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12-15-14 Education Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - Court Hears Arguments in Bacon v. NJDOE, Rural Equivalent of Abbott Ruling…Underfunding rural school districts cost them preschool programs, and much more, suit asserts

John Mooney | December 15, 2014


The same day last week that acting Education Commissioner David Hespe was in the Statehouse for his confirmation hearing, another weighty discussion was taking place less than a mile away in a Trenton courtroom on a matter that could prove pivotal in its own right.

State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson held oral arguments on Bacon v. N.J. Department of Education, the long-running complaint that has been the rural version of the Abbott v. Burke equity rulings for the state’s urban districts.

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School Funding Case Turns Spotlight on Rural Districts

Dating back almost two decades, the legal action involves 16 low-income towns from mostly South Jersey -- from Buena to Lakewood -- that have sued the state for underfunding their schools by as much as $20 million this year. The districts have effectively sought to win the same legal protections and benefits that the Abbott rulings afforded urban districts like Newark and Paterson.

The hearing last Thursday in Mercer County Court -- held two hours before Hespe’s confirmation hearing -- was about a motion to enforce a 2008 appellate court ruling that demanded additional funding for the districts to meet their constitutional right for a “thorough and efficient” education.

Under former Gov. Jon Corzine, the state complied for a year with the enactment of the School Funding Reform Act, but it pulled back when Gov. Chris Christie made steep cuts in state aid to schools in 2010.

While relatively technical, the arguments on Thursday often turned on Christie’s overall record in funding -- or under-funding -- the state’s finance law, and its constitutional implications against the backdrop of Abbott.

One notable exchange came when Jacobson questioned Donna Arons, the deputy attorney general, over how the state specifically stepped away from funding expanded preschool in the 16 Bacon districts three years ago. Preschool education for 3- and 4-year-olds is one of the centerpieces of the case, as it was in Abbott. An estimated 2,000 students would be affected.

Arons said it was a matter of affordability in the face of the recession. “We would all like preschool, but there are funding constraints,” she said at one point.

But Jacobson interrupted: “Funding constraints? That doesn’t trump the constitution. That was what Abbott was all about.”

Still, the questioning wasn’t much lighter on the Bacon districts’ lawyer. Arguing for the plaintiffs was David Sciarra, the director of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based organization that has been the spearhead in the Abbott litigations since the 1970s.

Jacobson quizzed Sciarra on whether the state’s “needs assessments” of each of the Bacon districts back in 2009 still applied.

“You are asking me to enforce documents from 2009,” Jacobson said. “The problem I have is these seem to so outdated.”

Sciarra responded that these were the state’s own assessments for the districts, coming with the expectation that they would be funded. “There was a determination that the state would continue to provide at these levels,” he said.

He said the responsibility rests on the state to meet the mandates: “The burden is on the state [to meet] the fundamental rights of these students to a thorough and efficient education.”

“They started the remedy, and then abandoned it,” Sciarra said. “They sat on the side and did nothing, forcing us to now come to you. These kids have waited 18 years since the case was first filed, waited eight years since the court upheld it, and waited three years since the state basically stopped.”

Arons in representing administration said the matter before the court was a “narrow” one of whether the state was in violation of an order from five years ago. She argued there was no determination that any constitutional violation still existed, even with reduced funding.

“Who knew then we would have a financial crisis and SFRA couldn’t be fully funded?” she said.

Jacobson did not give a timeframe for when her ruling would be issued.


Education Week - State Leaders Confront Full Plate of K-12 Issues...Curtain to Rise on 2015 Sessions

By Andrew Ujifusa (print December 10 2014)

After a strong showing by Republicans in state-level elections last month, lawmakers and governors—new and re-elected—are turning their attention to the 2015 legislative sessions, where such issues as common standards, testing, and school choice are likely to dominate the education policy debate.

Added to the political mix is a generally improving economic climate that could turn up the heat on lawmakers in many states to raise K-12 spending at a time when some are already re-examining how they allocate money for public schools.

In broad terms, the political momentum going into next year's sessions has a clear direction: The GOP will control 30 legislatures, up from 27 before the midterm elections, compared with just 11 for Democrats, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL. (Eight legislatures are split.)

On the Horizon

New and re-elected governors and state education leaders will grapple with a range of heated issues as the 2015 legislative season gets underway. A few states to watch:


Although state superintendent-elect Diane Douglas, a Republican and vocal opponent of the Common Core State Standards, can’t repeal the standards on her own, she’ll have a nominal ally in Republican Gov.-elect Doug Ducey, who has said the state should reconsider its relationship with the common core. Although the state recently announced that it had selected a common-core aligned test for 2014-15, Republican lawmakers who rejected anti-common-core bills in 2014 could change their minds next year.


The state’s pension-overhaul law approved in 2013 was struck down last month by a state judge, and the case is now headed to the state Supreme Court. That could complicate matters as Republican Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner pushes his own plan to alter pensions for public employees, which could draw vigorous opposition from Democrats in control of the legislature.


Perhaps the highest-profile K-12 issue facing re-elected Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is how to deal with the Detroit school district. The city’s charter schools have been subject to intense scrutiny and criticism over the past year, while lawmakers could alter the Education Achievement Authority, the state-run district that operates several low-performing schools in the Motor City. The district has a $127 million budget deficit.


Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was re-elected last month, released an ambitious K-12 agenda for 2015 that includes additional resources for early education, early literacy, and English-language learners. The governor also wants more support for low-performing districts.


Republican Gov. Scott Walker, fresh off re-election, has identified repeal of the common core, a new school accountability system, and expanding vouchers as priorities. His hand will be strengthened by Republican majorities in the state legislature that were increased as a result of the November elections.

SOURCE: Education Week

The Nov. 4 elections gave the Republicans new, undivided power over legislative chambers in New Hampshire and West Virginia, while they took control of one chamber each in Colorado, Minnesota, and New Mexico.

The number of Republican governors will also rise next year, from 28 to 31, compared with 18 Democrats.

Testing Gets Scrutiny

Although GOP lawmakers in several states might push hard to expand choice and revamp education governance and spending, changes to assessment policies could attract significant bipartisan interest.

In Colorado, for example, a Standards and Assessment Task Force established through legislation this year is planning to make recommendations about statewide and local assessments by the end of January. A November study commissioned by the task force found that local assessments cost between $16 million and $25 million in the state annually, while statewide assessments cost between $45 million and $53 million, or roughly $70 to $90 per student.

And last month, members of the Colorado state school board called for a reduction in testing down to the minimum required by federal law. (Gov. John Hickenlooper is a Democrat, but control of the legislature is split between the parties.)

The ways states rethink their testing policies could take them in other directions. During its lame-duck legislative session last month, the Ohio House of Representatives passed legislation to cap the number of hours schools can spend administering standardized tests. "We might see more states pass time limits," said Kathy Christie, a spokeswoman for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Issues include whether high-performing districts should be allowed to opt out of certain tests, and whether districts should be permitted to pick tests they believe are better than those aligned with the Common Core State Standards and being developed with federal money by two multistate consortia, said Michelle Exstrom, a program principal at the NCSL.

"We're really going to see how the states and the feds and the locals begin to move on the issue of assessment," she said.

Then there's the issue of whether states will seek to cut back testing programs below federal requirements in the No Child Left Behind law, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and dare Washington to challenge them.

"I don't think we've seen anything that says a state is getting rid of summative statewide tests," said Lynn Jennings, a legislative-affairs associate with the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group. "But there is so much rhetoric going on about testing that it is something to keep an eye on."

States may also re-evaluate the extent to which standardized tests, and other measures, factor into their teacher evaluations, she added.

In some states, new curbs on testing could feed off a pushback to the common core—a state-led initiative with bipartisan support that has recently run into sharp opposition, especially on the political right.

Bills that would require states to ditch the common standards have already been filed for 2015 in South Dakota and Tennessee, both of which rejected anti-common-core legislation in their 2014 sessions. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who was re-elected last month, has made repealing the common core a top priority for 2015. Arizona Gov.-elect Doug Ducey and Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, both Republicans, have also expressed skepticism about or opposition to the standards.

Pushback to the common core could also surface in legislatures that have switched to Republican control, as in New Hampshire and West Virginia.

Outlook for School Finance

For fiscal 2015, the current budget year, 46 states raised spending on K-12 education, and the average increase was 4.6 percent after adjusting for inflation, said Dan Thatcher, a senior policy specialist at the NCSL who studies school finance. The number of states that choose to do so for fiscal 2016 should come close to that number, he said: "We'll probably see around 4.6 percent [growth] again, maybe higher."

This fiscal year, he said, education spending increases in many states were tied to rising student enrollment, as well as formulas that provide additional resources to traditionally disadvantaged groups, such as English-language learners, whose numbers have grown.

But not all states face a smooth path to more-robust school budgets.

Kansas lawmakers, for example, are still waiting for a state supreme court ruling in Gannon v. Kansas, a case about whether the state adequately funds its public schools. The decision, expected soon, could dramatically affect budget plans, at a time when most recent estimates put the fiscal 2015 budget deficit in the Sunflower State at $278 million.

Lawmakers in Washington state, meanwhile, were held in contempt by the state Supreme Court earlier this year over what the justices deemed to be insufficient effort by the legislature to increase K-12 spending following a 2012 court ruling. The court ordered legislators to substantially increase funding in 2015 or face sanctions. Last month, state voters approved Initiative 1351 to reduce class sizes, which Mr. Thatcher said might take pressure off the budget decisions facing Washington's legislature.

Nevada is poised to overhaul a school funding formula that hasn't been significantly altered in decades. Earlier this year, a legislative panel recommended that lawmakers change the formula in 2015 to focus more resources on English-language learners, a fast-rising group of students in Nevada.

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, a newly re-elected Republican, has pledged to revisit how money is spent on K-12, and the funding weights for different groups of students could change.

And after several years in which Pennsylvania failed to adhere to a K-12 funding formula, lawmakers continue to debate the basics of a new formula, even as Gov.-elect Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has pledged a big school spending increase.

New Territory for Charters?

On a key aspect of school choice, charter schools, the new year could bring new state action.

Of the eight states without laws permitting charter schools, Alabama, Nebraska, and West Virginia are prime candidates to change their positions in 2015, said Todd Ziebarth, the senior vice president for state advocacy at the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Discussions about allowing charters in Alabama have been getting prominent attention in recent months. In Nebraska, Republican Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts has expressed support for charters, as well as tuition vouchers. West Virginia Republicans who now control the legislature have previously pushed for a law authorizing charters, Mr. Ziebarth said. (Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has expressed skepticism about charters in the past.)

Still, it's unclear to what extent elected officials' support for charters will translate into legislative success, Mr. Ziebarth said. For one thing, he said, "people overestimate the amount of support in the Republican Party for charters."

He also cited complicated politics in Massachusetts, which he named as the state where a charter school cap is likely restricting the most growth for charters. Gov.-elect Charlie Baker, a Republican, campaigned on lifting the cap, but Democrats who remain in control of the legislature declined to do so in the 2014 session.

One state where initiatives could bring together multiple policy strands, including charters, is Indiana. In addition to a plan to expand the role of charters, GOP Gov. Mike Pence announced a proposal last week to lift the statewide cap on funds available for vouchers, increase the state's base per-pupil spending level, and allow the state school board to elect its own chairperson.

The latter move would reduce the power of state Superintendent Glenda Ritz, a Democrat who has often battled Gov. Pence and other GOP state leaders on education.


Press of Atlantic City - A.C. alternative high school / Painful change

Posted: Sunday, December 14, 2014 12:01 am

The Atlantic City School District is closing the East Campus alternative high school at the end of this month.

Students at the school and parents are unhappy about this, even angry. That's understandable. This change will be painful. But like other painful changes headed Atlantic City's way, it is also necessary.

Officials are seeking increased state aid and are trying to cut the municipal budget by $60 million over five years and the school budget by $28 million over four years. In the face of the city's imploding tax base - ratables dropped from $16 billion in 2008 to $11 billion in 2013 and are still falling - drastic cuts are impossible to avoid.

As competition in surrounding states caused casino revenue to plummet, successful casino tax appeals not only reduced the value of ratables but forced the city to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to refund overpayments.

In the past two years, the city's tax rate has jumped by 53 percent, leaving shocked homeowners wondering if they can afford to continue to live in the resort. The only way to avoid further tax hikes is to make major budget cuts.

Incremental increases in efficiency and trimming extras won't get you there. The needed cuts will require laying off workers, selling buildings and eliminating programs. Every one of those programs has a constituency, people who benefit from it and will be hurt in some way when it goes away. But the truth is the city and the schools simply cannot afford to keep doing all they are doing.

In the case of the East Campus, usually referred to by its former name, Viking Academy, the closing is expected to save $250,000 this year and $1.5 million in the 2015-16 school year. Just 49 students attend the school, at a cost of more than $45,000 per student this year.

These are students who, for one reason or another, were unsuccessful in the regular high school, and many of them feel the East Campus has helped them get back on track. But that isn't reflected in the attendance rate, which for the past two years has been between 50 percent and 60 percent.

School district officials say that since the district announced that the school will close, some students have stopped coming to class altogether. Rather than being an effective form of protest, however, the absences are simply strengthening the case for closing the school.

The students aren't being abandoned. Most of them will attend classes in a "school within a school" at Atlantic City High School. The district should make sure these students get the support they need to adjust.

Not that any of this is easy. And the further reductions in municipal and school services that must come for the city to stabilize its finances will not be easy either.

But residents must realize that Atlantic City is fighting for its life. And they should brace themselves. This is just the beginning.