EDUCATION

NJ Spotlight Editor on Recent Developments in New Jersey Schools

On the education front, New Jersey schools are still scrambling to make up for lost time due to superstorm Sandy. A landmark labor agreement was ratified in Newark. And a recent study gave high marks to charter schools. To discuss these developments, NJ Today Managing Editor Mike Schneider spoke with NJ Spotlight founding editor and education writer John Mooney.

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With 600 school districts, Mooney says it’s hard to track how schools are coping with the disruption caused by Hurricane Sandy which shut down schools and displaced students for days and weeks.

“I think the state was pretty proactive in making sure that schools were aware of their responsibilities to serve these kids,” he said. To meet that objective, Mooney says schools resorted to a law that was intended to aid homeless kids. “Really you take them in and ask questions later in terms of paperwork,” said Mooney.

The data is still not out in terms of how many students were displaced in New Jersey, but it may be significant considering the tally in New York City,

“In New York City, it was something like 20,000. So it can be a real chore for districts to deal with this and we should know sooner or later,” Mooney said. “But clearly even the two weeks that were lost during the storm [is] a lot of time lost in the beginning of the year and certainly puts pressure on schools not just their schedules and their budgets but also on the instruction that they want to bring during the course of the year.”

Earlier this week, a Stanford University study released its findings that New Jersey charter schools significantly outperform their public school peers with similar backgrounds on most standardized tests. The subject of charter schools in New Jersey has become a lighting rod issue among educators, lawmakers and parents. “Any time there’s a charter study, there’s a charter study debate,” said Mooney. He adds that while the overall numbers is favorable to the state’s charter school community, the devil is in the details.

“When you start digging down into them, a lot of those were really very specific to Newark which has had a very strong charter network largely built around a few very prominent national networks but also some smaller ones that have done well.”

Outside of Newark, the numbers paint a mixed picture, according to Mooney.

“There was I think, overall in the state, 30 percent were doing better than their district school, 10 or 20 percent doing worse and, then that middle ground about 50 were doing about the same.”

Despite the mixed picture, Mooney says it was good press for the charter school community and will certainly keep the debate going “in terms of what to do next with charters and how much the state wants to have oversight over them.”

Earlier this month, the Newark school district ratified a historic labor contract with the Newark teachers union. What made the deal so momentous was that it includes merit pay for certain teachers.

Calling it a “big deal,” Mooney says exemplary teachers will get performance bonuses for the first time, earning anywhere from $5000 up to $12000 depending on the school. The fact that it’s being done in the state’s largest city is significant, he adds.

“New Jersey hasn’t tried that on a large scale before,” said Mooney. “Other places have in the country — Washington, D.C., Denver and the like.” Helping to make the agreement possible is the grant from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

“A key piece to this is that some of that money is going to be coming out of that Facebook grant from Mark Zuckerberg,” said Mooney.

Like charter schools, merit pay provokes vigorous debate. “There are folks who aren’t big fans of performance bonuses cause they think that it leads to some morale problems in unions and faculties of schools,” said Mooney, who adds that it will be a test for Newark superintendent Cami Anderson who is charged with the task of making it work. “She will start putting it together and we’ll be hearing a lot more of it as it hits the ground.”