Education Law Center’s Field of Dreams

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The Education Law Center (ELC), NJ’s preeminent defender of poor urban schoolchildren, has just issued another in its series of upbeat press releases, this one devoted to the “four most pressing challenges of the coming year”: fair school funding, effective school reform, preschool expansion and school construction. Consistent, right? These goals square perfectly with ELC’s agenda of equalizing school funding across the state, providing extra services intended to ameliorate the disadvantages of poverty, and refurbishing or rebuilding school facilities on a par with those in wealthier neighborhoods. GO 4 in 2010! (That’s actually the title of the press release.)

Here’s the disconnect: ELC has been defending the educational rights of poor children since 1973. One would think that this hoary-haired warrior should be a big player in the educational reform movement gathering momentum in Jersey and elsewhere, sharing strategy with groups like E3 (Excellent Education for Everyone, Peter Denton and Derrell Bradford’s group) and EEP (Educational Equality Project, much in the news yesterday). ELC should fit right in, and not just orthographically.

But it doesn’t. ELC is steadfastly rooted in an obsolete paradigm for reform that clashes with current models and with federal priorities expressed through Race to The Top and impending ESEA reauthorization. Once a fiercely independent advocacy group, it’s evolved into an equally fierce defender of a status quo that has been failing poor children in NJ for decades and segregating them from wealthier and higher-performing districts.

“Go 4 in 2010” centers its rhetoric on ELC’s most recent setback, the passage of Corzine’s School Funding Reform Act. SFRA overturned the 1990 Abbott v. Burke Supreme Court decision that ruled that the education of our poorest children must be funded at the same level of our wealthiest children. It’s a twist on the Field of Dreams’ mantra, “if you build it they will come.” Abbott v. Burke says, “if you fund it they will succeed,” reducing educational inequity to dollars. Decades of U.S. educational history shows this to be a pipe dream. Despite vast amounts of money spent on extra services and facilities, the traditional public schools in our poorest cities stink. Trenton Central High, an Abbott district, is in its 7th year of School In Need of Improvement status. And just today Rodney Lofton, Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools, issued this news: “In the coming weeks, all security staff will be trained to operate a high-tech Magna scanner for better detection of contraband. Students will be warned only once that electronic devices and weapons of any kind are not allowed in school and if found in their possession will be confiscated and disciplinary charges will be filed for noncompliance.”

This is the results of years of cash flow, the remedy that ELC relies upon. Despite the fact that this doesn’t work, ELC continues to salute the same paradigm just as the ed reform movement coalesces around an emphasis on school choice, merit pay, and data-driven instruction.

Let’s take charter schools, an important plank of ed reform’s slate. Here’s another recent press release from ELC that quotes an analysis by Dr. Bruce Baker:

But my analysis of the data paint a different story: some charters do well, but overall, charters are ranked among the lowest statewide, performing far below successful, suburban and middle class public schools, and at levels comparable to schools in poor districts.

(For a rebuttal, here’s Jessani Gordon’s “NJ Charters: A Worthy Option in Public Education.)

ELC’s disavowal of the potential of the charter school movement is a sentiment shared by NJEA, one of their primary funders. Yet charter schools offer an out-of-the-box opportunity for our most challenged kids. They cost less and are generally safer then, say, Trenton Central High.

Wouldn’t ELC serve its children better by moving away from a failed prototype that segregates children into chronically failing and unsafe traditional public schools? Why doesn’t this proud group advocate for increased school choice, for access to successful schools outside of urban centers, for merit pay, for increasing academic accountability? Its stalwart obsession on dollars instead of achievement undermines its original mission, casts suspicion on its alliance with NJEA, and limits its advocacy to obsolete principles out of step with the agenda of the education reform movement.

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  • Bruce, February 4, 2010 @ 5:34 pm Reply

    And here is a lengthy series of rebuttals of the NJ Charter rebuttal:

  • Bruce, February 4, 2010 @ 6:02 pm Reply

    Stepping off the charter issue for a moment… My impression is that central argument of the Education Law Center, in this case, is to not forget the importance of fair and adequate education funding as a necessary underlying condition to any good reform, including charters as a reform option. New Jersey has made great strides in this regard over time, especially when compared to other states.

    The SFRA gripe, in my opinion, relates to the fact that the state really blew it on a few key components of SFRA – even if the basic idea of a weighted pupil formula could be a good one. The Census Based special education formula shorts high poverty urban districts on an unfounded assumption of equal distribution of disabilities across settings (despite substantial demographic data to the contrary). The incorrectly calculated Geographic Cost Adjustment bumps up the most affluent counties. There are just some dumb errors and unfounded assumptions in SFRA which create problematic distributions – and undo some of the gains yielded from Abbott. That's a legitimate gripe for ELC.

    The national debate on reform has been problematic, often led by Ed Equality Project and similar groups, who I would argue are less relevant than you suggest. And the national debate is somewhat different from the New Jersey debate. New Jersey has put significant fiscal effort into its schools and has focused financial effort on schools in need. And New Jersey’s overall outcomes are solid, but gaps persist. NJ gaps are not, however, like Connecticut gaps where the state has put only selective effort into aiding poor urban districts.

    Pundits in the national debate repeatedly suggest that the states we should all emulate are those like Louisiana, or Tennessee, because they lack caps on charters or because they’ve got great data systems for teacher evaluation. Hey, I love data systems and I’m far from anti-charter school. But these are our national leaders for the big race? This despite the fact that fewer than 80% of kids even attend the public school system in Louisiana (including charters) – despite the fact that Louisiana is second from bottom in educational effort (% of Gross State Product allocated to K-12), damn near the bottom in test scores and damn near the bottom in shares of teachers who attended selective colleges. Tennessee is right there with them. National pundits (not necessarily NJ pundits) seem to argue that “innovation” and “deregulation” trump actual investment, including equitable and/or adequate investment in education.

    Arguably, to be really good, you’ve got to have both innovation and adequate and equitable investment. Innovation with little or no investment will likely get these states nowhere. At least New Jersey is already somewhere. And indeed, innovation on top of our existing investment may move us even further along!

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