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Letter to Duncan: N.J. Education Standards Are Hurting Minority Students

The new accountability system implemented by New Jersey's Education Department is disproportionately damaging for districts with lower-income minority students than schools with majority white students, according to a letter sent on Monday to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The letter, signed by a coalition of educators, administrators and civil-rights groups, alleges that the No Child Left Behind waiver, which New Jersey received in February, resulted in new standards put in place by the state Education Department.

The new state system targets certain "Priority" and "Focus" districts, which are threatened with closings and conversions to charter schools if they do not meet certain achievement outcomes. The classification, the letter charges, disproportionately includes school districts that serve predominantly low-income black and Hispanic student populations and would "reinforce racial and economic segregation and inequity in New Jersey's public schools."

In addition, the letter says, the state standards have classified "Reward" schools that are eligible for financial bonuses, which primarily include wealthier school districts with higher white student populations.

According to an analysis by the Education Law Center, an equal-opportunity advocacy group in New Jersey that co-signed the letter, 97 percent of "Priority" schools and 72 percent of "Focus" schools are largely Hispanic and black. In comparison, just 20 percent of students at  "Reward" schools have students of color.

The Obama administration began issuing waivers releasing states from core NCLB requirements after it became clear that Congress had stalled on reauthorizing the act. To be approved for the waiver, states must present their own education-reform plans, including their own accountability standards.

Since July, the administration has granted waivers to 32 states and the District of Columbia.

The coalition asks Duncan to temporarily suspend New Jersey's waiver until the administration can review the state's plans.

Here is the full text of the letter.

October 15, 2012

Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Education
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear Secretary Duncan,
We are writing to express our grave concerns about the negative impact of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waiver on New Jersey's most vulnerable children.

We understand that the waivers were an effort to return more control to the states to improve educational opportunities and outcomes. Unfortunately, here in New Jersey, it is quite clear that the NCLB waiver is being used to apply measures that are more damaging than NCLB would have been, particularly to low-income Black and Latino children.

Below, we detail our most pressing concerns with the program the State is implementing under the waiver: 1) introduction of a punitive accountability system that disproportionately impacts school districts populated by low-income children of color while rewarding selective schools and those populated by wealthier, majority white students; and 2) a process of State intervention that excludes low-income communities of color from substantive input in the planning or implementation of the proposed interventions.

To replace the NCLB framework, the State has adopted a new classification system that will reinforce racial and economic segregation and inequity in New Jersey's public schools.

The classification system uses state standardized tests, graduation rates, and gaps in achievement, to target a group of 75 "Priority" schools and 183 "Focus" schools for dramatic State-mandated intervention, including possible closings and conversions to charter schools. These Priority and Focus Schools serve overwhelmingly Black and Latino, very poor communities, and educate many students who do not speak English as a first language. The Priority schools are concentrated in some of the most distressed communities in the state and have a staggering 24% student mobility rate.

In contrast, the State has classified a group of 122 schools as "Reward" schools, based on high achievement or high levels of growth on state tests. These schools, which are targeted to receive financial bonuses, are located in the highest wealth districts in the state, serve a small percentage of Black and Latino students, have low poverty rates, few English language learners, and little student mobility. Many of these schools are magnet high schools and vocational schools, with highly selective admissions.

The blatant economic and racial inequity built into this classification system harks back to the days when such segregation and inequity were policy objectives for our State.

To accompany the new school classification system, the NJDOE is creating an infrastructure of 5 to 7 Regional Achievement Centers (RACs). The RACs, which are being partially funded by grants from private foundations, will have authority to take over the management of Priority and Focus schools, completely bypassing duly elected or appointed local school boards and district administrations.

The NJDOE is giving the targeted schools two years to reach arbitrary new achievement levels or face sanctions. It is highly improbable that the targeted schools will achieve the increased standards that the State is requiring, particularly as the State is simultaneously imposing severe funding cuts on these same school districts. Should they fail to achieve the increased standards, these schools will be subject to closure or the imposition of private management, not only without substantial community input, but in direct opposition to the wishes of the primarily low-income Black and Latino host communities.

In fact, this lack of participation or engagement of the host communities is evident in all aspects of the NJDOE's implementation of the waiver proposal, underscoring NJDOE Commissioner Cerf's expressed belief that fixing schools "isn't about consensus and collaboration." Not only have those residents whose children attend the targeted schools been left out of the planning and decision-making process, but so have the local boards of education, and the district administrations. Moreover NJ's entire waiver plan was adopted with minimal opportunity for public input, no legislative review and without the required regulatory rule-making process mandated by NJ's Administrative Procedure Act.

The potential end result of NJDOE's implementation of the waiver, with its lack of transparency, its punitive attack on high-poverty school districts, and its insidious disenfranchisement of communities of color, is the undermining and possible destruction of urban public education, including the systematic dismantling of any semblance of democratic governance.

We also want to highlight the threat posed by the recent granting of an additional Title I waiver to the NJDOE, which relaxes requirements that federal Title I funding be used for its prescribed purpose of addressing the negative effects of poverty on academic performance. Governor Christie has proposed redirecting some Title I funds among schools without regard to the degree of poverty, an explicit departure from federal Title I requirements. This diversion of funding flies in the face of the Title I program's objectives and would further hinder our ability to meet the needs of our most vulnerable students.

We ask that the US Department of Education immediately suspend its No Child Left Behind and Title I waiver provisions in New Jersey until there is a thorough review of the State's implementation scheme, especially as it pertains to disparate racial and economic impact and lack of community input.

Time is of the essence. The RACs are due to come on-line this fall and the clock has begun ticking for targeted schools in low-income communities of color.

Respectfully yours,

The Rev. Toby Sanders, President, Trenton Board of Education
Dr. Jonathan Hodges, Member and former President, Paterson Board of Education
Rosie Grant, Program Director, Paterson Education Fund
Julia Sass Rubin, Spokesperson, Save Our Schools NJ and Associate Professor of Policy, Rutgers
Frank Argote-Freyre, President, Latino Action Network
William Colon, President, The Latino Institute
Laverne Harvey, President, Camden Education Association
David Sciarra, Executive Director, Education Law Center
Deborah Sagner, Sagner Family Foundation
Junius Williams, Director, Abbott Leadership Institute
Kathleen Witcher, President, Irvington NAACP
Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, Executive Director, New Jersey Citizen Action
Katie Strom, a Founding Member of NJ Teacher Activists Group (NJ TAG)
Terry Moore, Save Our Schools March, NJ Information Coordinator
Donna M. Chiera, President, American Federation of Teachers NJ
Sharon Smith, Parents Unified for Local School Education (PULSE)
Michelle Fine, Professor of Psychology, City University of New York
Ras Baraka, Newark Southward Councilman
The Rev. Dr. Ken J. Gordon Jr., President, Southern Burlington County NAACP and Willingboro Councilman
Leah Owens, Chairperson, Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus
Antoinette Baskerville-Richardson, Chairperson, Newark Public Schools Advisory Board
Arnold Williams, Founder and Chairperson, League of Black and Latino Voters
Jose Delgado, Community Activist and former Camden BOE member
Teresa Vivar, Executive Director, LAZOS America Unida
Trina Scordo, Executive Director, New Jersey Communities United
Gordon MacInnes, Former Assistant Commissioner for Abbott Implementation and NJ State Senator
Donna Jackson, President and Founder, United Parent Network
Naomi Johnson-Lafleur, President, Trenton Education Association
Marcia Marley, President, BlueWaveNJ
Irene Sterling, President, Paterson Education Fund
Elease Evans, Chairwoman, New Jersey Black Issues Convention
Geraldine Carroll, President, Great Schools of New Jersey
Charles Wowkanech, President, New Jersey State AFL-CIO
Mary G. Bennett, Retired High School Principal, Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools
Reverend Darrell L. Armstrong, Founder, Shiloh CDC, Trenton
Paul Tractenberg, Professor of Law, Rutgers & Co-Director, Institute on Education Law and Policy
Wilhelmina Holder, President, and Laura Baker, Board Member, Newark Secondary Parents Council
Willie Rowe, Vice Chair, Coalition for Effective Newark Public Schools
Edward Barocas, Acting Executive Director, American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey
Kevin Walsh, Associate Director, Fair Share Housing Center
Dierdre Glenn Paul, President, African American Caucus of Montclair State University
Dr. Tamara Spencer, Literacy Graduate Program Coordinator, ECELE, Montclair State University
Sterling Waterman, Vice President, Jersey City Board of Education
Debra Jennings, Executive Co-Director, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network
James E. Harris, President, New Jersey State Conference of the NAACP

cc: President Obama
Gov. Chris Christie
The New Jersey Congressional Delegation
The New Jersey State Legislative Delegation
Commissioner Chris Cerf, New Jersey Department of Education
Arcelio Aponte, President, New Jersey State Board of Education