Archive for December, 2008

Sauce for the “Goose” Should be Sauce for the “Gander”

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Sauce for the “Goose” Should be Sauce for the “Gander

When Trenton is Cooking Property Tax Legislation


Shouldn’t the sauce for goose be the same sauce for gander especially when Trenton is cooking legislation to reduce property taxes?  But if Trenton is truly intent upon lowering property taxes, then why does it continue to impose one set of rules for our schools while ignoring if not condoning those actions it opposes when they are performed by local and county governments?  Is it because the county political bosses of both parties have undue influence over who runs for office, how campaigns are financed, and, therefore, who gets elected as well as legislation once the politicians are in office?  Trenton scapegoats our schools through this hypocritical treatment.  The result is disproportionately higher municipal and county property taxes. 


Among the many ways the Governor and the State Legislature help to increase property taxes include ignoring municipal golden parachutes, forcing school district rather than municipal mergers, exempting local as well as county governments from S1701’s two percent surplus cap, and creating another layer of bureaucracy called the office of the Executive County Superintendent rather than eliminating county government.  Through its actions, Trenton enables municipal and county property taxes to increase disproportionately by allowing these levels of government to continue unnecessary spending. 


A recent example of Trenton’s apparent hypocritical treatment of our schools vis-à-vis municipal government is contained in an article written by Ms. Clark (2008) for The Jersey Journal which focuses on the payment of an $350,000 municipal golden parachute at local property taxpayers’ expense.  Hoboken‘s former police chief, Mr. Carmen LaBruno, retired on July 1, 2008, and received an $350,000 golden parachute from the city.  Mr. LaBruno’s golden parachute was (Clark, 2008) “in addition to his annual pension payment of $147,000” and included “terminal leave pay of five days per year for each of his 37 years with the department, and 156 days of unused vacation and compensatory time.”  Taxpayers, therefore, paid Mr. LaBruno $497,000 for his first year of retirement. 


However, as an Abbott district, Hoboken’s schools are funded primarily by the State of New Jersey.  Hoboken is one of the 31 school districts which the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in its Abbott v. Burke decision that could not properly provide a thorough and efficient education while funding their schools through their local property taxes.  This means that the City of Hoboken’s payment of a golden parachute was essentially subsidized by taxpayers statewide. 


The deafening silence with which Governor Corzine, Education Commissioner Davy, and the New Jersey State Legislature have greeted Hoboken’s granting of an $350,000 municipal golden parachute stands in stark contrast to their vociferous attacks on similar retirement packages for school officials just a few months ago.  It was their combined outrage at payouts to retiring school officials such as the one given former Keansburg superintendent, Mrs. Barbara Trzeszkowski, who retired on July 1, 2008, that led Department of Education Commissioner Lucille Davy to issue new fiscal accountability regulations on July 3, 2008.  These regulations severely limited payments to school officials for unused sick days and vacation time.  In addition, the State Senate quickly passed bills to limit severance payments to school district officials (Hester, 2008) “to maximum of $15,000 for unused sick days and accrued vacation time.” 


Through its newly created bureaucracy of the office of the Executive County Superintendent, the State of New Jersey can force the mergers of school districts but the state seems to ignore consolidating inefficient municipal governments which leads to higher property taxes.  While municipal services are generic in that a city clerk’s function in one town replicates that of one in another town and as such these positions are easily consolidated, local educational programs and services are value-added which do not lend themselves to standardization or consolidation with other school districts with different value propositions.  One major result of forced school district consolidations is that one or more of the districts involved usually pays disproportionately more in property taxes due to differences in one or more of the following factors: 

  • The tax base (i.e., total ratables) which is the dollar amount of all property that is taxable within the jurisdiction.
  • The assessment practices that determine the percent of fair market value at which the property is assessed as well as the frequency of assessments.  Although all 21 counties have agreed to use 100% as the assessment percentage of true value, many municipalities especially many large urban cities have not assessed properties within their jurisdiction for as much as 25 to 50 years. 
  • The tax levy or mill rate which is the percentage at which each property’s market value or of assessed value is taxed. 


The forced consolidation of Pemberton Borough and Pemberton Township school districts by the Burlington County Executive County Superintendent (Levinsky and Zimmaro, 2008) highlights the problems resulting from school district mergers.  This consolidation would force taxes to decrease for Pemberton Borough property owners but increase for Pemberton Township property owners because the township has disproportionately more ratables.  As a result of the merger, township taxpayers would fund approximately 95% of the property taxes for the consolidated school district and significantly subsidize the borough taxpayers.  The State of New Jersey, however, has taken no action to merge the municipal governments of Pemberton Borough and Pemberton Township. 


The state law known as S1701 reflects the State of New Jersey’s actions to scapegoat our schools for property tax issues.  Through S1701, Trenton placed a two percent cap on the surplus of school budgets and mandated that any amount exceeding two percent must be returned to taxpayers.  But the state exempted municipal and county governments!  For example, in 2007 if S1701 had applied to municipal and county governments, then the City of Summit would have had to refund approximately $5.8 million to Summit property taxpayers while it is estimated that Union County would have had to refund tens of millions of dollars.  Moreover, because Summit collectively pays disproportionately more property taxes to Union County than other municipalities, the taxpayers of Summit would have enjoyed a similarly large county property tax refund.  


Connecticut is only one among the many states that has eliminated county government and thereby its citizens enjoy significantly lower property taxes than those of us in New Jersey.  Why doesn’t Trenton eliminate the unnecessary and expensive county freeholder layer of government as other states have done?  Is it because of the strangle-grip hold with which county political bosses control Trenton?  Instead the State of New Jersey added the politically appointed Executive County Superintendent with his/her own bureaucracy.  Executive County Superintendents have dramatically increased not only county level authority over local school districts but also the rules and regulations for schools.  But with increased rules and regulations has come greatly increased compliance costs for school districts.  


If property taxes are to be significantly reduced, the State of New Jersey must eliminate not only the unnecessary costs which its legislation imposes on local school districts but also excessive municipal government spending and county government.  But New Jersey’s property taxes will remain high as long as the state continues to allow inefficient municipal governments and the unnecessary layer of county freeholder government to operate.  Because the State of New Jersey forces its school districts to spend much more to meet the requirements of its mandates than the districts receive in total state financial aid, school districts statewide will continue to be pressured to cut quality educational programs and services.  Moreover, the state’s obsession with scapegoating our schools underscores its failure to reduce property taxes at the municipal and county levels of government. 





Clark, A. S., (2008) Ex-chief LaBruno collects $350K after retiring in wake of scandal, Jersey Journal, October 13, 2008.   

Hester, T., (2008) Lawmakers pass bills regulating public educators’ pay, The Star Ledger, October 23, 2008. 

Levinsky, D. and Zimmaro, M., (2008) Merger in Works for Pemberton district, Burlington County Times, September 7, 2008. 

New Jersey’s Under-funded Education Mandates Hurt Public Education

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Under-funded state special education mandates are perhaps the primary reason why the cost of public school education continues to increase at a rate higher than the rate of inflation, causing property taxes to rise disproportionately to incomes in New Jersey.  According to the Garden State Coalition of Schools (GSCS, 2008), in New Jersey “mandates drive 70% of district expenses” and of these mandates, those for special education represent the fastest growing financial challenge confronting school districts.  Furthermore, these under-funded state mandates have heightened the pressure on school districts to fund operating budgets by reducing programs and services for regular education in order to fund mandate-protected programs and services, primarily special education.


School districts are required by state and federal laws to provide the special education programs and services included in a student’s Individual Education Plan (IEP); therefore, special education budgets cannot be cut and the under-funded portion of special education’s costs must be made up from other budgetary sources.  To offset the increased costs of under-funded special education mandates, school districts are increasingly forced to significantly reduce programs for regular education students because property tax increases have been limited largely through other state legislation.  Under-funded state special education mandates not only have sharply increased the competition between regular and special education programs for funding within a school’s budget but also have created sharp divisions within a school’s community because they pit the parents of special and regular education students against each other in the fight for funding.


In 2005, New Jersey state aid covered less than one-third of state mandated special education programs and services while the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) is funded at approximately five percent of its cost to school districts nationwide.  Since January 2008, special education financial aid has been further and significantly reduced for most districts statewide based on the new state funding formula that reduces a school district’s special education aid calculation to the extent that its classification rate is above the state average.  In addition, wealthy districts have been losing entitlement aid for at-risk children, particularly special education as these and other categorical financial aid funds are now subjected to the formula’s wealth-equalizing local share calculation. 


All of this comes at a time when the costs for special education are skyrocketing.  Increased costs for mandated preschool programs including intensive services for autistic students and lower special education student to teacher ratios are a major part of the problem.  But more importantly there are also increasing numbers of costly out-of-district placements as well as parental lawsuits against public school districts for the purpose of obtaining private school placements for their children at the public’s expense.  


New Jersey has the highest proportion of special education students in out-of-district placements as well as the fourth highest classification rate for special education eligibility in the country.  Many of New Jersey’s school districts find that out-of-district placements can consume as much as 50% of the special education budget despite covering approximately ten percent of special education enrollment.  The students placed in out-of-district schools tend to be the most expensive because they are usually the ones most in need of special education programs and services.  Depending on the student’s disability, the annual cost of sending a student to an out-of-district private school can range from roughly $70,000 to over $250,000 especially for the most educationally and physically challenged students.  


The legal costs arising from parental special education-based law suits are another major expense for schools.  As parents have become more knowledgeable about what constitutes special education programs and services, they have increased their demands to have their children receive not only more intensive services as well as increasing their children’s classification but also more placements in private schools which have resulted in more parents suing school districts for these additional benefits.  New Jersey’s legal system, however, operates according to a fee shifting principle in which a school district losing in an administrative court not only must pay all of the judgment costs but also all of the plaintiff’s legal costs including those for their attorneys and expert witnesses regardless of the length of the trial.  Moreover, litigation for special education proceedings often takes longer than civil law suits – increasing both legal fees and court costs.  In addition, there is the cost resulting from the amount of time required of teachers, child study teams and administrators to appear in court rather than in school.  While school districts do settle a number of cases rather than run the risk of potentially more expensive outcomes, these settlements fuel the cost of providing special education.  Holding New Jersey school districts harmless from such law suits would be another way in which to enable school districts to allocate more of their scarce resources to student instruction.


The State of New Jersey requires special education programs for children with educational disabilities ages three to five, particularly autistic children.  While the only difference for preschool aged children is the state requirement to have a speech pathologist on the child study team, the same IEP, evaluation, eligibility, due process and “least restrictive environment” requirements apply for all special education students regardless of age.  These mandated pre-school programs put an additional expense burden on local school districts as long as the mandates continue to come without the requisite funding from the state. 


The special education students to teacher ratios are set by the State of New Jersey and they are, necessarily, lower than the student to teacher ratios for regular students.  These staffing ratios are based primarily on the student’s IEP, classification, and intensity of services required.  The student to teacher ratio for a class for children with the lowest level of disabilities having one teacher has a maximum of eight while the maximum is twelve for a class with one teacher and one aid.  Although ratios usually range from four to seven depending on the severity of the student’s disability, class sizes exceeding six students require two aids in addition to the teacher.  However, classes for children with autism and other profound cognitive disabilities are limited to a ratio of three to one.  While providing a good education for students with special needs, without the requisite state funding for these mandated levels, the higher costs of such low student to teacher ratios are often offset by higher student to teacher ratios for regular education.  Because smaller class sizes have been shown to improve learning for all students, the under-funded state mandates for special education can have a deleterious effect on regular student education.


When the State of New Jersey requires its public schools to pay for an ever increasing proportion of special education costs through its under-funded mandates, the state is not only forcing property taxes to grow faster than the rate of inflation but also pressuring districts to find the missing funds by reducing the regular education budget.  Such forced cuts to the regular education budget cause school districts to reduce the number of regular education teachers which results in much larger class sizes for regular education students.  Because larger class sizes have been shown to lead to lower test scores which make it more difficult for students and schools to achieve adequate yearly progress (AYP) as required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.  As a result, school districts are much more likely to be subjected to many of the NCLB’s more stringent financial penalties.  This will further reduce the financial resources available to support quality education. 


Unless the people of New Jersey wish to have not only higher property taxes but also a downward spiral in the quality of their public education, then the State of New Jersey should pay the costs of its mandated school programs and services particularly special education.  If all of New Jersey’s special education mandates were fully funded the quality of the education of all of New Jersey’s public school students, both regular and special, would be the greatest beneficiary. 




Garden State Coalition of Schools (2008). Garden State Coalition of Schools Legislative FYI 5-16-08  May 16, 2008. 

More Schools Face NCLB Penalties due to NCLB’s Variable Standards

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

The article below explaining how more schools nationwide are facing No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) sanctions, underscores the problem of allowing different states to have different standards for NCLB.  Because NCLB allows states to add their own incremental standards, the test results can be extremely misleading and easily misinterpreted.  For example, New Jersey applies some of the most stringent incremental state standards to NCLB requirements which help to further challenge our students to achieve higher benchmarks.  However, New Jersey continues to be among the leaders in terms of schools failing NCLB and facing NCLB penalties as a result.  In fact, (Mooney, 2008) 106 New Jersey public schools mostly in urban areas are facing some of the most severe NLCB penalties for having missed federal benchmarks for at least six consecutive years. 


However, when the basis of comparison is the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) 1 which has the same standards nationwide, the result is radically different especially in terms of student achievement.  For example, as Summit Public Schools’ Assistant Superintendent, Ms. Julie Glazer, discussed during her December 18, 2008, Board of Education presentation of the Summit Public Schools Assessment Report 2007-2008, Summit students’ mean SAT 1 verbal, math and writing test scores overwhelmingly out perform not only the national mean test scores but also the state mean verbal, math and writing test scores.  Moreover, this achievement was demonstrated for every year during the 2001 to 2008 timeframe. 


It is important to note that NLCB is not only one of the most under funded mandates ever and, therefore, one of our nation’s largest tax increases but also it lacks funds to reward school districts for improving student achievement while providing financial and operational penalties for failing its standards.  Perhaps if our nation focused more of the energy currently diverted to NCLB on improving rather penalizing needy schools and districts, our educational system especially in urban areas would become the transformational process it should be. 




Glazer, J., (2008) Summit Public Schools Assessment Report 2007-2008, December 18, 2008.

Mooney, J., (2008) 106 Schools Get Mandate to Restructure, Star Ledger, December 20, 2008. 

Published Online: December 19, 2008

More Schools Facing Sanctions Under NCLB

Data on adequate yearly progress show that 1 in 5 public schools are in some stage of penalties under the federal law.

By David J. Hoff


Almost 30,000 schools in the United States failed to make adequate yearly progress under the No Child Left Behind Act in the 2007-08 school year. For states with comparable data for the 2006-07 school year, the number of such schools increased by 28 percent.

Half those schools missed their achievement goals for two or more years, putting almost one in five of the nation’s public schools in some stage of a federally mandated process designed to improve student achievement. The number facing sanctions represents a 13 percent increase for states with comparable data over the 2006-07 school year.

Of those falling short of their academic-achievement goals, 3,559 schools—4 percent of all schools rated based on their progress—are facing the law’s more serious interventions in the current school year. That’s double the number that were in that category one year ago.

States have been releasing data on the number of schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress, or AYP, since last spring. But the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, part of the nonprofit corporation that publishes Education Week, is the first research organization to verify AYP results for the 2007-08 school year, and Education Week is the first entity to publish the results.

The research includes AYP data from 47 states and the District of Columbia. Indiana, Nebraska, and New York have not released their final AYP determinations for the 2007-08 school year.

Failure Inevitable?

The rising number of schools failing to make AYP under the law is inevitable, its critics say, because of what they see as the law’s unrealistic requirement that student achievement rise on a pace so that all students are proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

Adequate Yearly Progress and Improvement Status Under NCLB

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2008.

President George W. Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings have been steadfast defenders of the proficiency goal, but President-elect Barack Obama and Congress may revise or extend the goal as they work on renewing the NCLB law, as they’re scheduled to do in the upcoming congressional session.

“The system is going to systemically make sure that every school fails,” said William J. Mathis, the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, an administrative unit for 11 local school boards in Vermont.

“The increases that are demanded by No Child Left Behind are way larger than anything we’ve ever seen in the past or that you see in other countries,” said Robert L. Linn, a professor emeritus of education at University of Colorado at Boulder, who has argued that all U.S. schools will fail to make their achievement goals between now and the target date.

But supporters of the NCLB law say that the numbers suggest that the law has spurred many schools to take steps to improve.

The relatively modest increase in schools subjected to the NCLB law’s sanctions by missing their achievement goals for two or more years suggests that educators are taking action to address the problems in such schools, said Gary M. Huggins, the director of the Commission on No Child Left Behind of the Aspen Institute, a Washington-based think tank. The panel of educators and advocates released a high-profile report in 2007 proposing ideas to refine the federal law.

“When the problems are a matter of focus, schools seem to be agile in dealing with them,” Mr. Huggins said. “I wonder if anything would have changed in these schools absent” the pressures from the law, he said.

The law’s accountability measures probably have spurred some school officials to address problems that otherwise may have been neglected and could have become worse over time, another of the law’s supporters said.

“The sooner they’re identified, the sooner they can take remedial action,” Dianne M. Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, said of low-performing schools.

Federal Goals

President Bush and other champions of the No Child Left Behind law were planning to celebrate the seventh anniversary of its signing by Mr. Bush on Jan. 8, 2002. The law, which the president made one of the top domestic priorities of his administration, is an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act first passed by Congress in 1965.

Under the NCLB law, the most important factors in determining whether a school makes AYP are scores on reading and mathematics tests, given annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

To make AYP, a school must meet achievement targets for its student population as a whole and for each several demographic “subgroups,” such as racial and ethnic minorities, students with disabilities, and those who are eligible for services as English-language learners.

Schools’ AYP goals are set by their states based on meeting the law’s overall goal that all students be proficient in reading and math by the end of the 2013-14 school year.

States’ Choices

While the national data suggest a steady increase in the number of schools failing to make their achievement goals, state-by-state results show that states’ policy decisions can skew the results.

In South Carolina, for example, 80 percent of public schools failed to make AYP in the 2007-08 school year, the highest proportion of any state. Part of the increase can be attributed to the addition of new schools being rated for AYP.

“It was an exceptionally big jump this year,” said Jim Rex, the state superintendent.

The high rate is partially the result of the state’s decision to set standards that are more challenging than those of most other states. Researchers have identified South Carolina and Massachusetts as having the most challenging standards, typically by comparing the results of their state tests with their students’ results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the federally sponsored tests of a sampling of students.

“If you’ve got high standards, you’re going to hit a ceiling effect [when increasing student achievement is difficult] sooner,” said Mr. Mathis of Vermont, whose has published several articles critical of the NCLB law.

Twenty-three states’ decisions to set low achievement targets in the early years under the law also contributed to sharp increases in the number of schools failing to reach AYP in the 2007-08 school year. Those states assumed that they would be able to ramp up student achievement by the 2007-08, but the AYP results don’t reflect that.

California, one of those states, had a dramatic increase in the percentage of schools failing to make AYP, from 34 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 48 percent in 2007-08.

Other states have designed a path to universal proficiency with periodic increases in their achievement targets. Every three years, the target for student proficiency makes a big jump, creating a graph that looks like a staircase. (“Steep Climb to NCLB Goal for 23 States,” June 4, 2008.)

Mr. Mathis said that’s probably the main reason the proportion of Vermont schools failing to make AYP slightly more than tripled, from 12 percent in 2006-07 to 37 percent in the 2007-08.

In and Out

The process of identifying schools for improvement and the terminology around it are complex.

When a schools fails to meet its AYP goal for two straight years, it is labeled “in need of improvement.”

If it fails to make AYP for a third consecutive year, the school is required to offer students the chance to transfer to a different public school, the first in an annual series of steps designed to improve student performance.

In subsequent years, schools must spend money from the NCLB law’s Title I program of aid for disadvantaged students to pay for tutoring and then take steps to improve themselves.

If schools still haven’t made AYP after five years “in need of improvement,” their districts must make major changes, such as replacing the schools’ staffs or turning the schools into charter schools.

“If they’re in Year Five of improvement,” said Ms. Piché of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, “something is seriously wrong, and it’s almost never the students.”

To have 4 percent of schools at that stage seven years after the law’s enactment is a relatively small number, Ms. Piché said.

But state and district officials need to make a concerted effort to help struggling schools before they reach the fifth year of the school improvement process, she said.

“The longer schools are in need of improvement, the less likely they are to get out,” she said.

Turning Schools Around

Trying to fix the schools at that stage is currently the focal point of states’ work, several state officials said.

In South Carolina, where 80 schools are in the fifth year of the improvement process, state officials working closely with district leaders and higher education officials focused on improving such schools.

In working with school board members and district superintendents, the state is concentrating on recruiting effective principals and teachers to work in those schools, said Mr. Rex, the South Carolina schools chief.

“We’re doing what they’ve never been able or willing to do in intervening in schools,” he said of local district leaders.

Because the state is putting so much effort into improving those schools, it’s unable to do all it could to help the schools that are having trouble making AYP in one or two categories of students.

“We’re, in effect, ignoring a large group of schools,” Mr. Rex said.

In Maryland, where the largest portion of the state’s 93 schools in the fifth year of improvement are in Baltimore, the state is working closely with the district leadership to take aggressive action to close schools that are failing and reopen them with new staff members, said Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent.

The state board of education must approve the improvement plans of schools that reach that stage.

“There’s an energy of not accepting chronically low-performing schools as business as usual,” Ms. Grasmick said. “We’re trying to ferret out the critical mass of effort needed to turn around those schools. No one has the answer. It’s like finding the cure for cancer.”

Vol. 28, Issue 16

Back to Top

December 19, 2008 |Receive RSS

Most Popular Stories

Our Schools are not Factories

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Public schools are not businesses.  Furthermore, no business could succeed let alone survive if it had to abide by the same rules and restrictions that apply to our schools especially in New Jersey.  The successful processes by which schools educate students and factories manufacture products are as different as they can be.  Because students and schools can vary widely across every dimension, it is harmful to apply business principles that assume the efficiency of a one size fits all mold.  Still, this does not seem to stop those reformers who promote a simple business-based remedy for what they believe are the shortcomings of our schools.  


It seems, however, as though our schools are in the middle of a period during which the chorus from the business community and policymakers is calling for reform.  In their view, the educational system is not producing what they believe to be the desired product or outcome.  Not surprisingly, the remedy offered by these reformers is consistent with business models that have worked well in the private sector such as for increasing manufacturing output, but ignores the complexities of improving public education.    


The business model proposed for improving education as well as reducing its cost is the application of standard business principles and processes to our schools including mass standardization, assembly line manufacturing methods, cost-benefit analysis, return on investment (ROI), and a for-profit orientation.  It seems as if those who advocate this business model for schools believe that the mission of education is to prepare students for the world of work in ways similar to those required for manufacturing a product ready to be sold in the marketplace.  In this view, the students are the inputs who are manufactured by the teachers, who are supervised in turn by the school administrators according to the rules and regulations as legislated by the county, state and federal governments. 


While the use of this kind of business model may have a profitable history of manufacturing production, it falls short when it comes to educating students to become fully functioning members of society.  Therefore, it is essential to understand not only why our schools are not the same as factories but also why business-based remedies will not ultimately lead to the improved performance of our schools.  Once this is understood, perhaps policymakers, legislators, and governmental administrators alike will be better able to make decisions using the proper framework. 


In a demonstration of not only why schools can not be businesses but also why attempts to treat them as if they were seem to result in a leveling-down of education, Cuban (2004) concludes that the application of an industrial model would be counterproductive.  Cuban examines the viewpoints of many of those who advocate for trying to transform schools into manufacturing facilities to prove his argument.  He provides some pertinent examples of the industrial model rationale including a quote by Cubberley (1916), “Our schools are in a sense, factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life” (p. 338).  He also quotes a former Secretary of Education (Paige, 2003), “Henry Ford created a world-class company, a leader in its industry.  More important, Ford would not have survived the competition had it not been for an emphasis on results.  We must view education the same way.  Good schools do operate like a business.  They care about outcomes, routinely assess quality, and measure the needs of the children they serve” (p. 12). 


The concept of lean manufacturing is also being increasingly promoted for use by public schools.  McClung argues that such an application is neither cost effective nor sound because of the extreme heterogeneity of students in terms of nearly every characteristic.  According to McClung (2008), “Lean manufacturing concentrates on reducing costs by standardizing processes and raw materials.  This minimizes waste, including wasted time.  Any variation in raw materials or processing requires adjustments to achieve the same output at a consistent cost.”  But “lean manufacturing has little tolerance for variation in any aspect of the process, whether it is the skill of workers, the schedule, the tools, or (especially) the raw materials.  In fact, the principles of lean manufacturing call for strong controls over the raw materials that are accepted into the process.  If variations in raw materials are tightly controlled, then the manufacturing processes can be easily optimized to provide consistently high quality outputs—at a price much below the cost of less efficient manufacturing methods.  If we look at raw materials as student background, process as teaching methods, and output as graduates, the analogy would be that every variation in student background or teaching methodology requires adjustments in cost in order to produce consistent graduates” (p. 2). 


Many business-based reformers also advocate for the use of cost-benefit analysis despite what seem to be some inherent contradictions.  Viadero (2008) summarizes the challenges associated with applying cost-benefit analysis to education and concludes, “What can make cost-benefit analyses controversial is deciding which costs and benefits to account for and what estimates to use.  The scholars contend their estimates are not out of the ordinary, but concede that no hard-and-fast rules exist in education for determining when an expense is or is not reasonable” (p. 5). 


To be sure, not everyone in the private sector argues in favor of treating schools as if they were businesses and some of those who do find themselves switching their stand.  One such example is reflected in the “epiphany” (Cuban, 2004) experienced by former CEO, Jamie Vollmer (2002), who had sought business-type reforms for schools but changed his mindset during a speech to a group of educators. 


“If I ran my business the way you people operate your schools, I wouldn’t be in business very long!”  I stood before an audience filled with outraged teachers who were becoming angrier by the minute.  My speech had entirely consumed their precious 90 minutes of in-service training.  Their initial icy glares had turned to restless agitation.  You could cut the hostility with a knife.


I represented a group of business people dedicated to improving public schools.  I was an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the 1980’s when People magazine chose its blueberry flavor as the “Best Ice Cream in America.” 


I was convinced of two things.  First, public schools needed to change; they were archaic selecting and sorting mechanisms designed for the Industrial Age and out of step with the needs of our emerging “knowledge society.”  Second, educators were a major part of the problem:  they resisted change, hunkered down in their feathered nests, protected by tenure and shielded by a bureaucratic monopoly.  They needed to look to business.  We knew how to produce quality.  Zero defects!  Total quality management!  Continuous improvement! 


In retrospect, the speech was perfectly balanced—equal parts ignorance and arrogance.  As soon as I finished, a woman’s hand shot up … She began quietly.  “We are told sir, that you manage a company that makes good ice cream.”  I smugly replied, “Best ice cream in America, ma’am.”  “How nice,” she said.  “Is it rich and smooth?”  “Sixteen percent butterfat,” I crowed.  “Premium ingredients?” she inquired.  “Super premium!  Nothing but triple-A.”  I was on a roll.  I never saw the next line coming.


“Mr. Vollmer,” she said, leaning forward with a wicked eyebrow raised to the sky, “when you are standing on your receiving dock and you see an inferior shipment of blueberries arrive, what do you do?”  In the silence of that room, I could hear the trap snap.  I knew I was dead meat, but I wasn’t going to lie.  “I send them back.” 


“That’s right!” she barked, “and we can never send back our blueberries.  We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant.  We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language.  We take them all!  Every one!  And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business, it’s a school!”  In an explosion, all 290 teachers, principals, bus drivers, aids, custodians, and secretaries jumped to their feet and yelled, “Yeah!  Blueberries!  Blueberries!”


And so began my long transformation.  Since then, I have learned that a school is not a business.  Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, completing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night” (p. 42). 



Policymakers and legislators who seek to apply business principles and practices to schools and then analyze school as well as student performance on the basis of how well business-type goals are achieved, do not understand the complexities of the factors that combine to form a quality education.  In addition, there are a number of important variables for improving school and student performance.  For example, improving Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) involves many of the factors that are essential to quality education including but not limited to differentiated instruction, aligning curriculum with standards, student skill deficiency-based professional development, quality teachers, small class sizes, and engaged parents. 


Moreover, a school system’s ability to respond to ever changing conditions and to solve new problems as they arise should be also taken into account when assessing its quality.  Education transforms those who attend our schools so that they are better able to contribute meaningfully to society.  Therefore, in order for policymakers, legislators, and administrators to develop policies that will establish the proper framework for school-based decision making, it is essential to share an understanding of the unique nature of our public schools and why a school should not be treated as another business entity. 





Cuban, L. (2004).  The Blackboard and the Bottom Line:  Why Schools Can’t Be Businesses, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England:  Harvard University Press. 

Cubberly, E. P. (1916).  Public School Administration.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin. 

McClung, K. (2008). Lean Education. Teacher Magazine,  April 9, 2008. 

Paige, R. (2003) Letter to the editor, New Yorker, October 6, 2003.   

Viadero, D. (2008). New Center Applies Cost-Benefit Analysis to Education Policies.  Education Week,  April 8, 2008. 

Vollmer, J. R. (2002).  “The Blueberry Story,” Education Week, March 6, 2002. 


Under-funded Preschool Mandate Drives Up Costs

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

While Trenton’s preschool mandate may seem well intended, it is another under funded mandate whose costly compliance will drive up property taxes and force cuts to regular education programs.  It is rather difficult to fathom how the state can continue to mandate under funded requirements that unnecessarily increase the cost of providing educational services and programs especially considering how our schools likely will be forced to build new classroom capacity.  But this is exactly what the state is doing with the (McNichol, 2008) “state’s biggest expansion of preschool for low-income students since the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings, which ordered universal pre-kindergarten” in all 31 Abbott districts.  Moreover, the Court’s Abbott preschool decision was by itself a major expansion of the State of New Jersey’s thorough and efficient education clause because the State Constitution only pertains to students five to eighteen years old. 


Although every school district is required to ultimately enroll at least 90% of their eligible children by the 2013-2014 school year, the state is setting aside only $350 million to cover the costs of the educating another 30,000 preschool students statewide (Brody, 2008) over the next five years.  But the Corzine administration is already laying the groundwork for a deferral of the      $50 million set aside for the mandate’s first year if not the entire $350 million through its suggestions of spending reductions it may have to make in order to close projected budget deficits of $1.2 billion in the current fiscal year and $5 billion in the upcoming 2009 fiscal year.  Neither Governor Corzine nor Department of Education Commissioner Davy has said a word, however, about deferring the mandate’s costly requirements which will be paid for by local school districts. 


The New Jersey School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008, which is more commonly referred to as the new state school funding formula, included a preschool mandate requiring (Wojcik, 2008) all eligible “at-risk three and four-year-old children be offered high quality preschool program beginning at age three” in every school district statewide.  Eligible children include all those who are eligible for (Brody, 2008) “a free or reduced-price lunch.”  Each school district must begin by enrolling at least 20% of their district’s eligible student population by the 2009-2010 school year and increasing annually to 35% in 2010-2011, 50% in 2011-2012, 65% in 2012-2013, and 90% in 2013-2014.   


The mandate requires full day instruction and limits each preschool student class size to no more than 15.  Because these are mandate-protected classes, if a school lacks sufficient classroom capacity it will be forced to consolidate classes or increase class sizes for other grades to make room for the preschoolers in September.  But if a school district builds, acquires or leases additional classroom facilities to accommodate the preschoolers, none of these costs will be funded by the State of New Jersey.


Each class must be taught by a preschool certified Master teacher and one Master teacher’s aide.  In addition, each school district is required to have a Master teacher without any other teaching responsibilities plus a preschool intervention and referral team, a child advisory council as well as a community and parental involvement specialist.  However, only as much as 20% of the Master teacher’s compensation will be considered as outside of the state’s administrative cap and as part of the Special Revenue Fund rather than the General Fund.  Therefore, the mandated additional salaries and benefits not only will be paid for by local school districts rather than the state but also virtually all of these expenses will be included within the cap forcing other non-mandate protected programs to be cut. 


Making matters even more difficult is the prospect of forced intra-district busing.  Because of New Jersey’s two mile rule, if preschoolers live beyond the two mile radius or if there are too many preschoolers for the available space in their local school, then the school district will be required by New Jersey law not only to provide bus services for these preschoolers but also for all of its other students within the district.  However, the cost of busing students will not be funded by the state. 


With the ever increasing number, scope and cost of state under funded mandates, it begs the question of what costly programs will Trenton require next?  Given the mandate for full day preschool classes, can state mandated full day kindergarten be far off?  This preschool mandate seems to lay the foundation for mandated full day kindergarten because it is difficult to believe that Trenton would mandate full day preschool as well as first grade but allow kindergarten to remain as only a half day program. 


However, many districts in New Jersey provide only half day kindergarten as a way of saving on facility and faculty costs because one teacher can teach twice as many students.  Because it seems as if the state is reluctant to commit the necessary resources to fully fund its preschool mandate, it seems likely that the state would also under fund a full day kindergarten mandate.  Given Trenton’s track record, it seems reasonable to expect that not only will state education mandates continue to be under funded but also that they will continue to drive up property taxes as a result. 




Brody, L., (2008) The Big Picture: Districts grappling with preschool mandate, The Record, September 21, 2008. 

McNichol, D., (2008) Budget troubles endanger $350M preschool plan, The Star Ledger, October 30, 2008. 

Wojcik, S., (2008) Full-day preschool program in the works at Alpha School, The Express-Times, September 24, 2008.   


Local School Districts mean Better Education: Why county-wide school consolidations increase costs and special interest group control

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

Is bigger really better?  This is the crucial question facing New Jersey’s schools as the state moves toward a consolidated county-wide school district framework.  The proposed consolidation would eliminate local school district administrative personnel and centralize the operation of each of the county’s schools within one county-wide district such as the model used in Maryland.  As a result, all decisions concerning local school functions would be made at the county level with little local recourse. 


While consolidation may sound tempting, because it is based on a presumption of economies-of-scale leading to assumed lower operating costs as well as improved administrative efficiencies which, in turn, are expected to result in lower property taxes plus greater parental engagement, the reality is much different, however.  It has been shown that county-wide districts often result in increased costs, increased bureaucracy, students being so remote that parents are less engaged, and increased special interest group control of the agenda, curriculum as well as the distribution of funds.  


County-wide school districts tend to expand the county departments of education into unwieldy bureaucracies.  These bureaucracies often become so large that their administrative costs exceed the combined cost of the local administrative personnel, including but not limited to superintendents, business administrators and directors of special education, they are supposed to replace.  Moreover, because these county departments of education are staffed largely by political appointees, they tend to operate without the essential public feedback that is the backbone of local boards of education. 


At the outset, New Jersey’s legislators used Maryland’s experience as a benchmark for the expected savings and efficiencies for New Jersey’s consolidation.  However, during her testimony to a panel of New Jersey state senators, Ms. Marie S. Bilik, Executive Director of the New Jersey School Boards Association, demonstrated that the total state-wide administrative costs of the Maryland school system exceed those of New Jersey’s.  While testifying in front of the New Jersey Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on March 20, 2008, Ms. Bilik referenced an U.S. Department of Education report (2006), “A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education ranks New Jersey 38th among the states and District of Columbia in the percentage of current expenditures devoted to administration.  That means 37 other states – including Maryland and Pennsylvania – spend more on administration than New Jersey.”  In addition, enrollment in New Jersey’s public schools was over fifty percent greater than that of Maryland during the same period and continues to exceed Maryland’s enrollment by similar margins.  Thus, rather than removing administrative costs, the Maryland model has actually added costs and administrative overhead. 


While New Jersey has not yet moved to a complete county-wide model, its recent school consolidation legislation has significantly increased the power of the politically appointed Executive County Superintendent.  Among these expanded powers is the ability to compel the creation or expansion of regional school districts with the ultimate goal of consolidating the regionalized districts into one county-wide school district in every county.  New Jersey’s county-wide school districts would be run by Executive County Superintendents, political appointees, who would not be accountable to the voters but rather would serve at the discretion of partisan political forces. 


But consolidation of local school districts into county level districts also tends to result in more of a traditional military-type command-and-control decision making process rather than a process controlled by local school districts with the active participation of local constituencies most notably local parents.  In a command-and-control model, while the federal and state policy makers develop the overall strategy for policy implementation, it is the county-wide school districts that combine these policies with their political directives to determine the curriculum, priorities and budget for each school.  However, because the county level is too distant from where education actually takes place and is more easily influenced by special interest groups, the result is often less parental engagement. 


Concentrating the school system at the local district level rather than at the county level will not only enable more resources to be focused on those most affected by education, the students, but also enable those most intimately involved in providing education, the teachers, to provide better instruction.  But the rise of county departments of education will also cause the local school districts to spend less time on students as well as parents because more time will be required to be spent on bureaucratic obligations thereby decreasing parental engagement which is a key component in improving student performance.  It is the local districts that not only are closest to the students but also have the necessary local expertise to most effectively decide how to provide a quality education. 


Indeed, it seems as if the reason for preventing or eliminating county-wide school districts is embodied in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.  In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court not only ruled against school racial segregation by striking down the practice of separate but equal but also established the right of all students to attend their neighborhood school.  Consistent with this ruling, it is essential that every child be able to attend their neighborhood school within a local school district free from the burden of county level bureaucracies so that the schools are better able to concentrate on improving every student’s performance. 


Consolidating local school districts into larger county-wide districts removes decision making authority from those most affected by educational policy decisions:  the individual student as well as his/her parents, school and district.  It also concentrates policy formulation and decision making at a centralized level where special interest groups have greater leverage on the policy makers and, as a result, greater control of the policy outcomes including local school budgets.  Moreover, consolidation of local school districts into county level districts while fewer in number tends to result in higher state-wide total administrative costs due to the lack of accountability, more political patronage and reduced local parental input. 




Bilik, M. S. (2008).  Testimony: FY09 State Budget, Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, Senate Annex, Committee Room 4, Trenton, New Jersey, March 20, 2008.   

U. S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2006).  Common Core of Data, August, 2006.



Allow Our Schools to Opt for Independence

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

To enable our public school districts to have the authority to improve education consistent with the needs of their local schools as well as have the necessary flexibility to innovate rather than march in lock-step to the state’s one size fits all mandates, local school districts should be empowered to opt out of the state system.  Public schools choosing to opt out would become independent public schools free of all state mandates except for perhaps reporting test results but they would also forgo all state aid.  Opting out of the state system would restore decision-making to the local school district level.  Because decisions guiding the operations of these schools would no longer be made largely at the county or state level, parents, teachers, school administrators and local taxpayers would be better able to shape the quality of education which their students receive in their local schools. 


Because the State of New Jersey forces most of its school districts to spend disproportionately more to meet the requirements of the state’s unfunded and under funded mandates than these districts receive in total state financial aid, if local districts opted out they would eliminate the excessive financial and administrative burdens imposed by the state.  This also would increase the financial resources available for the classroom because it would be much more cost effective for local school districts to provide educational programs and services without the administrative burden of state requirements.  The funds that are currently used for regulatory compliance with state mandates could be redirected to improving student learning and achievement, which after all is the real mission of our schools.  Changing our state’s educational system in this way would not only improve the quality of education but also increase property taxpayers’ return on investment. 


Rather than taking responsibility for its role in helping to create and foster the fundamental financial problems facing our educational system, Trenton seems to blame school districts for driving up property taxes.  Instead of fully funding their mandates driving up the cost of public education, their proposals to reduce the property tax burden focus largely on constricting school district funding, budgets, operations and the independence of local school districts. 


The state’s flawed approach is demonstrated in the new funding formula as contained in the New Jersey School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008 and its predecessor the Comprehensive Education Improvement and Financing Act of 1996 (CEIFA,) which caused higher property taxes and cuts in regular education.  Dr. Reock, Rutgers University Professor Emeritus, studied the financial impact on school districts of the state’s failure not only to not fully enact CEIFA but also to freeze most CEIFA funding beginning with the 2002-03 school year and reached a profound conclusion (Reock, 2007.)  Based on his study (Sciarra, 2008), Dr. Reock found that “the state aid freeze caused massive under-funding of many school districts throughout the state, especially poor non-Abbott districts, and contributed to the property tax problem in the state.”  Instead of fully funding the CEIFA school funding formula as required by law, the state froze financial aid to schools at their 2001-02 school year levels regardless of any increases in enrollment, rising costs as well as state and federal unfunded mandates.  The shortfall was hardest on those districts that were most dependent upon state aid.  During the 2005-06 school year the statewide shortfall amounted to $846 million which translated into per pupil shortfalls of $1,627 in non-Abbott DFG A and B districts, $758 in DFG C through H districts, $386 DFG I and J districts, and $188 in Abbott districts. 


The impact of the CEIFA funding shortfall was minimized on the Abbott districts largely due to their “parity-plus” court mandated protection.  State law forbids the budget of an Abbott district from falling below its level of the prior school year (Hu, 2006.)  Furthermore, under state law, if an Abbott district increases local property taxes without a state directive to do so, it will lose a similar amount of state aid. 


The CEIFA funding shortfall also caused serious imbalances between local school districts.  During the 2005-06 school year Abbott districts received approximately 58% of all state financial aid while educating only 23% of New Jersey’s K to 12 student enrollment.  This meant non-Abbott districts were educating 77% of New Jersey’s students with only 42% of state aid.  This imbalance has continued to widen under SFRA with Abbott aid increasing to approximately 60% of all state aid or $4.64 billion.  State aid reductions and the ever increasing unfunded state mandates force non-Abbott districts to balance their budgets by raising property taxes, increasing class sizes as well as cutting regular education programs and services.    


As part of his state of New Jersey Supreme Court certification in support of the Plaintiffs’ opposition to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008, Dr. Reock concluded (Sciarra, 2008) that “the State’s failure to fund CEIFA for the past six years directly resulted in an enormous shortfall of funding in districts across New Jersey.”  He went further to state, “By 2007-08, the sixth year of the CEIFA “freeze,” the total under-funding of state aid had reached $1.326 billion annually, despite the introduction of several new, smaller aid programs.”  The result was a state-driven increase in local property taxes within non-Abbott districts to make up for the shortfall. 


The fact that Trenton continues to force local school districts to pay for its under-funded and unfunded mandates that unnecessarily increase the cost of providing education and drive up property taxes is rather incomprehensible.  It is even more difficult to understand considering how our schools are suffering disproportionately from one of greatest financial crises ever to confront our nation.  Also, the State of New Jersey’s mandates harm the quality of education because they divert necessary resources to paying for the mandates’ costs rather than investing these scarce resources in the classroom where they are needed most.  Local school districts, therefore, would be able to operate more cost-effectively with lower property taxes and earn a higher rate of return on their educational investment if they opted out of the state system with its unfunded mandates. 





Hu, W., (2008) In New Jersey, System to help Poorest Schools Faces Criticism, New York Times, October 30, 2006. 

Reock, E. C. Jr., (2007) Paper, Estimated Financial Impact of the ‘Freeze’ of State Aid on New Jersey School Districts, 2002-03 to 2005-06,” Institute on Education Law and Policy, Rutgers University, Newark, http://  

Sciarra, D. G., (2008) Certification of Dr. Ernest C. Reock, Jr. for the Supreme Court of New Jersey in support of the Plaintiffs’ opposition to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, Education Law Center, Newark New Jersey,