New Jersey’s education commissioner told hundreds of school board members Tuesday that they, like the state, have to think of new ways to be more effective because money alone is not solving educational problems.
“We have to break the chain of logic that says more money will equal better outcomes,” Commissioner Chris Cerf said at the annual New Jersey School Boards conference in Atlantic City. “Money is important, and the need in high-poverty schools is greater. But we have to move beyond the notion that we can dollarize education. More money does not guarantee better results.”
A good part of Cerf’s presentation focused on the the lowest-performing “priority” schools that are receiving more state intervention. But he also said all school boards should be willing to look at new ways to address problems about student performance and budgets. He said the state is looking at ways to reduce regulations so that high-performing districts have more flexibility.
“Most of our schools are doing just fine without us coming in to tell you what to do,” he said. “But we are going to be very active in failing schools.”
He said it is the school board’s responsibility to pick an effective school superintendent who will move the district forward, but the board must then let that person do their job, even if it does generate controversy.
“Boards do not exist to make microdecisions about personnel,” he said. “When I hear about some of the things that are happening, I know that is a dysfunctional district.”
He said the state Department of Education is investing its resources in improving academics, recruiting and retaining talented teachers and administrators, providing data on student performance that is useful, holding schools accountable, and innovating how students are taught.
“New Jersey is big on the quantity of data we have, but we lag in quality and usefulness,” Cerf said.
Cerf acknowledged the challenges districts face with budget caps, but said boards must learn to “manage scarcity” in ways that rethink how they accomplish goals rather than just cutting programs. He said their goal is to do the best for the children, not maintain the status quo.
“Look at what you do through that filter and not through the people who got you elected, or who might get upset,” he said.
He said new tenure reform laws and teacher evaluations are designed to make all teachers better, not just to make it easier to fire bad teachers. He said all school board members should know what percentage of teachers in their district are granted tenure and how many are let go.
“We can do more for children by helping all teachers get better than just by culling those at the bottom,” he said. “But we all understand that there is that small number of teachers that we wouldn’t put our children in front of. (Firing that person) becomes a huge production so nothing is done. The era of such excuses is over with the new tenure law. You should know what procedures are in place in your district.”
When questioned about the impact of the cap on local tax levies, Cerf said he was not going to address removing the cap, but supports flexibility for districts to work within the law. He said he is concerned about the the amount of money spent on special education for students with disabilities.
“I am not persuaded that all special education money is being spent as effectively as it could be,” he said, saying he supports early interventions that help all students rather than just labeling some students and then diverting money.
“Even the vast dollars we deploy to special education are insufficient, so the balance comes from the regular education program,” he said. “We need to be more honest about that.”
Cerf also encouraged the members to use the state School Boards Association to lobby on their issues. He said the New Jersey Education Association, which represents teachers, has a strong voice in Trenton and board members should make sure they are also heard.
“I’m counting on you,” he said. “You can have so much influence through your association.”
Anne Erickson, president of the Hamilton Township Board of Education in Atlantic County, said state plans sound good, but she worries about how they are implemented. She said Cerf noted that the state put more money into education this year than ever before, but her district has still not recovered from earlier cuts and residents are still struggling.
“We don’t even budget to the cap,” she said. “We know local taxpayers can’t afford more.”
She said there is a lot of concern statewide about the cost of implementing new teacher evaluations, and what might happen if federal school aid is cut in January.
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