In New Jersey, Abbott School Districts Model Unified, Enriched Pre-Kindergarten

This morning the NY Times reports new analysis from economist James Heckman showing that the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, a study developed in the 1970s to mitigate hardship in early childhood, had long term health benefits added to its intellectual benefits for the impoverished children who received fully enriched services.  There is much talk these days of the need for public programs to provide early childhood enrichment in communities where poverty is concentrated, including specific proposals for pre-kindergarten from President Barack Obama and from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.  But in our era of austerity budgeting at the state and federal levels, few places have found the money to launch well-coordinated, quality programming. This means that in most places the children who benefit from early education are those whose parents can afford to pay for it.

One exception is New Jersey, whose Abbott Pre-Kindergarten program was recently profiled by Sharon Lerner for The American Prospect.  Lerner writes:  “… anyone who would like to see what Obama’s vision of universal pre-K might look like would do well to come to Orange, one of 31 (school) districts in the state known as ‘Abbotts.’  Because of a historic lawsuit, for almost a decade virtually all three-and four-year olds in these low-income urban areas have been attending preschool. Already well acquainted with the benefits and unforeseen challenges of expanding pre-K, the Abbotts serve as a window into the future of early education.”

Pre-Kindergarten in New Jersey’s Abbott districts is one of the long term results of a school funding lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, filed in 1981 and litigated over three decades. “The court wound up devising several remedies, including what amounted to a massive redistribution of education dollars.  Children in these poor districts in New Jersey (31 school districts whose needs were deemed the greatest) would receive not only resources equal to those in richer districts but also additional support to help them contend with the consequences of poverty.  Later, after legislators repeatedly resisted the idea of sharing money across district lines, the court wound up laying out the specific tools that each Abbott district would use to combat poverty, including, in 1998, universal preschool.”

The plan for preschool, which the court demanded the right to review, was approved in 2001.  Classes are capped at 15 students with an aide. Individual programs need to follow one of several approved curricula.  Teachers must have earned a bachelor’s degree and early childhood certification. Preschool teachers are paid at the same rate as public school teachers.

Besides establishing new sites, the Abbott preschool program was designed to incorporate all the early childhood education programs and Head Start programs that already existed in the 31 targeted school districts. David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center that litigated Abbott over the decades, concludes: “This is the Abbott lesson. You had all of these existing programs that get federal and state dollars, child-care and Head Start programs already in the community.  It made no sense to ignore that infrastructure and replace it with all new programs.  What happened in Abbott that’s so revolutionary is that it unified child care, Head Start, and public school classrooms in a coordinated system.”

Sciarra comments: “Early education is to me the most surprising and frankly the most gratifying of all the remedies that came out of Abbott.”

Warning: Do Not Be Beguiled by David Brooks

I do not pretend fully to understand Newark, New Jersey’s mayoral politics.  I’m a Clevelander and David Brooks is a New Yorker, and we are both outsiders.  But this morning, as a Clevelander, I need to correct what I’ll be generous and call an oversimplification in Brooks’ article in today’s NY Times.  The too frequent problem with David Brooks is that while his observations about our society are often interesting, when it comes right down to any particular issue, he doesn’t get the implications on the ground.

Today David Brooks writes about the mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey.  Brooks clearly prefers Shavar Jeffries over Ras Baraka for mayor of Newark. He portrays Jeffries as a change agent—a reformer, while he portrays Baraka as “regular,” the status quo.  (This sounds a little like Arne Duncan who frequently criticizes those who might be in favor of supporting the “weak, status quo” of traditional public schooling.)  Brooks titles his column, “How Cities Change,” implying that the person who opposes change is just in the way.   I am not going to take sides in Newark’s mayors race. I don’t know Shavar Jeffries; I know a little bit more about Ras Baraka.  What I do know something about is the drama currently playing in Newark.

There are three urban stages today in America where the battle of the imposition of so-called “corporate school reform” is being most distinctly and unambiguously dramatized: Chicago, Philadelphia, and most bitterly Newark, New Jersey. To call Newark’s raging battle about school “deform” the mere flash-point in the mayoral election is a serious error of definition.

For two decades Newark’s schools have been run by the state of New Jersey.  As in most places state takeover has never worked in Newark.  Today the strings are being pulled by Governor Chris Christie, Chris Cerf—Christie’s appointed state school commissioner (who left on February 28 to take a job with Joel Klein at Rupert Murdoch’s tablet and school data division, Amplify), and Cami Anderson—the state-appointed overseer superintendent, alternatively trained at the Broad Academy and formerly employed by Joel Klein in New York.

Cami Anderson has enraged the community with her One Newark Plan to close public schools in Newark’s poorest neighborhoods, bring in more charter schools, fire several hundred teachers, and replace many of them with recruits through Teach for America under a grant from the Walton Foundation.  Several school principals willing to criticize Cami Anderson’s plan in a civil way at a public meeting were suspended from their jobs.  A PTA president who had the courage to question the plan was arrested.  Because Cami Anderson has so angered the black community in Newark, the meetings of the appointed school board have devolved into late night shouting matches, and Anderson has ceased attending the public meetings.

One leader who has stood up to Christie, Cerf, and Anderson is Ras Baraka.  As the principal of a traditional public school in an impoverished neighborhood of Newark and a member of Newark’s city council, Ras Baraka has been willing to stand up against the One Newark Plan to privatize Newark’s schools and fire hundreds of teachers, many of whom are the citizens of Newark.

This morning David Brooks portrays all this as though the conversation about charter schools is merely one scene in a much larger drama.  In fact the battle over public vs. privatized education in Newark is a central drama against which the mayor’s race is being played.  David Brooks writes an interesting column that misses the point.

This blog has been covering the school privatization battle in Newark because it is so important.  Here are four recent posts: here, here, here, and here.

Chris Christie and Chris Cerf: Dismantling Equity in New Jersey’s Public Schools

Late last week New Jersey Spotlight, an online news service that covers information on issues critical to New Jersey, published an opinion piece by Mark Weber, Looking Closely at the Dangerous Legacy of Commissioner Chris Cerf.  Weber profiles Christopher Cerf, Governor Chris Christie’s appointed state Commissioner of Education.

One of the reasons the piece is so important is that New Jersey had so much to lose when Christie and Cerf imposed what has become known as a “corporate reform” agenda on the state’s public schools.

New Jersey is an extremely segregated state racially and economically with wealthy suburbs of New York City, beach communities along the Jersey Shore, rural truck farming communities, and cities like Newark, Camden, Jersey City and Paterson—cities that are racially segregated with extremely concentrated poverty.  Last fall the Southern Education Foundation—noting that, “The nation’s cities have the highest rates of low income students in public schools.  Sixty percent of the public school children in America’s cities were in low income households in 2011.”—documented that 78 percent of the school children in New Jersey’s cities are low income.

Unlike other states, however, and thanks to the decades-long efforts of the plaintiffs in Abbott v. Burke and their attorneys at the Education Law Center, New Jersey has in the past made the greatest strides of any state toward school funding equity.  And the data have proven that sending significant extra state funds into New Jersey’s 31 poorest school districts along with guaranteeing pre-school for the children of these districts has been an important investment in opportunity for these children.  Here is how David Kirp, in an important 2013 book, Improbable Scholars, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. but the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.”  (pp. 84-85)

A new report by the Education Law Center demonstrates that while , due to Abbott, New Jersey’s high poverty districts were  in 2007 funded 40 percent more than low poverty districts, the state’s investment has slipped under Christie and Cerf.  Today New Jersey’s high poverty districts get only 7 percent extra.

Weber’s profile of Christopher Cerf as New Jersey’s Education Commissioner is troubling in many ways.  Not only have Christie and Cerf reduced school finance equity, but they have “deconstructed” urban school districts.  School closures in Newark’s African American neighborhoods fill the newspapers today.  Tests and accompanying state ratings of schools are the centerpiece of the Cerf tenure.  Teachers are under intense scrutiny and being evaluated by their students’ “growth percentile scores.”

According to Weber, “Leadership has been redefined, and not for the better.” Many of New Jersey’s big-city school districts are under state control, and Cerf has ensured that their appointed superintendents fit the profile for which he is the prototype.  Weber’s summary of Cerf’s career is the very definition of the corporate school “deformer.”  Here are highlights.  “He never taught in a public school, never earned a degree in education, and never ran a school building…  After a few years of teaching at a private school, Cerf pursued a law career, eventually working in the Clinton administration.  He shifted over to education not as a practitioner, but as the president of Edison Learning, the ill-fated school management company that never lived up to its promises in Philadelphia and elsewhere.  That was followed by a stint in the vast and complex New York City schools, serving as deputy chancellor under his colleague in the Clinton White House, Joel Klein….”

Joel Klein, an attorney by profession, left his position as Chancellor of the New York City Schools (under Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to head up a new education technology division, Amplify, for Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.  Amplify is the division that manages data for school districts and produces computer tablets for sale to school districts.  Christopher Cerf is leaving his position as Commissioner of Education in New Jersey to join Klein, his former boss, at Amplify.  Weber comments: “When Cerf departs at the end of March, he’ll be continuing a pattern of sliding back and forth between the private and public sector that he’s engaged in over his entire career.”

New Jersey Civil Rights Attorney Says School Reform Must Consider Real Issues: Segregation and Poverty

On this day as we reflect upon the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, an article by New Jersey civil rights attorney Paul Tractenberg is a sobering reminder that in public education we have a long, long way to go.  Tractenberg describes what he calls the two school systems of New Jersey:

“One, the predominantly white, well-to-do and suburban system, performs at relatively high levels, graduating and sending on to higher education most of its students.  The other, the overwhelmingly black, Latino, and poor urban system, struggles to achieve basic literacy and numeracy for its students, to close pernicious achievement gaps, and to graduate a representative share of its students.  These differences have been mitigated to a degree by Abbott v. Burke‘s enormous infusion of state dollars into the poor urban districts, and some poor urban districts like Union City have been able to effect dramatic improvements.  But neither Abbott nor any other state action has done anything to change the underlying demographics.”

Tractenberg describes a new report he co-authored, released jointly by Rutgers University’s Institute on Education Law and Policy and the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, that focuses on apartheid schools “with 1 percent or fewer white students” and intensely segregated schools with “10 percent or fewer white students.” According to the report, “almost half of all black students and more than 40 percent of all Latino students in New Jersey attend schools that are overwhelmingly segregated” —falling into one of these two categories. “Compounding the problem is that the schools those students attend are doubly segregated because a majority, often an overwhelming majority, of the students are low-income.”

Tractenberg depicts the school reform strategy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf as a radical agenda that ignores segregation and poverty: long-term state takeover of school districts; closure of so-called “failing” schools; privatization; attacks on teachers unions; evaluation of teachers based on students’ test scores; and promotion of vouchers. (Newark’s schools have been under state control since 1995.  Just this past week, Newark’s state-appointed overseer superintendent, Cami Anderson, fired four principals for speaking up at a public meeting to oppose her plan to close a third of Newark’s public schools.)

Tractenberg concludes: “‘evidence’ regarding the Christie/Cerf agenda shows that: long-term state operation of large urban districts is an unmitigated disaster; private-for-profit operation of public schools, public funding of private, mostly parochial schools, and most public charter schools have produced little or no substantial and sustained improvements in student achievement; replacing existing public schools with experimental “turnaround’ schools is no assurance of substantial and enduring improvement; and school vouchers have been overwhelmingly rejected by the public every time they have been put to a referendum.”

Tractenberg suggests that his own ideas —merging smaller school districts, creating county-wide school districts, creating a magnet school program modeled on Connecticut’s—are no more radical than the Christie/Cerf agenda.  He would acknowledge, however, that developing the political will for policies that will challenge power, privilege and attitudes about race and class is going to be as difficult today as it was when Dr. King tried to undertake a campaign against poverty toward the end of his life.  Tractenberg suggests we need an informed and thoroughgoing public discussion about racism and poverty and school segregation, a conversation that almost nobody is having these days in America.

School Funding Litigation Seems Endless But Proves Essential

According to David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center and lead counsel in the New Jersey school funding case, Abbott v. Burke,  “There is a decades-old and stubborn unwillingness by governors and legislators in state capitols to remedy the stark disparities in educational opportunity that mark the education landscape in most of our states.”

Noticing that states do not adequately compensate for enormous disparities in local taxing capacity from school district to school district, Eduardo Porter, writing a month ago in the business section of the NY Times, wondered: “If education is a poor child’s best shot at rising up the ladder of prosperity, why do public resources devoted to education lean so decisively in favor of the better off?”  This question is related to the much discussed international PISA scores released last week, an international score ranking in which the test scores of U.S. students in schools segregated by poverty and race pulled down the average for our society.

Even before last week’s despair about PISA scores, Porter raised the central issue:  “The United States is one of few advanced nations where schools serving better-off children usually have more educational resources than those serving poor students, according to research by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).”  The OECD that conducted the research on comparative school funding equity is also the sponsor of the PISA exams.

Porter quotes Andreas Schleicher, in charge of the PISA assessments for OECD:  “The bottom line is that the vast majority of OECD countries either invest equally into every student or disproportionately more into disadvantaged students.  The U.S. is one of the few countries doing the opposite.”

The PISA scores and the OECD research that demonstrates our society’s commitment to educational inequality provide the context for a victory of sorts last week in Connecticut, where a trial court denied the state’s motion to dismiss the case of Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding (CCJEF) v. Rell.   The Education Law Center reports: “The state claimed the case lacked ripeness, was moot, and the plaintiffs lacked standing,” an interesting notion, as the plaintiff coalition includes municipalities, local boards of education, professional education associations, unions, parents, public schoolchildren and concerned Connecticut taxpayers.

The state claimed its funding system had been changed after the original lawsuit was filed (making the original lawsuit moot) and more time would be needed to see if the changes that have been made will render Connecticut school funding more equal (time needed to ripen the fruits of whatever minor changes the state has made).  The Education Law Center identifies these concepts as a new trend: “States are filing ripeness and mootness claims in an apparent effort to delay trials.” “On the basis of minor or even adverse legislative changes to their state school funding systems, Connecticut and New York claimed their funding systems were so different from the systems challenged in plaintiffs’ complaints… that those cases were rendered moot.  Furthermore, these states argued that their ‘new’ funding systems would need several years to show their impact, thus making the cases unripe for trial.”

The news release from the Education Law Center describes the impact of the recent decision: “Judge Kevin Dubay’s CCJEF opinion clearly explains that a trial on the merits is necessary to develop a full factual evidentiary record, including resolution of any issues of mootness or ripeness.”

The seemingly endless pursuit of school finance equity, of course, begins to feel like Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the novel in which the Court of Chancery, “gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right; which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope; so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart; that there is not an honourable man among its practitioners who would not give—who does not often give—the warning, ‘ Suffer any wrong that can be done you rather than come here!'” (p. 2)

But in our society where we have long been conditioned to worry more about funding the schools in our own community than developing a system where we all willingly contribute to pay for the education of all of our society’s children, school funding cases have proven themselves necessary.  In one of the best education books of 2013, Improbable Scholars, David Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, describes the impact of Abbott v. Burke, the case litigated by David Sciarra and the Education Law Center that has driven resources to New Jersey’s poorest school districts:

“In twenty-one decrees issued over the course of nearly three decades, the justices have read the state’s constitutional guarantee of  ‘a thorough and efficient system of education’ as a charter of equality for urban youth. That 1875 provision, said the court in its historic 1990 ruling, Abbott II, meant that youngsters living in poor cities were entitled to an education as good as their suburban counterparts… In crafting its decision, the court concentrated on the state’s thirty-one worst-off districts…  Thrust and parry—beginning with its 1990 decision, the justices dueled repeatedly with lawmakers…  Money cannot cure all the ailments of public education…. but the fact that New Jersey spends more than $16,000 per student, third in the nation, partly explains why a state in which nearly half the students are minorities and a disproportionate share are immigrants has the country’s highest graduation rate and ranks among the top five on the National Assessment of Education Progress…. The additional money also helps to account for how New Jersey halved the achievement gap between black, Latino, and white students between 1999 and 2007, something no other state has come close to accomplishing.”  (pp. 84-85)