written into law, that requires the state to make good on these payments. If Chris Christie can't meet those obligations, he should resign immediately and let someone else take over who is at least willing to talk honestly about the issue.

I've said this before: Bridgegate was no joke. It may well be that people died because of it. But Chris Christie committed many sins well before the traffic piled up in Fort Lee. His reckless policies on the pensions, coupled with his disdain for the truth, are as worthy of derision as whatever role he had in Bridgegate.

Chris Christie is unfit for high office; that was evident well before the Port Authority nonsense blew up in his face. The sooner he leaves Trenton, the better off this state will be.

Just go away. Quickly.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Another Day, Another "Miracle" Charter School Debunked

Some of you who read this blog might think I've got something against charter schools. I really don't; I started my career in a charter. There are some good charters out there, and a few really excellent ones. We can even have a discussion about the similarities between urban families who enroll their children in charter schools and families who move to the suburbs to enroll their children in low-poverty public schools.

But here's the thing...

What really makes me freakin' bananas is when the press -- often abetted by the charter cheerleading class and charter school leaders themselves -- pushes yet another "miracle charter school" story that is based on nothing but half-truths and distortions.**

Let's go to Trenton for the latest example:
The city’s public schools saw a graduation rate as low as 48 percent last year, but at one charter school this year, officials expect not only to graduate every 12th-grade student, but also to see all 17 go on to four-year colleges. 
“There’s no secret to what we do,” said Graig Weiss, intermediate school principal for Foundation Academies. “It’s really, really hard work. 
“We will not make any excuses for why our students do not and will not achieve, because we believe in setting high expectations for our kids, both behaviorally and academically. And when you set high expectations for kids, they absolutely rise to the challenge, and our students are proof of that, year after year,” he said.
Let's stop right here and point out the obvious: in a city where the public schools enroll ten thousand kids and there are 492 seniors this year, this school is graduating seventeen. On that basis alone, the comparison is specious.

But let's continue to get to the heart of the matter:
In last year’s NJASK standardized testing results for eighth grade, students at Foundation Intermediate scored well above the average for Trenton and other urban schools in literacy, science and math. 
The numbers were striking. For math, students at Foundation scored 66 percent proficient, compared with 23 percent for Trenton students in general. And the statewide average for that subject, 69 percent proficient, was only a few points higher than what Foundation has achieved. 
It just so happens that, last month, I took a look at charter schools in Mercer County. And what I found was this:

Yes, Foundation Academy does well on tests compared to the rest of Trenton; here, the scores on the Grade 8 English language arts test are plotted on the vertical axis, meaning that the higher you go, the better your school did. There's no doubt: Foundation is at the top of Trenton.

But notice how many low-poverty schools in the exurbs (Princeton, Lawrence, the Windsors, Robbinsville, etc.) did even better. Foundation is actually in the same league with the inner suburbs: Hamilton and Ewing.

Is it fair to compare Foundation with an extremely low-poverty district like Princeton? Obviously not: so why is it fair to compare Foundation to the rest of Trenton? If you look at the horizontal axis, you'll see the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch. No charter school in Mercer County, including Foundation, has as high a percentage of free lunch-eligible students on this graph as any school in Trenton.

It would be embarrassing to Foundation if they didn't beat Trenton, given that, in Mercer County, 90 percent of the variation in Grade 8 ELA scores can be explained by free lunch eligibility (look at the number in the lower left corner - that's geek speak for: "Poverty matters!").

Now, let's be fair: Foundation does significantly beat prediction, which is the green line running through the graph. Proportionately, they have many more kids in poverty than the schools in Hamilton or Ewing (and that's not a knock on those schools, which are right where we'd expect them to be), yet they get equivalent test scores. Good for them.

But is something else going on here? Let's ask Weiss:
Though the school is not able to cherry-pick the best students from among the public school population, the charter manages to coax good results out of most grade levels, said Weiss, whose intermediate school handles students from 3rd through 5th grades. [emphasis mine]
Really? The school isn't "able to cherry-pick the best students"? Well, that must mean that the students are just like the students in Trenton's public schools, right?


Again, Foundation has one of the lowest rates of free lunch-eligibility in the area. But it doesn't stop there:

57 percent of Robbins Elementary students are Limited English Proficient (LEP). In contrast, only 1.4% of Foundation's students are LEP. And what about kids with special needs?

These are the special education rates for schools in Trenton. Foundation is on the low end...  but that's a bit deceiving. Because there are all different types of special education classifications:

Let's procede with caution: the special education data from the state is only at the district level (the state considers a charter school its own district), and there are rules that require the suppression of data when the numbers are low, ostensibly to protect the rights of the children who are classified. The asterisks here indicate suppressed data (although I personally believe the special education data can be dirty and we shouldn't assume anything - that said, it's the best we've got). With all that in mind...

Trenton Public Schools has to educate the nearly one percent of its population that has been classified as autistic; Foundation has no autistic students. Same with intellectual disabilities.

Specific Learning Disabilities (SLDs) can be some of the least onerous disabilities a learner has. Many times, children with SLDs have such mild learning issues that they spend most of their time in the general education classroom. That's certainly the case at Foundation:

All of the kids classified as having SLDs at Foundation are able to spend most of their time in a regular classroom. In Trenton, many of the children with SLDs need much more extra help outside of the general education classroom.

The point here is that this charter school's already low special education percentage is masking a reality: Foundation Academy isn't serving many, if any, children with profound learning disabilities. And that's not surprising: most charter schools aren't set up to handle the most difficult special needs. Charters overwhelmingly serve the middle-and-above of the bell curve.

So why don't they admit it? My guess is that if they did, it just wouldn't help tell the story certain politicians, the credulous press, and the charter cheerleading class wants to hear:
According to Weiss, Foundation differs from other public schools in numerous ways. 
Foundation students have a longer day, attending school from 7:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. — 8 hours and 45 minutes — with an additional hour for extra help or detention. 
By contrast, the average public school day is about 6½ hours long. The school year at Foundation is also longer, with 200 school days; the minimum required at public schools in New Jersey is 180 days.
That's nice, and it's probably a good idea for kids who don't have high-quality opportunities for extra-curriculars after school. But there's no evidence a longer day trumps poverty; when you look across the entire state, there's just no correlation between school day length and test score outcomes:

Juniors and seniors leave the campus at noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to take community college classes, for which they receive college credit. 
“College is definitely what we do at Foundation Academy, and we’re seeing it come to fruition, we’re seeing it come alive,” Falconer said.  
The high school is very tech-oriented, Falconer said. Sophomores get their own e-book readers for school use, every classroom uses an electronic whiteboard and teachers are equipped with laptops, smart phones and personal websites to assist their teaching. 
The Foundation intermediate and middle grade levels also put a special emphasis on individual achievement, focusing on each student’s strengths and weaknesses and adjusting their curricula accordingly. Much of this, Weiss said, is done through rigorous data gathering on students throughout the school year. 
“When a teacher says, ‘Well, I taught it,’ we want to be able to say, ‘OK, you taught it, but did the kids learn it, and where is the proof that the students learned that material?’” Weiss said. “The data allows us to meet the students exactly where they’re at and push them forward.” 
Teachers at the intermediate school, instead of teaching out of textbooks, use a “teacher resource room” where they can customize their teaching materials to fit the needs of their students, Weiss said. 
Textbooks are still used in the high school, though, Falconer said. 
Reading skills are a very important focus at Foundation’s intermediate campus, in particular, where students will spend three hours of their day in various reading and writing classes. 
The school uses a “guided reading” class where students of varying levels of reading comprehension are split into different groups and assigned different books that will challenge their skill level.
Those of you who teach are probably cringing, just like I am, at reading this. Does anyone with a background in education think any of this is "innovative"?

Every school with decent resources offers college courses in high school - it's called "AP"! Every reasonably funded school in New Jersey gives their teachers computers and websites! Every school worth its salt uses data! Every teacher who graduated from a real college education program learns how to individualize instruction! Every school expects its teachers to customize resources!

And "guided reading"? Seriously?! Maybe that was innovative back in the Carter administration...

I don't want to bust on the folks from Foundation too much here: as I always say, everyone should be proud of their school. I'm sure there are some good things going on at Foundation; maybe they have even come up with a learning strategy or two that's worth emulating. It's also worth noting that they have far more kids proportionately in poverty than any school in the outer suburbs of Mercer County.

But this "miracle school" nonsense needs to stop. There's no evidence that Foundation has come up with some pedagogical elixir that can overcome the correlation between poverty and academic achievement. Like so many other "successful" charter schools, they simply do not serve the same population of students as their neighboring public schools. The data is all there, if anyone cares to look at it*, and it doesn't lie.

The time has come for the charter cheerleaders to stop this mendacity: it's polluting the debate about education, and it's making them look like fools, charlatans, or both. If you really care about children and their education, the very least you can do is step up your rhetoric and set an example of integrity and self-respect. For once and for all, just cut the crap.

* I'm going to allow myself a little personal indulgence here (what's the point of having a blog if you can't even do that?):

Now that my public profile is a little higher, I've noticed that folks will sometimes act like what I'm doing on this blog is some big quantitative deal. As if the graphs and scatterplots above are the policy equivalent of brain surgery.

I'll let you in on a little secret, folks: they aren't. What I am doing here is really basic stuff; I mean, really basic. OK, maybe I'm a little more comfortable with numbers than the average jazz pianist... but nothing I've ever published on this blog rises above the level of a first-year undergraduate course in statistics. And that troubles me...

Because there are far too many people in the press and in policy making positions and in government who could easily apprehend what I'm presenting here if they truly cared to do so. This is not rocket science - it if was, I couldn't do it. Most of the graphs on this blog could be made by anyone with the patience to get through "Excel For Dummies."

The journalist who wrote this story and his editor could have easily spent maybe an hour at the NJDOE data website, after which they would have known that they were being sold a bag of magic beans. Again: this sort of analysis is not hard to do. I barely remember anything I learned in math after 9th grade, but guess what? That's all you need to understand this stuff.

This is, ultimately, a matter of will. I read stories like this one and I think, "That can't possibly be right." And it inevitably turns out that it isn't. With a little effort and a few tricks that even a music teacher can learn, it turns out that it's not very hard to get at the truth.

But if I can do it, why can't someone who is paid to get at the truth do the same? Why isn't it standard practice in the media, the think tanks, and the government to check claims of miracles with data that is publicly available?

The answer, I fear, can be found in the words of Upton Sinclair: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

** I've edited this sentence for clarity. Unquestionably, some in the charter industry have told outright lies about charters, but that's not the case here. This story is based on distortions: we are being told only part of the story, and that's giving a false impression of Foundation relative to the Trenton Public Schools. But I wouldn't say anything here is an outright lie. The way I wrote that sentence originally could have left that impression; if it did, I apologize.

Also: one of the commenters said Foundation has no art or music programs. But the website clearly lists music faculty.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Would Linda Brown's Parents Have Wanted a "Choice" District?

This weekend is this 60th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, the landmark case that ended separate but equal public schools. The case was originally brought against the Topeka, Kansas school board by Oliver Brown, the father of Linda, a third grader.

Oliver had tried to enroll Linda at their neighborhood school a few blocks down the street; he was told instead that Linda would have to go to a segregated school a mile away. Apparently, the Topeka school board felt it would be better for Linda to attend a school far away from her own community, with children of her same race.

Keep that in mind as we get the latest news from Newark:
Yesterday, [State Superintendent Cami] Anderson released the results of the universal enrollment process, a key piece of the One Newark reorganization plan. She also announced the district will provide bus service for 3,783 students who were asked to choose a new school under the reorganization plan. 
In the first round of enrollment, Anderson said the district matched 63 percent of the 12,604 applicants to one of their top five school choices. Another 1,512 students were not matched at all, and 3,216 were matched to their sixth, seventh and eighth choices. "We are really excited about the number of participants and we are particularly proud of the equity piece," Anderson said. [emphasis mine]
"Equity piece"? You mean this? 
In addition to the enrollment decisions, parents were notified today the district will provide shuttle service to and from school for the 3,783 students who had to chose new schools. Thirteen schools were consolidated or relocated or turned over into charter schools or early learning centers. 
Officials said they plan to have the shuttle service in place for September but do not have the information on the routes or the cost. 
Currently, the district provides buses for special education students and city bus tickets to high school students who attend schools more than 2½ miles from their house and K-8 students who live more than 2 miles from school. 
This year, 6,527 district and charter school students are eligible for bus tickets, and 98 percent take advantage of them, officials said.
Say this about the Topeka school board 60 years ago: at least they had a plan to make sure Linda Brown could ride a bus to her segregated school. We're not sure Newark Public Schools can even handle that.

Linda Brown's parents fought for the right to send their child to a school in their neighborhood. The Christie/Anderson administration, in contrast, wants to bus Newark's children all over the city.

Keep in mind that the children who had to chose new schools are much more likely to be black:

In 2014 Newark, black children are being bussed all over the city, away from their neighborhood schools, which have been systemically underfunded.

How far, I wonder, have we really come?

Topeka, 1954, or Newark, 2014?