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ELC Testimony to State Board 1/16/13

January 16, 2013

Education Law Center

State Board Testimony

January 16, 2013

             My name is Stan Karp and I am the Director of the Secondary Reform Project for the Education Law Center. I appreciate this opportunity to speak about the proposed School Turnaround and Improvement regulations.  While ELC will submit more detailed testimony on the proposed regulations before the deadline for responses, we wanted to take advantage of this open topic session to address some larger concerns about the Department’s “new accountability system,” of which the proposed “turnaround” rules are one part.

            Over the past year, the Department has initiated significant changes in its accountability system for districts, schools and educators.  The Commissioner has described these changes as a “fundamental shift” in Department operations. They involve repeal or revision of hundreds of existing regulations and proposals to modify or replace dozens of state statutes, as cataloged in the Governor’s Education Transformation Task Force report.  They also involve major changes in Department staffing and budgets, including the solicitation of substantial grant funding from private foundations in support of specific policy goals. And they include implementation of newly mandated common core standards, multiple new assessments, and new high stakes evaluation systems for teachers and principals.

            Despite the scope and significance of these proposals, they have received little review from the public or the Legislature. Recent changes to the public testimony process before the State Board further limit public opportunities to respond. We urge the Board to reconsider ways to expand public dialog with parents, advocates and other stakeholders, especially on far-reaching proposals that expand Department authority and place additional mandates on districts.

           To a large extent, the Department’s new agenda has been defined through the federally designed NCLB Waiver process. While some of this activity has been subject to new regulation through appropriate channels, major components, such as the creation of Regional Achievement Centers to intervene in hundreds of priority and focus schools in more than 80 districts have been implemented largely through Department memos, directives, grant proposals and other channels with only incomplete or belated compliance with NJ’s Administrative Procedures Act. Some major proposals have advanced even when the Legislature explicitly rejected them, as it did with Department’s request for RAC funding in the current State Budget.

          The Department has also advanced plans for which there is no clear statutory authority.  Such plans include State-ordered closure of district schools, creating a State “takeover” district under the Commissioner’s control for schools deemed to be making insufficient progress, the conversion of district schools into charters, and the turnover of district schools to private management firms.  Although statutory authority for these proposals has not been established, they have been described as features of the “new accountability system” in Department reports, press releases, presentations to districts, grant proposals and other documents.

            In our view, the Department has blurred the lines between policy options supported by existing statute or regulations and those for which the Department does not currently have clear authority.  This murky framework for the Department’s “new accountability system” places schools and districts facing intervention in the untenable position of not having a full understanding of the ground-rules under which they are now expected to operate. It also places education stakeholders and the public in the position of chasing down a steady stream of poorly vetted proposals that are eroding local control, reducing public transparency, and undermining decades of uneven progress towards equity.

          For all these reasons, ELC urges the Board to slow down the rush to divisive, “disruptive reform” and to focus on initiatives that are consistent with existing law, that meet high standards of public confidence and transparency, and that improve educational opportunities for all New Jersey’s children.

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