New report offers clues to Gov Christie’s future school reform plans

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

On September 5th, the Christie Administration’s Education Transformation Task Force released a 239-page report intended to address inefficiencies and inequities in N.J.’s sprawling public school system. The Task Force was led by David Hespe, former N.J. Commissioner of Education, Co-Executive Director of STEM Education at Liberty Science Center, and, currently, Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s Chief of Staff.

This tome is the third in a series: the first report (a mere 25 pages) was issued by then-Governor-Elect Christie’s Education Transition Team and published on January 16th, 2010. The second report (ramping up to 49 pages) is dated Sept. 12, 2011 and, like the third report, was produced under the auspices of the Education Transformation Task Force, established by Executive Order earlier that year.

These three reports form a narrative of the Republican Governor’s education reform agenda, with recommendations addressing issues both big and small. Some of the more substantive items include reining in school costs (the first report notes that N.J. “currently spends more per‐student on pre‐K‐12 education than forty‐eight of the fifty states”), addressing N.J.’s daunting achievement gap between rich and poor students, tenure reform, expanding school choice, and cutting the voluminous set of regulations that govern school district operations (formally known as the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, or QSAC, a name as unwieldy as its application).

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One can chart the successes and failures of the Christie Administration’s education reform agenda through the course of the three reports. So let’s look at two of those items near and dear to a N.J.’s reformer’s heart: ending LIFO, or seniority-based layoffs, and shifting the role of the Department of Education from a bureaucracy obsessed with compliance to trivia into a high-functioning governmental body focused on student achievement.

LIFO, the practice of eliminating teachers during lay-offs in order of years served regardless of classroom effectiveness, is the Rubicon of education reform. For “reformy” types, LIFO is the maddening result of decades of privileging worker rights over students, an industrial-era mentality that insults education professionals by relegating them to the role of widgets, interchangeable cogs on a wheel. (See this highly-regarded report, “The Widget Effect,” from The New Teacher Project.) But for union diehards, LIFO is an essential protection against a school board’s predilection towards nepotism and hiring young unseasoned teachers in order to save a few bucks in payroll.

Gov. Christie and Comm. Cerf have ardently advocated for the end of LIFO. In fact, the original version of Senator Teresa Ruiz’s tenure reform bill eliminated LIFO, to gusty cheers from the reform aisle. But a last minute, expedient compromise with NJEA and AFT (NJ’s teacher unions) resulted in an important transformative bill that, alas, retained LIFO. (Hey, it could be worse: in Connecticut during lay-offs, if two teachers have acquired the same amount of seniority, the one who keeps his or her job is the one with the lower social security number.)

But never say die. The three reports indefatigably promote the elimination of LIFO and its replacement with a system that retains teachers based on student academic growth.

The bulk of the (bulky) third report from the Task Force is a massive rewrite of QSAC, the DOE regulatory apparatus that itemizes, in excruciating detail, every function of a school district. Originally intended to optimize efficiency, QSAC actually distracts districts from areas relevant to student achievement, conflicts with No Child Left Behind mandates, and costs districts extra money.

So the Task Force takes on this monster. From the third report: “The regulations identified for elimination or modification falls into a number of categories. Some are simply unrelated to student learning, fiscal integrity, or student health and safety – the areas about which we are most concerned. Others are duplicative of existing statutory language, thereby causing clutter in the Department’s code book. Some regulations are unclear, confusing both those charged with administering them and those attempting to comply with them. Finally, some regulations clearly stifle educator innovation and autonomy.”

Many, if not all, of these changes will be applauded by school board members, superintendents, business administrators, and everyone else crushed under the weight of ineffective, costly, and gratuitous regulations.These reports, taken as three volumes of a set, comprise a record of Gov. Christie’s education priorities, a detailed catalogue of his triumphs and disappointments during his first term in office. If he goes for a second term, these reports will function as a window into his education reform ambitions post-2013.

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind. 

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