By Chris Daggett
This in the first in a series of detailed policy proposals on the major issues facing our state.
Let’s be honest. For 15 years, Democrats and Republicans have put their parties’ political interests and their own re-election ahead of the people’s interest, placing the state in the most precarious financial situation in decades.
They have refused to acknowledge the depth of our problems, pushing off the difficult decisions for fear of angering special interest groups or particular blocs of voters. The choices will not be easy or painless.
Difficult and controversial decisions will have to be made.
Our goals are to make New Jersey competitive in the new economy, enhance our quality of life, and most of all, make our state affordable for people and businesses. In developing our policy proposals, I have set three guidelines.
We must rein in out-of-control spending and property taxes.
We must reduce New Jersey’s budget deficit, debt and fiscal obligations.
We must make New Jersey’s tax structure more competitive with other states.
I invite everyone to hold my policy proposals to these standards.
If you elect me, I will make the tough choices. If you do not elect me, the tough choices will not be made, and New Jersey will continue its descent from economic powerhouse to economic disaster.
Today, I am focusing on education, which arguably is the most important issue before us. It is the biggest cost driver of government spending, and it is the foundation of our society in terms of cultural development, jobs training, and quality of life.
New Jersey spends more money on K-12 education than any other state. We do so by paying the highest property taxes in the nation, most of which goes to our schools. So does most of the state income tax, which is also among the highest in the nation.
Despite this enormous investment, we are not getting our money’s worth, particularly in urban school districts. In too many of these schools, the dropout rate is 25 percent or higher.
Worse, of those who do graduate, nearly 20 percent statewide receive their diploma through the Special Review Assessment (SRA), an alternative assessment for those students who fail the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA) three times.
We all have both a moral and an economic stake in the success of our inner-city schools — employers looking for qualified workers, teachers in those school districts who want to do a good job, university professors who expect freshmen to be ready to do college work, state taxpayers who are paying up to 90 percent of the cost, and most of all, parents and the students themselves.
But we know that throwing more money at the problem every year isn’t the answer – it just disappears into the ever-higher teacher salaries, pensions and health care benefits, and does not translate into the bottom line of student learning and test results.
We need a radical new approach to change our education system, and interestingly, the strongest pressure to do so is coming not from disgruntled suburban taxpayers or conservative ideologues, but from the people who live in the cities and know firsthand that their children are being shortchanged.
It is coming from groups like the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey and the Latino Leadership Alliance, from political leaders like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and from a broad array of business and nonprofit groups, including Excellence in Education for Everyone, the South Jersey Chamber of Commerce, the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and the New Jersey Taxpayers Association.
It is time for change – a change that focuses on accountability and performance, and that re-examines fundamental assumptions about such institutions as high school graduation tests, tenure, and the public education monopoly.
First, we must raise the standards for the High School Proficiency Assessment from what Education Commissioner Lucille Davy has characterized as an eighth-grade-level test to an exam that truly assesses what our employers and our universities expect our high school graduates to know.
Simultaneously, we must abolish the Special Review Assessment. Let’s tell the truth: this alternative test is a back door loophole that enables New Jersey education officials to claim that New Jersey has the highest graduation rate in the nation when the fact is that without the SRA, we rank in the mid-range of states.
The SRA is the lie that underlies our education system — the lie that educators use to tell parents that they have provided a quality education to their children.
The SRA should be the rarest of exceptions, an assessment administered only upon the recommendation of a psychologist that a student’s mental or physical disability prevents him or her from taking the regular test.
We cannot keep sending children into the job market and into county colleges and state universities without the skills they need. This subterfuge must end — right now. Children know how the current system works: if you don’t work hard and fail, you can still get your diploma. Not anymore. To do so is not only educationally corrupt, but morally corrupt.
It shortchanges our children and simply postpones the day of reckoning when they realize that they are unable to do college work or to get a job. We need to make a New Jersey high school diploma worth the paper it is written on.
Second, we must give students in failing school systems – like their more affluent suburban counterparts — a choice to attend schools that will prepare them well for jobs and for opportunities in higher education. It is immoral to condemn yet another generation of students to remain in failing schools when other options exist.
We will enact legislation to create a scholarship fund along the lines proposed by the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey and the Latino Leadership Alliance to pay tuition for up to 15,000 children in ten pilot districts – including New Jersey’s four largest cities – to attend charter schools, public schools in other districts, or non-public schools.
Funding for this program would come from voluntary contributions made by corporations that would in turn receive tax credits. We would make the program revenue-neutral by reducing aid to the school district the child previously attended by the amount of the scholarship tax credit.
It would violate the court directive on the 2008 School Funding Reform Act to continue to pay school districts full state aid for students they are no longer educating, but we are prepared to make the case that we should not pay twice for a student – once at the school they leave and once again at the new school they enter.
In addition to establishing this school choice initiative, we will encourage innovation and expansion in our charter schools, and make them equal partners in the education establishment by providing the same per-pupil and capital funding as conventional schools receive.
The hunger for alternatives is nowhere more evident than in the annual lottery for placement in charter schools, which parents leave in tears when they realize their children lost out in the luck of the draw and will be trapped for another year in schools that do not meet their needs.
North Star Academy and Robert Treat Academy charter schools in Newark are among New Jersey’s models of excellence; we will study them and other success stories in an effort to replicate their success in other charter and public schools.
Finally, we must acknowledge that while approximately 60 percent of school funding goes into teacher salaries and benefits, we don’t really know what is going on in the classroom because we don’t do a competent job of supervising and evaluating teachers.
This much we do know: while there are superb teachers in every school district in New Jersey, there are too many teachers who are not performing. Parents know this, school boards know this, administrators know this, fellow teachers know this, and students know it best of all.
But it is almost impossible to dismiss a teacher for nonperformance. The costs and burden of proof are enormous, so school boards allow poor teachers to remain at their posts year after year, collecting their paychecks as they fail to educate their students.
Involved parents in every school district know “who the good teachers are,” and fight to get their children into their classes.
We cannot afford to condemn our children to mediocre teaching or worse. I will submit legislation that calls for ending tenure for new teachers and replacing it with five-year performance-based renewable contracts, with merit pay opportunities, both for new hires and for those who have not yet received tenure.
I will convene a panel of outstanding teachers, professors, administrators, and parents to draw up clear criteria for school boards to review. Once this is completed, the best models in the country will be determined, based on these criteria, and school districts will be required to select from one of the models.
Teachers will be observed at least four times during each school year and if found to be performing inadequately they will be provided the opportunity to improve.
If the recommendation after the fifth year is for nonrenewal, the teacher will have the right to appeal the board’s decision to an arbitrator, whose decision will be made in a short, defined time period and will be binding. Our schools – and our students – deserve the best teachers possible. We must do all that we can to ensure that outcome.
Similar five-year renewable contracts would be developed for new principals and administrative personnel (superintendents already work on a contract basis).
We will also propose an expansion of the alternate route to teacher certification to include an alternate route for superintendents, principals and other administrators.
There is no reason to believe that school administrators can only come from the ranks of school teachers.
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