Tuesday, November 19, 2013

FIX IT! Because This IS NOT How We Do Things In Highland Park. Here, We RESIST!

I've honestly never seen anything like what happened last night in my home town of Highland Park, New Jersey.

Scores of Highland Park residents and union supporters came out Monday night to the auditorium at Bartle Elementary to protest layoffs of nine staff members at Highland Park's schools, including two top union officials. 
The school board and administration were literally surrounded by critics: So many people showed up that they had to take out a partition in the wall, doubling the size of the room and letting the overflow crowd tickle into the nosebleeds. (emphasis mine)
Yup, that's right. The Board, at the recommendation of our brand new Superintendent, approved a Reduction in Force (RIF) of nine district employees on November 4th, 2013. The RIF included the President and Vice-President of the Highland Park Education Association, and came after contract negotiations reached an impasse.  (Note: A tenth employee was RIFed on October 7th, 2013 but this position is often not added to the nine RIFed on 11/4)

I didn't get an exact count, but I'd estimate somewhere between 30-40 people came to the microphone to express their concern with the current direction of our district.
And after some brief introductory remarks, including a slideshow presentation defending the layoffs, board members and school administration mostly sat expressionless as speaker after speaker alleged that the move was tantamount to union-busting and that the superintendent has hired too many top administrators at the expense of front-line workers.
Almost everyone that spoke, save one lone voice of support for the Superintendent and the Board, expressed concern on a myriad of topics. The RIF was not the only issue. The creation of two new six figure Central Office positions, including a second Assistant Superintendent and a "Data Analyst," was a hot button topic. 
"We now have almost as many superintendents as we do schools, and a data analyst to tell them how great of a job they're doing," said Samuel Shiffman, a teacher in South River whose three children attend Highland Park schools.

Superintendent Capone's qualifications for his current position were questioned throughout the evening.  Many wondered aloud if his lack of previous Central Office experience caused him to make hasty decisions in the first 50 days of his tenure that a more seasoned professional might have thought through more carefully. There were pointed comments made directly to Capone, some questioning if he is the right fit for a progressive district like Highland Park where there is deep support for our teachers and their union.

And then there was this.
Much of the dissatisfaction in the crowd surrounded Capone, who was hired in August (one speaker exuberantly called for Capone's resignation, pumping her fists to the raucous applause of the crowd).
The only chant of the evening emerged spontaneously from a direct plea to the Board to fix what they had done.

A single boisterous audience member cried out, "FIX IT!" And then another, and then another, until the entire audience began chanting and rhythmically clapping in unison. It was remarkably powerful and sent a clear message of defiance to the Board and their choice of Superintendent.

Capone was hired fresh out of one of the NJDOE's Broad funded Regional Achievement Centers.

This brief bio reveals that prior to being the Executive Director of the Region 4 RAC he was a "turnaround" principal at a Race to the Top school in Delaware. 

Capone's history was deeply concerning to me as someone who has been immersed in the state and national debate over education reform and policy for more than two years. When Capone was hired I tried to keep an open mind, but I was nervous. 

And now my community is nervous too. 

So last night I felt obligated to stand up and try to make some kind of sense out of what's happening in our tiny town by putting recent events in Highland Park into the national context . 

This is the speech I delivered at last night's meeting.

There is a simple explanation for why we are all here tonight. Highland Park is a town that prides itself on being progressive, on being inclusive, but most of all on being just and fair.

Highland Park is not a town filled with people just looking to take care of their own.  We take care of each other. When a member of our Highland Park community is in trouble, we rally together.

In just the last two years this town has tackled immigration issues, multiple development issues, and yes, even charter school issues.  We haven’t always agreed or been on the same side of these issues, and often partners in one cause are on opposite sides of another.

But all of these issues have been dealt with honesty, integrity and open discourse.

And this is why the current situation isn’t sitting well with so many people.

Where was the open discourse?  Why wasn’t the community notified there was a budget issue? Why weren’t we asked for our input? What other options did the board consider, if any, other than the now infamous Reduction in Force that cost 10 employees their jobs, including the President and Vice-President of the union, in the midst of stalled contract negotiations?

We simply don’t know, because the public was not given a seat at the table. The public was not informed when problems were first identified, the public was not informed when options were weighed, and the public was not informed when decisions were made.

This is simply not how we do things in Highland Park.

I want to talk for just one minute about how a look at national education policy may help put our current dilemma into perspective.

The current narrative of what has been dubbed the “corporate education reform movement” is that public education is failing; therefore drastic steps must be taken to disrupt the “status quo.”

We’re told data-driven instruction will improve outcomes for all children, and put them on the path to college and career.

The corporate education reform movement is bi-partisan. President Obama’s Race to the Top has replaced President Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind. NCLB succeeded only in labeling nearly three-quarters of the nation’s schools as failures, and RttT has turned education funding into a competition where the strong get rewarded and the weak are starved of funds. 
We live in a bizarre world where Governor Christie and President Obama advocate many of the same education policies. Perhaps the most destructive is the evaluation and ranking of teachers and schools according to faulty standardized testing data. Even if you don’t pay attention to education policy, as parents it is impossible for us to ignore the effect the current emphasis on standardized tests has had on our children.

Don’t be fooled - these tests are not for the betterment of our children. An over reliance on standardized testing and test prep sucks the joy out of school for our students, and the accountability measures attached to them are the stake in the heart of our teachers and schools.

The bi-partisan corporate education reform movement massages data derived from our children’s tests to create their narrative of public school failure.

Recently you may have heard rumors that our district is suddenly considered a “low performing” district. 

Don’t believe it.

We know our schools. We know our children’s teachers.  Most importantly, we know our children.

Could things be better?  ALWAYS!

But is there something so broken in our district that we need to resort to destabilizing mid-year mass layoffs that reek of union busting? Is there something so broken that this Board could not have presented the situation to the public BEFORE voting on matters drastic enough to grab the attention of the news media?

I highly doubt it.   

We all must remember -- parents, teachers, students, residents and Board members alike; public education is NOT in crisis. Highland Park schools are NOT low performing, and they certainly are not failing.

We have a strong, diverse district with students, parents and teachers who CARE.

We care about learning, and we care about each other.

Again, simply stated, this is NOT how we do things in Highland Park.

Last night Highland Park did me proud. The eloquence, intelligence and passion in my town is humbling. One of the last speakers of the evening made perhaps the most salient point. 

He urged the board to resist

To resist the state and their policies that hurt our district. I think Highland Park proved last night, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that we are up to that challenge.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Diane Ravitch Is Public (Charter) Enemy Number One; or How Public Money Just Keeps On Feeding Private Greed

I literally laughed out loud when I read the woefully misguided attempted take-down of Diane Ravitch in yesterday's Trenton Times.

It was written by charter founder/leader Debbie Pontoriero.  I first came across Pontoriero when I helped the good people of Florence Township successfully defeat the expansion of the Riverbank Charter School of Excellence. Riverbank had taken root in Florence before the backlash against boutique suburban charters became vogue. 

Pontoriero, who identified herself as Riverbank's School Business Adminstrator (SBA), presented the expansion of Riverbank Charter School of Excellence to the press as a done deal.
Debbie Pontoriero, Riverbank’s business administrator, said the school’s founders are confident that the department will renew the charter and approve the proposed expansion given the school’s high performance record on standardized tests as well as other evaluations.
My, she's awfully cocky, isn't she? What Potoriero didn't factor in was that engaged parents in Florence Township were not about to lose more programs and services for their students to support the expansion of a charter that segregates and divides their community.

She also didn't bet on Florence's State Senator, Diane Allen (who just happens to sit on the Senate Education Committee) sending a letter to Education Commissioner Chris Cerf stating that Riverbank's expansion was not in the best interest of the entire community.

And she sure didn't bet on Cerf owning up to the fact that in a small town like Florence, a charter is likely not needed and can be a real burden. These are Cerf's own words when he testified before the Senate Education Committee after Senator Allen questioned him about the role of charters in a district like Florence.
The first thing I look for is whether the proposed charter would meet an unmet need.  You can define an unmet need in lots of different ways.  You can say we don't have a school that focuses on the Italian Renaissance so I'm going to build a charter that focuses on the Italian Renaissance.  I'm being overly facetious, but for me unmet need means that there are children who are being underserved in terms of their basic educational rights. Right? So, if there is, and by the way you can find this in large communities and small communities, but if there are children that, I am much more sympathetic to a charter application if there are kids that are not being educated, and the charter applicant makes a credible case that it has a solution that will fill that need. 
I also look at the economic impact on a district and one of the, um, I'm hardly an economist, but I can tell you that the smaller the district's budget is, the greater the impact a charter school has and that's because certain costs are fixed, and certain costs are variable. You have to have a Superintendent's salary whether you have one school or 50 schools and therefore when you have a charter school in a smaller community it has a larger impact. (emphasis mine)
Faced with pressure from the community, no support from their legislators, and the not so encouraging comments from the Commissioner, Riverbank withdrew their expansion request, and alas, Riverbanks' burgeoning excellence was stopped in its tracks. 

But let's get back to Pontoriero's guest opinion column. Here's the meat of it.
Ms. Ravitch erroneously criticized charter schools for using public funding that could have been used for public schools. Charter schools are public schools, and most charter schools in New Jersey are educating students for less than 90 percent of the per-pupil allocation. 
She stated that charter schools do not accept children with disabilities or who speak English as a second language in order to ensure better test results. The fact is that charter schools are open to all students on a space-available basis with preference given only to children who reside in the district where the charter school is located. According to law, charter schools cannot discriminate in its admission policies or practices —- the same as public schools.
Every single one of Pontoriero's talking points is unmitigated claptrap.  

Most charters are getting less than 90% per pupil? Show me that data, and show me that charters are educating the same population of students and actually deserve equal funding.

Charter schools are open to all students? Then, Ms. Pontoriero, how do you explain the fact that Riverbank charter has NO Limited English Proficient (LEP) students, and significantly less special needs and low income students than the local elementary school?

And whatever you do, don't miss this nugget.
Perhaps Ms. Ravitch should rouse the traditional public schools that are in danger to reach out to their local charter schools to learn what best practices they are implementing to achieve academic success.
I sure hope Ravitch can "rouse the traditional public schools" to start excluding those pesky kids with "needs" so they can start implementing those charter "best practices" tout suite! 

Pontoriero also cited CREDO's New Jersey charter school study as proof positive that charters in New Jersey are outperforming traditional public schools. I can't imagine how many times I will have to refute the recitation of the CREDO study as "proof" of anything, but here it goes...

Read Bruce Baker here and Julia Sass-Rubin here on the shortcomings of the study, and read me here for everything you need to know about CREDO's serious credibility problem. CREDO's Louisiana study has also been discredited by a blogger who previously worked inside the Louisiana DOE and actually handed the data over to CREDO for the study.

The CREDO study was bogus.  Plain and simple.

But why would Pontoriero go out of her way to write and publish a weakly argued opinion column about Ravitch, one of the most renowned education historians of our time, right on the heels of  her New York Times best selling book?

Because the charter movement has allowed Pontoriero to cash in on the poorly regulated "public" schools we call charters. That makes Ravitch public (charter) enemy number one to the likes of Pontoriero.

Allow me to explain. Note that in the byline Pontoriero identifies herself as "founder and head of school of the Pace Charter School of Hamilton."  Pace? I thought she was the SBA at Riverbank!

Yeah, well, she's pulling down salaries at both.


Yup, she's pulling down $156,750 working at TWO different NJ charter schools, and these were her salaries in 2011. Who knows what's she's making now.

The only Annual Report I can find for Pace is from 2009 (nice accountability NJDOE!) and at
that time Pontoriero was also listed as their SBA. I can not find a current reference for an SBA on the Pace website. Is it possible that she controls the finances for both charters?

Pace was founded by Pontoriero and approved by the NJDOE in 1999. Riverbank was founded in 2008 by Beth Kelley, then a teacher at Pace Charter School of Hamilton. Riverbank is little more than a satellite campus of Pace, and it appears that Pontoriero may control the finances at both charters.

Just for the heck of it, let's see how Pace's demographics compare to a local Hamilton Elementary School.

Yeah, that's what I thought.

But the truly shocking part isn't the story of yet another charter leader skimming kids and raking in mad cash. This is from Pontoriero's LinkedIn account:

Can you imagine what she rakes in as the ED of the "largest Abbott Preschool Provider in Mercer County" ON TOP of the $156,750 she makes on charters??

To make matters worse, it appears that Deborah is not the only Pontoriero cashing in on the Abbott Preschools. The director of the main office is a Patricia Pontoriero and Oh. My. God. read this from a 2006 Bergen Record report called "How Public Money Fed Private Greed."
Over and over, auditors found inflated rents -- some had doubled, tripled, even quadrupled in a single year. The owners of Little Tots in Asbury Park took home an extra $136,500 by nearly doubling the rent, auditors said. They never told the state they were both landlord and tenant. 
Rental costs at Little Kids College in Trenton shot up 31 percent. Owner Deborah Pontoriero told auditors that her landlord -- who was also her father -- had refinanced his mortgage and passed the costs on to the Abbott program. (emphasis mine)
Little Kid's College and PACE share an address at 528 South Olden Ave. 

While Chris Cerf is investigating the finances of private special needs schools that service public education students, may I suggest he add an investigation of Pontoriero's charter/Abbott empire to his to-do list?

Maybe it's all above board, but it sure looks fishy, and she sure it defensive.

So why did Pontoriero take it upon herself to write such a weak, poorly argued criticism of Ravitch's appearance in Princeton last week? Because if Ravitch keeps pointing to the "private greed" behind charters, folks like Pontoriero will keep being exposed.

Sources (completely stolen from Bruce Baker!)


Sunday, November 3, 2013

Could One Angry Wag Of Chris Christie's Finger Derail His Fait Accompli Re-election?

Over the course of the last 24 plus hours many of us who follow education issues have read a great deal about Governor Christie's angry finger-wag in the face of yet another teacher. The story has already gone national, and the timing could not be more perfect.
                                                                  Mad No

You see, our Governor was trying to lay low with his education agenda leading up to the election before elementary school teacher Melissa Tomlinson had the temerity to ask him
why he calls NJ schools "failure factories."

Why was Christie laying low? Because the man can read a poll, and polls say his education policies are wildly unpopular. Here's an entirely unscientific poll, but a good one none the less. 

NJ Spotlight readers were asked what they think of Christie's K-12 education policies. Only 4% said he is "spot on" while 10% say he wants to do "too much too fast" and a staggering 79% say he is "destroying public education."

Yeesh. That's ugly.

Let's look at something a tad more scientific. A Rutgers-Eagleton poll was released last month, and there is no doubt, education issues are Buono's strength and Christie's Achilles' heel.
Few Christie voters are choosing him simply because they oppose Buono, but two-thirds of Buono voters are voting more against Christie than for her. These voters are opposing Christie mostly because they disagree with the governor’s policies generally, his handling of education, schools, and teachers’ unions specifically, and his “bully[ish]” and “arrogant” personality and attitude. (emphasis mine)
There has been a searing dislike of both Christie's arrogance and his education policy for years. This is from a 2011 Rutgers-Eagleton poll.    
In expressing dislikes about Gov. Christie, women are much more bothered than men by his policy decisions. Among women, 51 percent mention policy decisions as reasons for disliking Christie – with educational policy heading the list. Women are far less bothered by his authoritarian style (only 5 percent), and by his authoritarian leadership. Men and women are equally likely to say they dislike his arrogance. (emphasis mine)
The word cloud of reasons people don't like Christie is a graphic reminder of why yesterday's incident resonates for so many New Jersey residents. Hard to say which is more prominent; "teachers", "education" and "bully" are all right up there, aren't they? This word cloud confirms EVERYTHING New Jersey doesn't like about Christie, and he put it ALL out on display yesterday. 

And he waggled it in the face of an elementary school teacher.  

Stay classy Chris, stay classy.

Yet Barbara Buono, a civil, dedicated candidate with policy positions more in keeping with the people of New Jersey, has been unable to get traction because far too many people in this state are blinded to Christie's celebrity.
The problem for Buono is that, unlike Booker, she isn’t a celebrity. Instead she’s running against one. And running against a celebrity may be more difficult today than at any time in recent American history. State and regional newspapers—the institutions that used to police campaigns and ensure some measure of equal time between candidates, while applying a degree of investigative scrutiny to powerful incumbents—are withering. “The Star-Ledger used to have great investigative reporters not that long ago,” Buono says, in the course of lamenting the—hint, hint—“waste, fraud, and abuse in state government.” Meanwhile, the relative demise of these papers has made it all the more important for candidates to speak directly to voters through social media—a medium that provides a huge built-in advantage to a politician who is already a celebrity. (Christie has almost 400,000 Twitter followers. Buono has under 6,000.)
To the extent that local news organizations have been able to survive at all, it’s by relentlessly focusing on Web traffic. And pretty much everything Christie says or does seems to draw clicks. “He farts somewhere, and these guys write 150 articles about it,” David Turner, Buono’s communications director, complains to me. What’s more, the weakness of local media has placed increasing amounts of power in the hands of national media outlets—from late-night shows like David Letterman and Jimmy Fallon to magazines like New York. And guess which of the two candidates for New Jersey governor these outlets find most interesting? (emphasis mine)
This is reflected in the recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll as well:
“For the last several months we have reported that voters disapprove of Christie’s performance in key areas,” said Redlawsk. “The problem for Buono is that she has not convinced them she would do any better."
The question is, has she not convinced them, or has her message just not reached them because she has been eclipsed by Christie's enormous celebrity?

I can't help but hope that perhaps Christie's latest gaffe is such a blatant affront to the hardworking, honest teachers and other employees of this great state, that Christie himself may have finally helped untold numbers of voters finally see Barbara Buono as the more viable candidate.

The sheer arrogance of this man's disregard for a teacher who was advocating for her elementary school students may just "draw the clicks" Buono's campaign has been lacking. Jersey Jazzman reports that his post about the incident received 30K hits in 12 hours. That's not too shabby. 

Bob Braun laid out exactly why he will vote for Barbara Buono.

I am voting for Barbara Buono because she respects those who believe in the life of the mind. Every governor in the past—Republican and Democrat—has supported the efforts of public school teachers to educate our children. But, now, teachers have been bullied, verbally abused, mocked and ridiculed by a man who is a poster boy for how not to behave. Buono sponsored New Jersey’s anti-bullying law—and, now, for all of us, she is the anti-bully.
Cause I gotta tell you–you know what, punk? I’m tired of you, too.
If you too are tired of Governor Christie, let's make this happen. Chris Christie DOES NOT represent the people of New Jersey. Polls show voters disagree with him on almost every major policy issue. The problem is, every time we turn around the cult of Christie's personality is on our TV, or on our radio, or on our computer screen. 

He re-election just starts to feel like a fait accompli.

Do not allow Chris Christie to be re-elected because of his larger than life persona. He does not represent us now and he never has. No one can sit out this election. Share this story with like-minded friends, family and neighbors and GET OUT THE VOTE!