The Ethics of Ed Reform In N.J.

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With all the adrenaline hosed on Race To The Top (including our own), a pattern in N.J. is emerging amidst the spray: the 21 school districts that managed to wrestle all three signatures – superintendent, board president, and union president – onto MOU’s are disproportionately urban and poor, at least based on assigned District Factor Groups (DFG’s) that rate a community’s socio-economic status.

[Exceptions: Wealthy Rumson Borough and Boonton Township, both with “I” DFG’s on a scale of A-J, and middle-class Delaware Valley Regional and Kingwood, both in Hunterdon County, both “FG” districts.]

Of the remaining districts, 4 are “A’s,” 7 are “B’s,” 1 is a “CD,” and 5 are DE’s. Here’s the complete list from the Star-Ledger, though it only notes those few districts that have all three signatures, not the 378 that got OK’s from board presidents and superintendents. Regarding those 378, the Star-Ledger notes, “Among the school districts who signed memorandums of understanding supporting the application were some of New Jersey’s largest; Newark, Paterson and Jersey City. Many districts supporting the effort said it was difficult to turn down a shot at more funding.”

It’s the same old template: our poor urban kids are stuck in chronically failing schools and the adults in charge are more willing to take risks (like signing an RTTT application). Most of our wealthy districts are happy with the educational status quo. There’s a sense in New Jersey that our willingness to embrace school choice, improved teacher evaluation metrics, and other educational innovations, is aligned with degrees of impoverishment and/or civic outrage. RTTT, or other challenges to the traditional education industry, becomes a moral imperative. It also explains how the N.J. education reform movement draws from a broad array of unlikely compadres like Republican Gov. Chris Christie and Democratic Mayor Cory Booker, Reverend Reginald Jackson and the liberal Senator Ray Lesniak.

This puts the leadership of NJEA in a tough spot. Its opposition to educational reform starts sounding less like advocating for sound educational practices and more like advocating inequity. This is Charles Stiles’ description of NJEA’s Communications Director Steve Wollmer as he assembled talking points for NJEA’s instructions to local unions to refuse to sign RTTT applications:

Wollmer sounded as if he was in the early stages of boiling down the union’s 4-inch-thick binder of policy papers into sound bites and sharp retorts. There has been no link, he said, between student achievement and merit pay. A limited pot of merit-pay money will end the collaborative spirit essential to teaching, turning colleague into a competitor for a limited supply of cash. And while the union is willing to discuss ways to improve the tenure process, it will fiercely oppose any plan that strips teachers “of their due process rights.”

It’s one thing to champion the rights of workers in the marketplace. It’s another thing entirely to position oneself as leading the charge to deprive poor kids of a shot at improved schooling, or even the $200-$400 million dollars that N.J. may have squandered by failing to get buy-in from people like Steve Wollmer. Maybe that’s Ex-Gov. Corzine’s fault, or Lucille Davy’s for not proactively courting the Wollmers of the world. Maybe that’s New Jersey’s wealthier communities, segregated and satisfied. Yesterday Gov. Christie, in his inaugural address, proclaimed,

The era of broken schools and broken streets and broken dreams in our cities has not worked. Too many urban school districts have failed despite massive spending per pupil. Crime is too high, and hope is too low. Today, we are taking a new direction. Today, a new era in which parents have choices, in which charter schools can help young people pursue excellence, in which we work to attract people to cities instead of driving them out, begins now. Today, change has arrived.

His Obama-inspired rhetoric equates educational reform with ethical necessity. Opposition to reform is immoral and advocacy of reform becomes cloaked in colors of civil rights, justice, even patriotism. Of course it’s not that simple. But for Christie it may be a useful dichotomy as he tackles an inequity that continues to haunt New Jersey’s educational establishment.

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