By David G. Sciarra, Executive Director
There’s a lot of heated rhetoric these days about “failing” public schools. Education Commissioner Bret Schundler took it up a notch when his spokesperson recently called New Jersey’s public school system “wretched.”
Whether our schools are “failing,” and by whose definition, is debatable. But that label can fairly be applied to the NJ Department of Education, which has been failing our students for years.
Remember the 2007 review of the DOE’s operations by KPMG, the big management consulting firm, paid for with $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars? The KPMG audit found a dysfunctional agency lacking leadership and direction, disconnected from external partners critical to the education enterprise. Among the problems identified by KPMG was the absence of a coherent, research-based game plan to improve public schools; a dearth of qualified, experienced staff; an antiquated school budgeting and student performance data system; and no coordination among various units responsible for an array of related program areas.
Instead of viewing it as a wake-up call, State education bureaucrats quietly shelved the KPMG audit and recommendations. And State lawmakers, who called for the audit, quickly lost interest as they moved on to the next election cycle.
But the DOE’s serious shortcomings continue and are getting worse. As the agency makes yet another 25% cut in its operational budget, this one ordered by Governor Chris Christie, consider some of DOE’s most recent breakdowns:
- The federal government turned down the DOE’s application for a $16.7 million grant to upgrade the State’s inadequate data collection system — for the third time. While NJ is left behind, other states are modernizing data systems to allow for better tracking of students, staff, budgets and school performance. NJ is one of only 7 states not to get this critical funding.
- The DOE badly mishandled the revamped Alternative High School Assessment (AHSA) this spring. As Department officials acknowledged, they implemented the new test without the usual pilot to make sure proper safeguards were in place. Three months before graduation, 10,000 students, many with college and military acceptances, were told they may not receive a diploma. Under pressure from legislators and parents, the DOE created a hasty, patchwork “appeals process” for individual students, but an estimated 4500 students are still at risk.
- In May, Commissioner Schundler and the professional education associations worked out a measured compromise on teacher and principal evaluations, tenure and layoffs — thorny, complex issues that require collaboration to implement fairly and successfully — in advance of NJ’s now infamous application for a federal Race to the Top grant. But, at the eleventh hour, Governor Christie unilaterally rewrote the application, rejecting his own Commissioner’s plan in favor of a “my way or the highway” approach. While the Governor’s action may have scored political points in some circles, it likely torpedoed our chances of winning $400 million in badly needed federal funds.
The Governor’s application also did not seriously address the DOE’s lack of capacity and expertise to manage the complicated Race to the Top reforms, a major red flag raised by the federal reviewers to our unsuccessful, first round bid.
New Jersey faces multiple challenges in public education: sustaining high performing schools, while improving those in need of help; making better use of funding; attracting and retaining high quality teachers, particularly in high needs districts; and reforming special education, among countless other areas in need of improvement, oversight and vision. These challenges demand a 21st-century State education department to lead the way.
The time has come for the State Legislature to address the DOE’s problems in an effort to create an effective agency that can best serve our students and educators. Legislative hearings are needed to better understand the agency’s deficits, using the KPMG audit as a starting point. Every facet of the DOE’s operations should be thoroughly examined, including leadership, staffing, data and evaluation systems, internal organization, external relationships, and budget. Outside experts in education, management, technology and other relevant fields could provide much needed advice for improving Department operations. A blueprint for DOE reform could be drawn up, with specific recommendations designed to overhaul and improve the agency’s performance, including those requiring legislation or rulemaking.
We must prepare our students to contribute to the economic, social and political life of the state and to compete in a global marketplace. Without a competent Education Department to develop and carry-out policies to strengthen New Jersey’s public schools, we won’t be able to provide our schoolchildren with the education they need and deserve.
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications