Saturday, May 30, 2015

This Week in Weird (Ed Reform) NJ—Part 2

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Holy moly! Just when I thought ed 'reform' in the Garden State couldn't get any weirder, all this happened in the past seven days. So, here's your one-stop shop for all the ed 'reform' news that's fit to print, whether it makes sense or not: 

  • *5/23 Thousands of Newark students defied Superintendent Cami Anderson's threats of consequences and walk out of classes to protest her regime and demand return of local control and fair funding of their public schools. Sounds like that 'reform' plan of hers is going swimmingly well!
  • 5/24 The Star Ledger posts yet another pro-PARCC shill piece (more on this below).
  • *5/25 Newark's Central High School Principal, Sharnee Brown, risks her job by starting a petition on calling for an end to the practices of Anderson's signature 'One Newark' plan that discriminate against the district's special education students.
  • *5/28 Newark Mayor, and former Central High School principal, Ras Baraka calls on the citizens of his city to take back the school district from Cami, Christie and Co.
  • 5/28 Gov. Christie says the Common Core State Standards aren't working, and vows to have parents and teachers involved in writing new ones. Wait, what
  • 5/29 Before the ink is dry on Christie's CCSS speech, the Star Ledger posts pro Common Core piece by the Center for American Progress's Daniella Gibbs Leger that, once again, touts the magical ability of education 'reform' to fix the devastating effects of income inequality, unemployment, underemployment, generational poverty and racial segregation.
* Special thanks to Bob Braun, whose superior coverage of all the 'reformy' goings-on in Newark is a must-read.

Whew! That's a whole lotta crazy packed into six days! And the education community wasted no time in responding:
  • 5/28 Jersey Jazzman eviscerates Christie for his "screaming hypocrisy"
  • 5/28 Peter Greene's response to Christie: "Big frickin' deal"
  • 5/28 NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer: “If the governor is genuinely interested in new standards, the state must abandon the PARCC fiasco, which is taking a terrible toll on the quality of instruction and student learning in New Jersey,”
  • 5/29 Peter Greene's response to Daniella Gibbs Leger: "I think cigarette companies do a better job of making a case for their [product]"
  • 5/29 Sarah Blaine Tepper: "Chris Christie has a bridge to sell us"
  • 5/29 Julie Borst: "We all deserve to understand, in the most transparent way, what [the CCSS] has cost us."
As for me? Well, there's not much more I can say about Christie and the Common Core that hasn't already been said. But, I take great umbrage with the propaganda the Star Ledger continually passes off as professional journalism. 

"But Marie", you say, "why bother? They aren't going to change their tune. Don't waste your time." But when the state's largest newspaper continues to spew illogical garbage like this...
But here's what this issue boils down to. If you're interested in racial equality, you have to go for the PARCC, imperfect as it may be. Why? Because it's the only game in town — and if we're going to have any hope of closing the achievement gap between poor, minority kids and their wealthier peers, we need this data to do it. (emphasis mine)
("The only game in town", oh right, because adequate school funding, housing, food, medical care, personal financial stability, job opportunities and safe neighborhoods would never, ever solve that problem. Only the bogus data from a deeply flawed test will.)

... When they insult the general public with ignorant statements like this...
The opt-out movement is sabotaging the data. Liberal-minded people who would normally be very concerned with helping underachieving kids are taking an anti-testing position that actually hurts those kids. In that respect — and in the degree of paranoia involved — it's similar to the anti-vaccination movement. And it may be just as damaging.
(Hmmm... "anti-vaccination movement"... where have I read that before? Oh yes, here. But at least they admit, albeit in a backhanded way, that Conservative-minded people really have no concern with helping underachieving kids.)

... I fall back on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who must be rolling in his grave over what is happening to public education in Newark and other mostly minority cities around the country:

"In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."
Now, I don't consider anyone an enemy, but I will not sit back quietly when people and institutions that hold great sway and influence over large swaths of the general populace refuse to do their homework and, for whatever reason, disseminate information that is factually incorrect. I've taken a lot of shots at the Star Ledger and Tom Moran, and some may have been too snarky, but sometimes I feel like I'm living in an episode of the Twilight Zone. I can't imagine how the people of Newark feel.

When parents and students who want an excellent education resoundingly reject the carpetbaggers who swoop in to 'save' them in part by silencing their voices and excluding them from the process, I can't sit idly by. None of us should. When the state's largest newspaper refuses to listen to the citizens of the state's largest city, others have an obligation to do so. We all must continue to call out those who, for whatever reason, simply will not see what's happening before their very eyes. If not, we are part of the problem.

As for the rest of this week's events, time will tell how much—if any—of a seismic shift this all will bring. Mountains aren't moved in a day, but sometimes, when too much pressure builds up, this happens:

Mt. St. Helens, 35 years ago this month

Monday, May 18, 2015

Dear President Obama

Welcome to the Garden State. I hope your visit to Camden is successful. 

This letter is a long time coming. I have drafted it in my head many times as I lie awake at night wondering how much longer I can afford to remain in my profession and still keep my integrity, passion, drive, and yes, my home. And now you're here, so here goes:

I openly wept on election night 2008 as you gave your historic victory speech to a nation of adoring supporters of all races who waited generations for that moment. I have been awed by your unyielding composure over the past seven years as Congress has behaved like—well—spoiled, rich, white men who couldn't handle the fact that someone not like them was now Commander in Chief. I have willed you on to make the right decisions, to move this country forward in the face of tremendous odds, and dig us up out of the Great Recession because I knew that you knew in every fiber of your being, because of your history, because of your place in history, that if the poor and the middle class couldn't make it in America, no one could.

Your presidency has epitomized the promise of Emma Lazarus' words:

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

But it pains me greatly to say that these huddled masses who look to you because you are just like them, have, in one significant way, no more relief than if Mitt Romney had won in 2012.   

Again, these words do not roll off my tongue easily, Mr. President, but you have failed our future—our children. Failed us in a way that is so profound, that it touches the very DNA of our nation. Your education policies are, in a word, disastrous. They are moving this country back to the pre-civil rights era. They are undoing all the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the brave men and women who gave their blood, sweat, tears, and yes, their lives, to ensure that every child had a thorough and efficient education, and who made it possible for you to be where you are right now. Your education policies are destroying one of the bedrocks of a democracy. They are further segregating our highly segregated inner cities like Camden. They are silencing the voices of millions of people who looked to you to be their "lamp beside the golden door". They are further marginalizing those already living in the margins, the "huddled masses", "the wretched refuse".

These are not just my sentiments, Mr. President. Since Arne Duncan, who never taught a day in his life, first rolled out Race to the Top, another civil rights movement has sprung up all across this country pushing back against your devastating 'reforms' that have turned education into a sick competition with winners profiting handsomely, and losers—namely public schools, teachers and students (particularly those of color and low economic status)—being left in the deep end of the pool without a life preserver. Educators, parents, and concerned citizens from coast to coast are outraged that our public schools have become under-funded test factories, our teachers reduced to scripted robots, and our students to CPU's—data in; data out—while those who are pushing, financing and profiting from this wretched agenda can afford to send their children to elite, private schools that wouldn't stand for this child abuse for one second.

I enthusiastically voted for you once. I half-heartedly voted for you the second time because the alternative would have been exponentially worse. But Mr. President, I am not alone. I'm willing to bet there are tens of millions of Americans out there who agree with me. Under your watch, our public education system is being sold off piece meal to the highest bidder while child poverty rages seemingly unchecked and teachers are simultaneously blamed and praised in a national theatre of the absurd that would leave even Eugene Ionesco scratching his head.

Mr. President, the new norm in teaching is that every year decades of experience are being lost as more and more veteran teachers are retiring early or leaving the profession altogether because they cannot and will not subject their students to this abuse. This is having a devastating effect on the long-term health of public education and the teaching profession. What does it say about an education policy that is so heavily invested in 'reforming' public education while simultaneously driving out those with the most to offer young educators? In a nation whose students not living in poverty are competing with Finland and other top-performing nations on the PISA, this will be your legacy. Are you prepared to live with that?

I expect this from Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, Rick Scott, Mitt Romney and all the rest in that crowd who want nothing better than to see public education turned into a voucher/corporate system so they can pad their coffers and maybe build yet another garage with an elevator, but not you. Never you. 

While you are in Camden today, I hope you take the time to speak with people whose voices have been silenced, who are no longer allowed to be part of the democratic process that runs wealthier, suburban New Jersey school districts. I hope you make the time to speak to parents whose children have been denied 'choice' in their public education because their neighborhood school was closed and they had no say. I hope you listen to the educators who are being robbed of their souls, forced to teach in a way that is antithetical to all that they have been taught and all that they believe about excellent teaching. I hope the voices of the citizens in the poorest and most dangerous city in America echo in your mind along with the voices of all those brave men and women who fought so long and so hard and sacrificed so much all those years ago, but who never lived to see the ultimate fruit of their labor: you in the oval office.

There is still time. You can still change this, if you dare.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Is the NJ pension crisis Christie's Waterloo?

It's the 15th of the month, and once again, along with thousands of other public employees across the state, I made my legally-required pension payment. How about you, Gov. Christie? No? I didn't think so.

If you live in NJ, you'd have to be living under a rock to not know about the pension battle raging in Trenton. And if you're reading this, you also know that this debacle is decades old with Democratic and Republican governors being equal opportunity offenders as one after another raided the once-flush fund to plug budget holes and prop up their pet projects. (Bonus points for alliteration!)

So, what can public employees do to fix this mess? Nothing. We didn't cause it and we can't cure it. The only thing we can and should do is demand nothing less than full funding of the pension system as required by the law Gov. Christie touts as his signature, bipartisan 'reform'. Because while he was busy cutting deals with certain Democrats to 'fix' this fiasco (translation: public employees work more, pay more and get less in return while the super wealthy and corporations get tax breaks) he was also doing this—with the blessings of the NJ Democratic Party Machine and GOP legislators who have been too afraid to stand up to him: 

The state can afford to fix this crisis; it all comes down to priorities. If Christie can afford to give tax breaks to the super wealthy and corporations—which, by the way, has done little to spur the state's economy—he can afford to make his legally-obligated pension payments. If he doesn't, this will happen in 12 years:

It's really that simple, folks. 

But that would mean helping public employees, and if there's one thing Gov. Christie hates, it's public employees. So he keeps beating the same dead horse, continuing to excoriate us, oddly fighting his signature legislation in court, while his poll numbers point to a populace that has grown weary of the blustering, the bullying and the flat-out lies. He's acting less like a confident presidential candidate and more like one who has to play defense. And that is way outside Gov. Christie's comfort zone. At yesterday's town hall meeting taxpayer funded campaign stop there was this bit of irony:

“There is still the deadly sins of the past that we have to fix and they’re the things that we do, promises that politicians make to folks, have made to folks, with no understanding of how they’re going to be paid for and those big things right now are pensions and health care, health insurance for public workers.” (emphasis mine)

Gov. Christie 2009 campaign promise

And this response to a retired educator who asked for shared sacrifice from the state's wealthiest: 
“You want shared sacrifice, then have health benefits like everybody else has,” Christie replied to huge applause.

The problem is, gov, thanks to you, we do have health benefits like everybody else. Have you forgotten? As I wrote in a previous post, last year NJ Spotlight reported on how your signature legislation has affected our 'lavish perks':

"[T]he average New Jersey government employee is paying more for individual health insurance coverage than government workers in any other state and the 10th-highest average premium for family coverage in the country.

"Further, state and local government workers are paying a much higher percentage of the cost of their individual health insurance policies than private-sector employees in New Jersey have been paying, and not much less than the percentage paid by the state’s private-sector workers for family coverage." (emphasis mine)

This was your doing, part of your crowing legislative achievement that put us in this position. Don't you remember? What will happen to all of us if the pension system goes belly-up? Our retirement savings will be wiped out, our health insurance premiums will only continue to head in one direction (up), and we can't even move out of state because, thanks to another genius piece of legislation you signed into law, we're basically indentured servants

Perhaps you could use a few extra gardeners to care for your estate?

Gov. Christie made his tough guy reputation by trampling on the backs of the middle class and the working poor and the state has plenty to show for it. As he inches ever closer to announcing his presidential candidacy, our governor is looking more like this guy:  

Will Fox News be Christie's St. Helena?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Gov. Christie's pension battle: "Weird NJ"

Governor/Presidential Candidate Christie tours the country touting bipartisan pension and health benefits reform as the signature accomplishment of his administration. Part of that reform was his legal obligation to make regularly scheduled contributions in order to get the system off life support. (See here for cliff notes on the long history of the state's underfunding of the system.) 

Today, the Supreme Court of New Jersey will hear arguments in the ongoing pension battle between the state's public employee unions and the Christie administration because the governor has decided he can't come up with the full, legally obligated payments that he signed into law. 

Rather than raise taxes on the top 1% or invest in education, infrastructure and job training, he gave away hundreds of millions in corporate tax breaks that yielded few jobs, and slashed funding to programs and services (including almost $6 billion to education) that would have helped the majority of New Jerseyans increase their quality of life and support the economy—a scenario that's playing out in Republican run states all across the country. Democrats, who control the legislature, have never gotten enough votes to override his draconian cuts because GOP legislators have never gone against the will of the enforcer governor. Now, with several of those D leaders jockeying for their party's gubernatorial nomination, and Christie's poll numbers tanking, they are not so willing to play in the gov's sandbox anymore. 

Christie promised to reform the system, to save it from default—except when he couldn't do it by hurting the very people it belongs to: middle class workers. So, now he's in court presenting arguments that his signature law is illegal.

Only in New Jersey...

Friday, May 1, 2015

An open letter to NJEA members

Hey you. Yea, you, NJEA member. The one with the stack of homework to correct and report cards to complete. The one working the after school club or coaching to put a few extra bucks in your wallet. The one heading off to that second or third job because your salary and that club and that coaching aren't enough. The one who has no time to advocate because you're just trying to keep your head above water. I'm talking to you. You need to stop what you're doing right now and read this.

See that counter on the right side of this screen? That's counting down to D-Day: the day the NJ pension system runs dry. That's right, I said, 'dry' as in running out of money. That's 12 years. For everyone. E-V-E-R-Y-O-N-E. Doesn't matter if you're a first year teacher or a 20 year retiree. There is no grandfather clause, no sliding scale. Nothing. Nada. Zippo. Say buh-bye to your future and hello to working til you drop.

It's that serious.

How'd it happen? Well, there's plenty of blame to go around starting with Gov. Christie Todd Whitman who, along with subsequent governors from both sides of the aisle, used the fund like a cash cow while we were making our legally obligated payments. 

So, what did that get us? This:

Take a look at that red line. That's how much the state has actually contributed since 1996. The blip between '07 and '08 is courtesy of former Gov. John Corzine. The next blip is Gov. Christie's 'fix'. Notice the difference between the grey line (what the state is supposed to contribute) and the actual contribution. So much for his 'landmark' pension reform law that was supposed to solve this crisis. That black line is us—NJEA members steadily making our required contributions while one governor after another used our deferred compensation—not an entitlement—to plug budget holes and who knows what else (perhaps a bankrupt casino in AC?). But what about that grey line? That, my friends, is trouble with a capital 'T'. That is the unfunded liability, the direct result of that red line being flat for years, and the pile of cash the state has to come up with to keep this from happening: 
That bottom graph tells the whole story. If we do nothing, our pensions will be sunk in 12 years. If we do nothing, we're merely deck chairs on the Titanic. Now, I don't know about you, but I'd rather fight with Rose and Jack than end up as flotsam and jetsam in the North Atlantic.

So, what can you do? Plenty. Here are 5 simple things you can do starting today to join the fight: 

  1. Become a Pension Activist. Go to the NJEA's special pension website and sign up. Please don't say you have no time for this. None of us do, but we have no choice. And besides, no one can fight for your pension better than you. If we all don't fight for this, there will be nothing left to fight for. 
  2. Contact your legislator. You'll find yours here. Call, write, tweet, email, send a carrier pigeon. Do whatever it takes, but make sure they know you expect them to follow the law—the law that had bipartisan support. The full assembly is up for re-election this year, so be sure to contact them first. 
  3. Click on the resources tab for lots of information including the complete NJEA PowerPoint referenced above.
  4. Join the Payday Twitter Storm. Every 15th and 30th of the month NJEA members are tweeting our state elected officials reminding them that we made our pension payment because it's the law, so why shouldn't they? Use the hashtag #fundnjpension. Not on Twitter? Well, what are you waiting for?
  5. Stand in solidarity with your NJEA brothers and sisters across the state by wearing black on 5/6/15. That's when the NJ Supreme Court will hear arguments in our case. Post photos of you and your colleagues standing up for your rights, our rights, our deferred compensation on social media.

We are 200,000 strong. Can you imagine if every one of us took action over the next few weeks? Can you imagine if every one of us made our voice heard? Can you imagine what changes we could make? 

What would that look like...? 

What would that sound like...? 

How would you feel...? 

Got that mental picture? 

Great! Now go do it! 

A special note to those who think NJEA has gone against us: While I don't always agree with the decisions made by my association, on this issue I trust them completely. There was no 'deal'. There was an agreement to talk, but never to collude. Did they look at other options? Sure, they'd be stupid if they didn't. But that was never their first priority. 

Still not sure? Then ask yourself this: Are you really going to trust this man who has done nothing but denigrate, criticize, bully and flat out lie to us? Who is on a one-man mission to destroy our profession, our students' futures and the one, great equalizer in a democracy? Someone who has called us bullies, thugs, drug dealers, greedy, selfish and lazy?

"I am tired of you people." 
"I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor."

Or are you going to trust the elected officers of your association who are 100% committed to this:

When the infighting starts, they win.