Friday, July 25, 2014

Guest Post: NJ's Interdistrict Choice Program: Overpraised and Underexamined


By Jeffrey Bennett

There is no program on the New Jersey education landscape as overpraised and underexamined as Interdistrict Choice. 

In contrast to the intense debate over other topics in education like charter schools, student testing, teacher evaluation, and the Common Core, rarely is anything critical said about Interdistrict Choice by politicians, activists, and education analysts/bloggers.  Articles about this under-the-radar program are almost entirely laudatory and focus on the positive impact of Interdistrict Choice on receiving districts and Choice students, without any consideration of the financial impact on non-Choice districts whose state aid is siphoned away. In an era when 80% of NJ districts get less aid than they got before the recession and have had to accept painful budget cuts, there is very little discussion of how the exponentially increasing cost of the Interdistrict Choice program is a factor in aid stagnation.

            This is Part 1 of a two part guest blog series on New Jersey's Interdistrict Choice program. This first post will focus on Interdistrict Choice's budgetary impact on Choice districts, sending districts, and non-Choice districts.  The second part will appear after the state releases more academic and demographic information on Interdistrict Choice and will evaluate the program’s enrollment patterns and academic impacts.  

Choice Aid: Where Money Ignores Need


Interdistrict Choice funding works by having state taxpayers assume 100% of the expenses for non-resident students to enroll in participating Choice districts.  This amount is $10,500 on average in Choice Aid per student plus regular state aid and extra Transportation Aid for the sending district.  The "Choice Aid" is equal to the receiving district's Local Fair Share, that is, roughly the amount that local taxpayers pay per child for their district's own resident children.  Choice Aid varies by the wealth of the district.  High-resource Choice districts that have high Local Fair Shares get as much as $15,000 in Choice Aid per Choice student.  Lower-resource Choice districts that have low Local Fair Shares may get $3,000-$4,000 in Choice Aid per Choice student, but they get more in regular state aid for the same number of incoming students.   However, since regular aid has been below-formula for the last few years, wealthier districts get more money than less wealthy ones.

             Prior to 2010 Interdistrict Choice was limited to one-district per county but not every county had a participating district.  In 2010 the legislature, nearly unanimously, eliminated that rule.  Since 2010 the program has grown from only fifteen districts to 136 for 2014-15. With that increase in district and student participation the amount of education aid diverted into Interdistrict Choice has grown exponentially, despite the recession and stagnant aid for non-Choice districts.  In 2010-11 Interdistrict Choice cost $9.8 million, in 2011-12 it was $20.6 million, in 2012-13 it was $33 million, and in 2013-14 it was $49 million (for 4,682 students). For 2014-15 the Christie Administration put a 5% enrollment growth cap in place for existing Choice districts and limited space in new ones, so total cost growth for the new year will be only 10%, to $54 million.  

Choice money a district gets is completely independent of need and some of the biggest winners in Interdistrict Choice are the highest-resource districts in New Jersey.  Deal, for instance, has an astronomically high $12 million in property valuation per student and gets over $11,500 in Choice Aid per student (both numbers used residential and Choice students for the denominators.  Deal gets $1,000 per student in other aids as well.).  Deal has six times the property wealth per student of Princeton and Millburn and yet it gets more state aid than Neptune Township and Long Branch, its Abbott neighbors, both of which get $7,000-$8,000 in aid per pupil. 

             Most Choice districts are middle-resource, but half of NJ's Choice Aid goes to only fifteen districts (2013-14 numbers):  Upper Freehold, Mine Hill, Pittsgrove, Englewood, Hoboken, Ocean City, Kenilworth, Deal, Hammonton, Morris Hills, Middle Township, Clinton Township, Central Regional, Hoboken, and Manchester Regional.  Of the districts that get the majority of Choice Aid all except Hammonton, Upper Freehold, and Pittsgrove have over $1 million in property valuation per student. Hoboken and the Shore districts have more than $2 million per student. 

Nor are Choice districts, in any way, the neediest districts in terms of student population.  Choice districts can be Choice districts because they have spare capacity, usually because of a shrinking student population.  These districts, by definition, are not ones that have to grapple with residential student population growth and its attendant questions of how to pay more staff to educate more students, buy more computers, provide more classroom space etc.  Although there are many fixed costs for a district with a dropping population, by definition, these districts don't have the most acute budget problems in New Jersey.  Thus Interdistrict Choice is money for districts with the least pressing needs. 

         Students who participate in Interdistrict Choice tend to be ones who are less expensive to educate.  According to a Rutgers study done when Interdistrict Choice was in the pilot phase, Choice students are half as likely as the general population to have learning disabilities and the Interdistrict Choice legislation even gives Choice districts permission to reject students with special needs. 

A Windfall for Choice Districts 


Of the 105 Choice districts in 2013-14, 91 got Choice Aid that is equivalent to at least $100 per student, 51 got more than $500 per student, twenty-five get more than $1,000 per student, three got more than $5,000 per student.  Deal’s $11,500 per student is the highest and allows Deal to finance over 40% of its budget with Choice Aid alone. 

Although Choice districts are paid, on average $10,500 for every Choice student they enroll, the net increase in their student population doesn't necessarily equal the number of students they take in, since a Choice district can also send its own students out to other Choice districts.  When Choice districts swap students they are still only paid for the raw number of incoming students, so that if a Choice district receives 20 students and has 20 students leave it is paid for another 20 students ($210,000, on average), even though its net change is zero.

This policy has absurd implications for the awarding of state aid.  For instance, since 2010-11 Cape May County districts have had a net decrease of 350 students, but despite the population decrease Cape May County districts receive an additional $7 million in state aid ($5.6 million of which comes from Interdistrict Choice).  Between 2012-13 and 2013-14 West Cape May had a net loss of 22 students (from 97 to 75) and had a $178,000 increase in state aid because a higher proportion of West Cape May students were Choice students.  

          Another absurdity is that Choice districts are (literally) paid for non-existent students.  When Choice districts have decreases in their Choice student populations they receive as much aid as they got prior to the Choice student decrease, with the money now rechanneled through a peculiar aid stream known as "Additional Adjustment Aid."  This practice means that Choice Aid spending is a one-way ratchet up; where Choice districts get more money when they take in more Choice students and they keep the money they got previously when they lose Choice students.  For a Choice district, it's heads they win, tails they break even. 

             In 2013-14 the calculation of Additional Adjustment Aid was very opaque, but Choice districts that lost students appear to have gotten a compensatory $600,000 in Additional Adjustment Aid.  For 2014-15 the Additional Adjustment Aid is carried over in the same amount for all Choice districts, but other Choice districts that lost Choice students got another $1.8 million more in Additional Adjustment Aid.  The bottom line is that state taxpayers are sending approximately $2.3 million in 2014-15 to Choice districts for non-existent Choice students.  

           The amounts of Additional Adjustment Aid going to Choice districts is very large in a few cases. Hoboken is getting $255,000 in Additional Adjustment Aid for 2014-15.   Englewood is getting $497,000.  Brooklawn is getting $142,000.  Clinton Township is getting $169,000.  These aid totals are huge amounts considering non-Choice districts only got an additional $20 per student for 2014-15.  (Choice districts get the same $20 per student too)

Effects on Districts Losing Students 


To be fair to Interdistrict Choice, since sending districts are supposed to lose regular state aid when they lose students to Interdistrict Choice, there are theoretical savings offsets for state taxpayers when children transfer out of a high-aid district into a low-aid one.  If a child leaves Trenton (which gets almost $17,000 per student) and enrolls in Hopewell Valley (which gets $700 per student), the state would actually save $16,300 on regular state aid, an amount that is greater than the Choice Aid it would have to pay Hopewell Valley.  The state would realize savings in the same way when children leave Asbury Park, Paterson etc. 

             However, the aid difference between sending and receiving districts is rarely as large as it is between Trenton and Hopewell Valley.  When students transfer between districts that are at rough parity in per pupil aid, like in the Hunterdon County and Cape May County Choice district clusters, the costs to the state are extremely high.  

          The flip side of the state saving money through aid reductions is that if a high-aid district has many students who participate in Interdistrict Choice the sending district would have budget problems that are very similar to the problems districts have when students transfer to charter schools.   The loss of state aid combined with the transportation subsidy most sending districts must give parents could potentially be very costly.

In any case, for 2014-15 and 2013-14 school years the Christie Administration has had a policy of not allowing any district to lose aid.  This means there are no savings offsets for state taxpayers.  

How the Windfalls Are Used


Choice Aid can be spent in any way a district wishes.  It can be used to cut taxes, offset tax increases, offset budget cuts, or expand academic programming.  The ways Choice districts use the money varies.  Brooklawn, for instance, has not had a tax increase since 2001 and has let its per pupil funding become very low.  At the other end is Englewood, which has used its Choice money to create the Academies@Englewood, a school-within-a-school with selective admissions and unique programming.  Most Choice districts follow a middle path, using Choice money to offset tax increases and budget cuts, but not offering any special programming either.  

The Context of Aid Unfairness


Choice Aid for New Jersey in 2014-15 is only $54 million.  Even if you count Additional Adjustment Aid, extra transportation aid, and administrative costs, the program is still only a small portion of New Jersey’s overall $8 billion K-12 aid stream.  Why protest?     
                                                                  
            My answer is that New Jersey’s distribution of K-12 aid is already so unfair and irrational that even the diversion of less than $60 million should be scrutinized. 

The first unfairness is that there is a funding cliff between the Abbotts and low-resource non-Abbotts, where districts like Carteret and Belleville get one-quarter to one-third as much aid as Jersey City, Paterson, Elizabeth etc do, even though those districts need the money almost as badly.  The Funding Cliff means that "Abbott Rim" districts have much lower spending and much higher taxes than the Abbotts that are nearly their economic peers.

          The second unfairness is that rural and exurban districts receive 2-3 times as much aid per pupil as their suburban peers do.  For instance, West Orange has 6,926 students, of whom 36% qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch. Marlboro has 5,248 students, of whom 4% qualify for Free and Reduced Lunch.  West Orange only has $860,000 in valuation per student, Marlboro has $1.3 million per student.  West Orange’s per capita income is $43,000 a year.  Marlboro’s is over $50,000.

By logic, West Orange should receive more state aid than Marlboro since its students are poorer and its resources are smaller, but the opposite is true.  Marlboro receives $11.5 million in aid, whereas West Orange receives $6.8 million. 

Conclusion



In light of the unfairness in the distribution of state aid, is it wise to create and support a program that takes money from the general K-12 aid budget and funnels it into districts that have lost population and thus do not have the most acute needs? 

Even if the Interdistrict Choice diversion is not as large a factor in causing districts to be underaided as the recession and the state pension crisis, Interdistrict Choice Aid stands out as one of the only factors within the control of the governor and legislature.  For that reason the costs of Interdistrict Choice cannot be ignored as a factor in fixing New Jersey’s inadequate, irrational, and unfair distribution of aid. 

In theory Interdistrict Choice is a good idea.  Who would object to giving students more choice over their educations?  But the funding formula pays receiving districts way beyond the marginal cost of additional students and exists against a backdrop of severe underaiding in the suburbs and on the “Abbott Rim.”  The state’s funding priority should be money for SFRA and low-aid districts (which may have growing residential enrollments).

At the very least, Interdistrict Choice should be examined and scrutinized as other innovations in education are.  If the program is to be preserved the absurdities of paying districts for non-existent students and based on the raw number of incoming Choice students must stop.  The demographics of Choice students should be examined to determine if the full Local Fair Share payment is justified.  If not, Interdistrict Choice is just another locked in privilege that benefits the few at the expense of the many.


Jeffrey Bennett is a Board of Education member in Essex County. His opinions are not those of his Board of Education.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Vahan Gureghian's For Profit Charter Chain CSMI Ready To 'Do AC'

It sure has been a busy week in education news in New Jersey. The education blogosphere has been burning up with posts about Governor Christie's executive order regarding PARCC and Common Core, here, here, here, and here. It's been covered in all the major news outlets too, and there was even a press release to explain how the DOE will implement the Executive Order.

With all this chatter it's pretty likely that yesterday's press release about the five charters awarded their final charters, giving them the green light to open in September, will go all but unnoticed. The Star Ledger's Peggy McGlone covered it, but pretty much just regurgitated a few clips from the press release. 

Yawn. 

Here are the five charters Commissioner Hespe has determined are worthy of your tax dollars.


For now let's take a look at one in particular. I hope you'll forgive me, but the details surrounding the approval of the Atlantic City Community Charter School (ACCCS) had slipped my mind. 

Afterall, it's hard to keep track of a charter approved in January of 2011. Yes, you read that right, ACCCS was originally approved more than three years ago.

ACCCS was one of 23 charters approved in one of Christie's blockbuster charter application rounds when he was still riding high on a wave of ed reform. Every year since then ACCCS has been given planning years. 

In July 2011 the DOE stated ACCCS and 20 other potential charters needed "additional time to plan and develop."

In July 2012 ACCCS and 9 other charters "failed to demonstrate sufficient progress towards readiness."

By July 2013 the DOE stopped reporting how many charter DIDN'T make the cut for final charters in their press release, but ACCCS was one of 8 not ready for prime time last year.

Finally, it looks like 2014 is their year!

Why did the NJDOE allow ACCCS to take not one, not two, but THREE planning years? Allow me to explain. In 2011 another charter was approved with a very similar name - Camden Community Charter School (CCCS). 

CCCS just completed its first year in operation. My good blogging buddy Jersey Jazzman wrote a few posts about CCCS before they opened their doors, and I wrote about them once too, specifically to highlight the for-profit CMO that manages CCCS. That would be none other than CSMI LLC, which also manages the Chester Community Charter School in Chester, PA.

This excerpt from a September, 2013 Philly Inquirer article really tells you all you need to know about CSMI's business practices. 
CSMI, the firm that runs the Chester and Camden schools, is a for-profit company founded by Vahan Gureghian, a politically connected Gladwyne lawyer who donated more than $300,000 to Gov. Corbett's gubernatorial campaign and served on the education committee of his transition team.
CSMI has fought to prevent public disclosure of its finances - including how much taxpayer money ultimately goes to company officials. The company has argued that, unlike public schools or some other charter schools, its finances are a "trade secret" or "confidential information," because CSMI is a private company managing a school, and not a school itself.
In 2009, Gureghian attorney Edmond George - listed in public records as a founder of the Camden Community Charter School - sought to silence the Inquirer by asking a judge to order the paper to "refrain from public comments" about the company, the school or Gureghian. The motion was denied. In a separate matter, a CSMI lawyer tried unsuccessfully to bar a reporter from an arbitration hearing in open court.
The school has sued the cash-strapped Chester Upland School District - which was in danger of shutting down last year due to lack of funding - for millions of dollars in disputed payments. The case was appealed up to the Supreme Court but eventually was settled out of court.

A harsh audit 

Last month, in an audit report, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the Chester charter school had improperly received nearly $1.3 million in state lease reimbursements - including payments for school buildings that had been owned by Gureghian.
"It's like paying yourself for renting your own house," said DePasquale, who wants the school to return the money.
DePasquale also criticized CSMI for what he called a lack of transparency.
"Minus national security, you should always err on the side of more transparency with taxpayer dollars," he said. "I'm not sure how [CSMI] believes in trade secrets. If they're doing something that's good, that helps kids get educated, please share it. (emphasis mine)
Clearly, CSMI plays serious hardball, and now this for-profit CMO has not one but two charters in NJ. 

How'd this happen? 

Well, notice how the first part of that quote mentions that Gureghian donated $300,000 to Governor Corbett in PA? Gureghian has yet to throw that kind of money around in NJ, but the money has certainly started flowing.

Jersey Jazzman pointed out that in 2013 Gureghian's money fed the Democratic machine in the southern part of New Jersey. But guess what else?

Gureghian and his wife Danielle, who just happens to be CSMI's Executive Vice President and General Counsel, have contributed over $6,000 directly to Camden's own Senator Donald Norcross.



The October contribution of $1,000 came less than 2 weeks after the September 24th ribbon cutting for CCCS, which was attended by both Mr. Gureghian and Senator Norcross.


Gureghian and Senator Norcross, in a photo from the Senator's Facebook page
The official ribbon cutting
Clearly Gureghian knows where to put his money to get things done in Camden. 

And guess who got almost $8,000 from Gureghian in 2013? The Senate and Assembly candidates from the 2nd Legislative District, which is, big surprise, Atlantic City.



I wonder why a lawyer from Pennsylvania would want to donate to the campaign of politicians in Atlantic City?

May 2013 report from Press of Atlantic City reporter Diane D'Amico, who clearly seems to get that something very fishy is going on with CSMI in Atlantic City, provides the trail of breadcrumbs.
The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority on Tuesday approved plans to negotiate a lease agreement with Atlantic City Community Charter School in a move officials said was intended to allow the new school to open by September.
And who has lots and lots of dealing with the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA)? Why, that would be Senator Whelan (for example, here, here and here).

But see, the trouble was there was already a charter school in the space the CRDA was looking to lease to CSMI. Luckily for CSMI, Oceanside Charter School was abruptly closed in June, 2013. 

Again, D'Amico has the story.
The school will officially close at the end of the month after the state Department of Education did not renew its charter this year.
Just a few blocks away, at the All Wars Memorial Building, representatives of the brand new Atlantic City Community Charter School, or ACCCS, rushed to enroll enough students to meet the state requirement of having 90 percent of its proposed enrollment of 150 students in grades K-5, in place by June 30. If it gets final state approval in July, the new school, managed by CSMI Education Management in Chester, Pa., will open in September at Oceanside’s site.
Anyone else conjuring up images of vultures circling over Oceanside?



Back in D'Amico's May report, it could not have been more clear that ACCCS was poised and ready to swoop in and take over Oceanside. Gureghian actually had the temerity to contact the founder and lead administrator of Oceanside, Jeanine Middleton.
Middleton said she also got a call Tuesday from Vahan Gureghian, founder and CEO of CSMI, saying he was interested in hiring some of her staff and also asking for her help in setting up a meeting with parents. Middleton said she will cooperate in the interest of the children. 
"This is a bitter pill," she said. "But I'll do what I can to be an advocate for the children and the staff."
I've been researching and writing about charter issues in New Jersey for over three years now, and I have never read something this blatant. While there have certainly been other recent examples of well connected charter chains seemingly jumping in after a questionable recent closure of a mom and pop charter (see Camden's City Invisible Charter School and Newark's Greater Newark Charter School), this story really takes the cake. 

It defies logic to think that Oceanside was not closed so that ACCCS, controlled by politically connected and ridiculously loaded Gureghian, could swoop in and take its place. I can find no evidence that Oceanside was ever put on probation, making it's sudden closure after 14 years in operation all the more perplexing, especially when the evidence to support the closure offered up by the DOE was so weak.
Officials from Oceanside say that new renewal requirements were put into place last July that now compare Atlantic City's charter schools' test results to all of Atlantic City's public schools.  Middleton said that in her renewal application her school outperformed many of the public schools from the areas that her students live, but that Oceanside does not perform better than the Atlantic City School District as a whole.
Middleton explained, "Suddenly when we're 10 to 15 percentage points above...we are no longer.  We are now a percentage point or two below them, as a district."
CRDA's Do AC logo
Oh, well, why didn't you say that Oceanside's test scores were "a percentage point or two lower" than the district's? Clearly, the DOE had no choice but to close them down...

What complete and utter poppycock. 

Ultimately, even though ACCCS pretty much had a school full of kids handed to them on a silver platter, they were not able to generate sufficient enrollment to open in 2013.

Yet somehow, here they are in 2014, poised and ready to "Do AC" in September, after three full years of being unable to open.

I don't know about you, but I'm disgusted. It's abhorrent that this DOE has invited a for-profit CMO that considers its business practices a "trade secret" and "confidential information" to make a profit on the backs of the most vulnerable children in this state.

I would never stand by and watch as the likes of Gureghian opened a charter in my town, so how can we sit by and watch it happen in Camden and Atlantic City? We need to demand a full investigation of Gureghian's connections to politicians and officials in the NJDOE, and complete and utter transparency regarding his involvement in and operations of the charters in Camden and Atlantic City.

Anything less is a travesty.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Reformy Heavyweights Behind New York's Tenure Lawsuit

Yesterday a Facebook friend wondered aloud about the parents behind New York's Vergara-like case. The article he posted featured quotes from "Staten Islander Sam Pirozzolo, who is both a parent plaintiff and vice president of the NYC Parents Union". 

"Someone with skills needs to find the funding behind the 'New York Parents Union,'" my friend posted.

Naturally, I was intrigued...


First I checked out Sam Pirozzolo, and quickly learned that he is not quite your average NYC parent. He is not only Vice-President of the New York City Parents Union, he's been the President of Staten Island Community Education Council 31, which is a "school board like entity", since 2007. Pirozzolo was also an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Assembly in 2012, losing to the Democratic incumbent.


And let's just say, Pirozzolo has had some interesting ideas as president of CEC 31, not the least of which was his proposal to put armed retired police officers in schools in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.

“It’s another layer of defense,” Pirozzolo said. “We’re looking to let the bad guys know, if you choose a school on Staten Island in New York City, you may have resistance. We’re not a soft target.”
....
But the city’s Department of Education is not considering the idea, saying the schools are the safest they’ve been in a decade. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott’s office released a statement that read in part: “We know what works. Putting an armed guard in every school building is not the answer.”
But Staten Island’s board president is asking if students are really safe.
“Are they safe from a terrorist attack? Are they safe from a madman with a gun?” Pirozzolo said. (emphasis mine)
Oh my. 


Pirozzolo talks about the "TROUBLE WITH SCHOOLS"
Pirozzolo has really been out there as the face of the New York case (don't miss Pirozzolo's appearance on Fox and Friends with Tucker Carlson!) - he's the main contact for the NYC Parents Union on the group's press release, which reveals that all eleven children involved in the lawsuit are the children of members of the NYC Parents Union. 

Let's just say, the press release seems, well, a bit unpolished.
At present, there is no effective system that rewards excellence and minimizes failure. Instead, there is a complex system of “bad laws” that perpetuate mediocrity or, worse, inferiority. This lawsuit seeks to challenge and end the power and inequity of “bad laws” and promote “good laws” – good education policies — that truly benefit our children and our good teachers.
The entire document uses the phrase "bad laws" five times. 

So to recap, Pirozzolo wanted to put "GOOD GUYS" in schools with guns to protect kids from the "BAD GUYS" with guns, and now he wants to overturn the "BAD LAWS" that hurt kids and replace them with "GOOD LAWS" that benefit kids (and our GOOD teachers, whichever ones those are).

Yeah, OK...

While a look at Pirozzolo is certainly somewhat entertaining, the place you really have to look to understand how the Vergara case spread to New York so quickly is at Campbell Brown and her "newly launched" 501c3, Partners for Educational Justice

It is so new that there are no 990s or other documents yet available to check the group's funding sources. However, one need not look much further than Partners for Educational Justice's Board of Directors and Advisory Board to get an idea of where the money may come from.

None other than Joe Williams, Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) Executive Director, is on the Board of Directors. Yeah, the very same DFER that tried to trample Ras Baraka's campaign for Mayor by throwing well over 2 million dollars into Shavar Jeffries campaign through Super PAC Newark First. I don't feel like I'm going out on a limb by saying it seems pretty likely that DFER will be throwing some cash behind Brown's lawsuit.


The happy couple is so unhappy with teachers!
As an aside, Campbell Brown was right there beside DFER in the Newark mayor's race, and personally chipped in $7,800 for Shavar Jeffries. When I found her name in the ELEC filings I did a bit of digging to see if, and if so how, she was connected to the world of ed reform, and that was when I learned her husband, Dan Senor, is on the Board of Directors of Student's First NY (and was an advisor to Mitt Romney). 

Seems Brown and Senor share a passion for trampling teachers' due process rights and seniority protections. 

How quaint.


Derrell is far cooler than you could ever hope to be...
And don't miss one of the other stars of members of the Partners for Educational Justice Board of Directors - why, it's none other than Derrell Bradford himself! Jersey Jazzman has done an amazing job detailing Bradford's reformy career over the years, up to and including his move across the Hudson from New Jersey to New York to become the Director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now (NYCAN). 

NYCAN can bring Gates money to the table, so even if DFER doesn't want to go it alone, it looks like Partners for Educational Justice will still be able to fund their lawsuit.

And while Brown claims the New York suit won't be as costly because they are getting the legal work pro bono ( from "a former deputy assistant for domestic policy to President George W. Bush no less), it can't be cheap to hire a PR firm run by former aides to President Obama!
The Incite Agency, founded by former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and former Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt, will lead a national public relations drive to support a series of lawsuits aimed at challenging tenure, seniority and other job protections that teachers unions have defended ferociously. LaBolt and another former Obama aide, Jon Jones — the first digital strategist of the 2008 campaign — will take the lead in the public relations initiative.
There you have it folks. 

The New York Vergara case brings heavy weights from DFER, NYCAN, StudentsFirstNY, together with top level former Obama staffers, and even a former Bush lawyer, to see if they can pull the wool over the eyes of a judge in New York like David Welch and his somewhat similar cast of characters did in California.

Quite honestly, I don't think they can replicate what happened on the West Coast. It's hard to imagine this case won't be seen as the dog and pony Public Relations show it truly is. Especially when Brown is saying as much in the press before the trial has even started.
“The PR piece of this is essential because for the first time, we’re having a dialogue in this country about anachronistic laws and how we revamp our public education system for the modern world so it serves children first and foremost,” Brown said. “Having that conversation is as important to me as the litigation itself.”
While I give props to Brown for having the vocabulary skills to call the laws she aims to change "anachronistic" instead of "bad," a la Pirozzolo, it still seems ill advised to head into a lawsuit talking about how "essential" PR will be to your case. 

This case should not be tried in the court of public opinion; if it even makes it into a courtroom it should be tried based on facts and facts alone, not the rhetoric and hyperbole favored by the groups amassed behind this bogus lawsuit, and the spin doctors hired to do their bidding.

In the name of all that is factual, Bruce Baker needs to get on the stand and destroy what he has dubbed the "VergarGuments" that will no doubt be used in the trial.
And so it goes… The VergarGuments keep-a-comin… spreading their way from California to the Empire State, from Albany to Buffalo. And what are VergarGuments you say?
Well, a VergarGument is a fallacious form of legal reasoning applied in the context of state constitutional litigation over causes of inequities and inadequacies of schooling selectively suffered by disadvantaged children. Yeah… that’s a mouthful, but it is worthy of its own newly minted, excessively precise definition.
What he said.

7/10 UPDATE: 


I received a comment on this blog (on the post A Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, A Billionaire And I USDOE Assistant Secretary Walk Into A Courtroom...) from Mike Reilly, a member of CEC 31 with Sam Pirozzolo. Reilly has written a Letter to the Editor in defense of teacher tenure for the Staten Island Advance. 

Reilly makes a point to state that CEC 31 is NOT a party to the lawsuit, and concludes that Vergara 2.0 will not be successful in New York.
Following the statutory process that is in place will ensure our students and the majority of dedicated teachers will not suffer at the hands of the small minority of poor teachers. 
 In my opinion the New York State courts will agree that Chancellor Farina should be afforded the opportunity to address this issue for the betterment of the New York City public school system.
Bravo Mr. Reilly!

Here is his comment in its entirety: (seems we disagree on guns in schools...)

Just to clarify this lawsuit is not an action taken by Community Education Council 31. 
http://www.silive.com/opinion/letters/index.ssf/2014/07/how_to_deal_with_ineffective_p.html
I am Co-Chair of the CEC 31 Safety & Transportation Committee and co-author of the Comprehensive Safety Plan, which includes response measures, system upgrades, training and school resource officers. The NYS Legislature & Governor Cuomo agreed with this plan and included it in the Budget and NYS Safe Act. 
https://m.facebook.com/notes/community-education-council-31/cec-31s-comprehensive-safety-security-proposal-for-nyc-public-schools/564104543604795/?__tn__=C
Mike Reilly CEC31  

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, A Billionaire And A USDOE Assistant Secretary Walk Into A Courtroom...

Much of the press surrounding the Vergara decision has focused on the role of David Welch, President of the Silicone Valley Telecommunications behemoth, Infinera.
Dave Welch isn't a teacher, politician or lawyer, but he was the driving force behind a landmark court ruling Tuesday that is poised to overhaul public education in California and across the nation.
Welch 
How did the 53-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneur do it? Some would say it's a passion for kids' education and a winning argument that California's policies guiding teacher tenure are broken. Others would say, simply, it's his money.
Welch certainly seems to be the driving force behind the Vergara case, but he had a lot of help along the way from some very reformy friends in very high places.

I've taken some time to familiarize myself with the 990s for the Students First Foundation, which is "doing business as" Students Matter. Students First Foundation is the 501c3 Welch formed to trample teacher tenure. 

It's amazing what you can learn from a 990.

The most recent one is from 2012. It reveals not only where the $2 million they had at their disposal that year came from, but how it was spent, and the rationale for the expenditures. (Between 2010 and 2012, Students Matter has spent well over $3 million - imagine how much more has been spent in 2013 and 2014...) 


For instance, here's the narrative for the almost $1.5 million they spent on litigation in 2012...


... and the half million on public relations...


... and the paltry $40,000 reaching out to the community they were supposedly representing.


Students Matter found the attorneys and the expert witnesses for the case; they compiled the "studies" and established the strategy; they even assembled the ed reform groups and philanthropists to support the case. Oh and they dabbled in "community outreach" but it seems the "public" part of their relations campaign wasn't much of a priority.

The breakdown in expenditures seems to lead to one simple conclusion - if you have almost $2M to spend on lawyers and PR, it doesn't really matter whether you have buy in from the community.

And they didn't. 

Consider this, from Esau Herrera, veteran Board member from Alum Rock Union Elementary School District, which was a co-defendant in the Vergara case.
“If you walk around the community here and mention David Welch’s name, everybody will draw a blank,” he says. “One question is, Why is David Welch spending so much money? . . . But then you wonder why someone like this [is] involved in issues that affect a community, according to him and others, that he has no part in. That he has no acquaintance with. That perhaps other than the fact that people who look like us cut his lawn, you know, there’s no connection.”
But again, when you have all that money, who needs community support?

The 990's also reveal that the money behind the suit wasn't Welch's alone. The two largest contributions did indeed come from Welch; $550,000 from "The Welch Trust" and $568,357 from "LRFA, LLC" which is some sort of business entity that links directly back to Welch's Infinera.

So that's well over $1M from Welch.

The next biggest dollar amount came from none other than Eli Broad, who kicked in $200,000 to buy the Vergara ruling. Just last month Bruce Reed, who is tasked with "minding the foundation's investments and its work on K-12 reform," discussed the Vergara case with the LA Times. His remarks are so simplistic, so misguided, it's almost beyond comprehension.
Q: There should be a ruling soon in the Vergara lawsuit, brought by L.A. are students challenging teacher tenure, seniority and firing policies. The foundation supports the student's case. In some quarters it's seen as being about busting teachers unions, not about improving education.
A: The goal of Vergara and efforts like it is to make sure there are quality teachers in the classroom. We do a very poor job in this country in teacher preparation. Most of the education schools aren't any good. We throw first year teachers into the classroom. No one comes along to see how they're doing, give them advice. No good workplace works that way. We should pay teachers more for doing well, for teaching in the toughest places to teach, for excelling at one of the toughest professions. We need to elevate the profession.
If your head has stopped spinning, we'll move on to the other big money backers behind Vergara.

The next biggest dollar amount, $100,000, came from  "Tammy and Bill Crown." It took some digging around to figure out that William H. Crown, who seems to split his time between Chicago and Portola Valley, CA, is one of the heirs to Chicago billionaire Lester Crown's fortune
Lester Crown, 80, chairman of Henry Crown & Co., the privately held company that is the vehicle for much of the family's investments
...... 
William H. Crown, 41, general partner in Henry Crown & Co.; president and CEO of another family-run investment company, CC Industries Inc. (son)
Bucks: Regulars on Forbes' billionaires list, Lester Crown and clan ranked 52nd this year with an estimated net worth of $4 billion.
The bulk of the family's holdings are in manufacturing and real estate. Some gems include Aspen Skiing Co. resort in Colorado and stakes in the Chicago Bulls, the New York Yankees and New York's Rockefeller Center.
Because what ed reform escapade would be complete without at least a couple of billionaires? Certainly the Crowns of Chicago should have a say in what happens in the classrooms of California's students, shouldn't they?

The next two largest contributions come directly from folks on the Students Matter Advisory Board. 

Ted Schlein kicked in $50,000. Klein not only sits on the Advisory Board, he is listed as the Director and CFO on the Students Matter 990. Schlein made Forbes' 2014 "Midas List" as one of the Top 100 Venture Capitalists, coming in at #62. Schlein has spent his career in and around the Silicon Valley Tech Industry, so naturally, he should determine which teachers should remain in California's classrooms, right?

A $30,000 donation from the Emerson Education Fund may be one of the most interesting, however. The Managing Director of the Emerson Education Fund is Russlynn Ali, who also just happens to be on the Students Matter Advisory Board. 

Guess where Ali was BEFORE she came to Emerson.
Duncan and Ali appear at Howard University - in this CNN photo
Russlynn joined Emerson Collective from the U.S. Department of Education, where she served as assistant secretary for civil rights. Nominated by President Obama in early 2009, Russlynn was confirmed by the Senate on May 1, 2009, and served in that position until December 2012. As assistant secretary, she acted as Secretary Duncan’s primary advisory on equity and civil rights, and led a team of more than 600 attorneys, investigators and staff that is widely credited with having revitalized civil rights enforcement in education.
Prior to becoming assistant secretary, Russlynn served as vice president of the Education Trust in Washington, DC, and as the founding executive director of Education Trust – West in Oakland, California. She has also worked as a teacher, attorney, liaison for the president of the Children’s Defense Fund, assistant director of policy and research at the Broad Foundation, and chief of staff to the president of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Board of Education. (emphasis mine)
It's not hard to imagine that Ali very well may have been one of the driving forces behind Vergara. She would certainly have all the needed experience - knowledge of the "studies" that support Vergara's POV, access to the philanthropists to lend financial and moral support and it sure never hurts to have the Secretary of Education on your side.

Ali's Broad/Duncan leanings are on full display in an article she wrote about the trial, in which she makes some of the most outlandish statements about teacher effectiveness I've ever seen strung together in a single sentence.
Students taught by effective teachers are more likely to attend college, have higher earnings trajectories, live in better neighborhoods, save more for retirement, and avoid pregnancy during teenage years.
I don't know about you, but I'd love to see the research that backs up each and every one of those statements. 

Especially since one of the key points on which Judge Treu decided the case was that "grossly ineffective" teachers make up 1-3% of the California teaching force (somewhere between 2,750-8,250 teachers apparently) who are having a "direct, real, appreciable, and negative impact on a significant number of California students."

Except the expert witness who gave this testimony says that's not what he meant at all.
But where did this number come from?
Nowhere, it turns out. It’s made up. Or a “guesstimate,” as David Berliner, the expert witness Treu quoted, explained to me when I called him on Wednesday. It’s not based on any specific data, or any rigorous research about California schools in particular. “I pulled that out of the air,” says Berliner, an emeritus professor of education at Arizona State University. “There’s no data on that. That’s just a ballpark estimate, based on my visiting lots and lots of classrooms.” He also never used the words “grossly ineffective.”
Oh dear. 

The above linked article for Salon by Jordan Weissman makes the most salient points I've seen in the wake of the decision, primarily that the decision seems to have been made on the judge's misinterpretation of the testimony given. 

Here's another excerpt from Weissman's article.
Berliner seems to have let something important get lost in translation on the stand. Because, as he said to me, he doesn’t necessarily believe that low test scores qualify somebody as a bad teacher. They might do other things well in the classroom that don’t show up on an exam, like teach social skills, or inspire their students to love reading or math. And while he has observed teachers he didn’t particularly like, or thought could use more training, he’s never encountered one he would consider “grossly ineffective.”
“In hundreds of classrooms, I have never seen a ‘grossly ineffective’ teacher,” he told me. “I don’t know anybody who knows what that means.” 
Just to make sure this is crystal clear - the expert witness in the Vergara case states he has no idea what a "grossly ineffective" teacher is, has never met one, and doesn't think test scores should label a teacher as ineffective. Yet somehow Judge Treu let a distorted version of his testimony impact his decision.

That's just peachy.

This case was clearly not decided based on "facts" or "research, rather the decision seemed to be predestined -- the result of a well orchestrated public relations campaign. In fact, from 2011-2012 Students Matter paid PR firm Griffin Schein (AKA Rally) just under $1M for their services.  
Griffin Schein Communications, which has specialized in issue advocacy for entertainment figures and public interest clients, has renamed itself Rally.
..... 
The firm led communications efforts with the American Foundation for Equal Rights in the nonprofit’s quest to overturn Proposition 8 in federal courts and has worked on advocacy efforts involving Maria Shriver, Alicia Keys, Rob Reiner and Norman Lear. It has been working with Students Matter in its Vergara vs. California lawsuit, which seeks to strike teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws in the state.
Dismantling tenure is not the same as overturning Prop 8. 

It just isn't. 

And Rally played no small role in this case and its ultimate outcome. 


I don't doubt the PR folks working on this campaign were themselves sold by the likes of Russlyn Ali and fellow Students Matter Advisory Board Member Ben Austin, Founder of Parent Revolution, that education reform is "the civil rights issue of our time.

But the ideology behind campaigns like Parent Revolution and Students Matter often falls flat in real world applications. The parent trigger legislation pushed by Parent Revolution has stalled in more states than it has been enacted, and California is the only state where the trigger has been pulled, and it wasn't pretty. Some parents involved in the original campaign now feel cheated and burned.
Morales said he is pleased with the new charter operator in Adelanto, but said he wouldn’t go through the trigger process if he had the option of doing it all over again. He’s cut ties with parents he once considered good friends because of it.
They brainwashed a lot of us into believing that we needed them and the parent trigger to successfully transform the school,” he said. (emphasis mine)
That's really quite a statement - that one of the parents at the center of the only successful application of the parent trigger feels like Parent Revolution came in and brainwashed the community, and if given the chance he wouldn't do it again. 

I can't help but draw a parallel between Parent Revolution and parent trigger legislation and Students Matter and the Vergara decision. 

Ultimately, the question is, will the upheaval and tumult caused by ferreting out all the "grossly ineffective" teachers in California produce a drastically different education system, or in a few years will the families at the center of this campaign feel like they were brainwashed and that their schools could have been improved without all the drama?

It's my greatest hope the Vergara decision does not spread to other states, and is overturned in California on appeal due to pressure from the actual parents, teachers and students who would be affected but this reckless ruling. I don't know about you, but personally I'm pretty sick and tired of monied interests buying legislation, and now a court decision, that could potentially impact my (and your) kids and their teachers.