Tuesday, May 31, 2011

N.J. Senate Republicans discuss strategy following state Supreme Court education funding decision

New Jersey Senate Republicans have been asked to consider taking a unified position on public education that includes removing the Supreme Court from school funding decisions and granting the Legislature the power to determine what it means to provide a "thorough and efficient" education in public schools.

A Republican strategy memo, laid out in an e-mail from Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) to his caucus Friday and obtained by The Associated Press, asks fellow GOP senators for feedback on a three-pronged education plan in wake of a Supreme Court order requiring the state to invest $500 million more in 31 poor school districts.

"The purpose of this e-mail is to put forth what I believe to be the strongest course of action for the caucus as a whole and solicit your feedback and/or approval or disapproval," Kean wrote.

The plan includes supporting a constitutional amendment ending judicial interference in school funding decisions and giving the state wiggle room to reduce education funding in lean budget years. The resolution, sponsored by Sen. Steven Oroho of Sparta and co-sponsored by the other 15 members of the GOP caucus, was introduced in January but hasn't gained traction. It would require voter approval.

"It was meant as a framework for discussion within the caucus in light of the latest Supreme Court decision," Adam Bauer, communications director for the Senate Republicans, said of the e-mail. "It's a proposed plan for discussion — nothing's formalized, nothing's finalized."

Many Republicans, including Gov. Chris Christie, have disagreed with prior Supreme Court rulings on school funding, which have repeatedly ordered more funding for poor districts, known as Abbotts, in cities lacking a sufficient tax base to fully fund public education. Most recently, the court determined that Christie's education cuts were too deep to provide poor children with the "thorough and efficient" education the constitution requires. The order scrambled the state budget-making process weeks before a balanced budget must be adopted by June 30 and left some clamoring for the Legislature to assume a stiffer posture against the activist court.

"I have a plan for the Republicans, keep the funding formula intact," said Senate Democratic Leader Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), an advocate for public education funding. "And we need to build in models of successful school districts. The great equalizer is having a quality educational system that is accessible for all."

Besides pushing the Oroho amendment, Kean's approach includes advocating a change in the school funding formula so it allocates more money to suburban districts without shortchanging city schools, and embracing Gov. Chris Christie's education reform agenda, including ending traditional teacher tenure, tying teacher evaluations to student achievement and establishing merit pay.

Kean suggests a push to make the Abbott districts more accountable for the money they receive, but he doesn't specify where additional funding would come from for 174 other districts the court says are inadequately funded. "This course of action stays true to Republican principles, complies with public opinion, removes the court from school funding decisions, and requires accountability within the education system," Kean said in the memo. "It satisfies the sentiments expressed at our last caucus without alienating large swaths of the public."

Kean cites recent polling data to build his case to the caucus, saying solid majorities of women, independent and Republican voters all oppose education cuts in suburban and poor districts. "Cuts to education are deeply unpopular, even among Republicans; beating up on Abbotts isn't wildly popular with Republicans, let alone anyone else; everyone understands that money isn't the best way to improve education, but they're not willing to give it up; and reform proposals put forward by Gov. Christie and GOP senators dealing with tenure, merit pay, and salary caps are stone cold winners," Kean wrote.

Kean's memo doesn't suggest possible support for other proposed constitutional amendments sponsored by Republicans in the Senate or Assembly that allowing certain court orders to be defied or giving the Legislature final authority over public education. It also doesn't mention an amendment proposed by Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Oxford, that would do away with extra funding for poor children, and would provide equal school aid for each student no matter where they live.


Perry's higher education policy taking on a tea party flavor

Rick Perry had been governor of Texas for all of 13 days when he announced in January 2001 that higher education would be his top legislative priority. He called for voucher-style funding, an expansion of online learning and a dramatic increase in student financial aid.

More than 10 years later, reinventing public higher education remains a work in progress for the state's longest-serving governor.

That effort has taken an unusual turn lately, with prominent alumni, donors, business leaders and university officials questioning Perry's initiatives and those of his appointees to university governing boards. The governor, for his part, has accused critics, whom he did not name, of lying.

"The big lie making the rounds in Texas is that elected or appointed officials want to undermine or de-emphasize research at our colleges and universities," Perry wrote in a recent column in the American-Statesman. "That disinformation campaign is nothing more than an attempt to shut down an open discussion about ways to improve our state universities and make them more effective, accountable, affordable and transparent."

The GOP governor's higher education message has long had a populist tone, but it has taken on a tea party flavor of late. That's not surprising inasmuch as he has cultivated a political profile since the early days of the last gubernatorial campaign that emphasizes smaller, cheaper and more economically minded government, said James Henson , director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

At a time of declining state funding for colleges and universities, for instance, Perry has urged governing boards to develop $10,000 bachelor's degree programs and freeze tuition for four years.

"From a political point of view, the governor is on fairly safe territory being critical of the status quo in higher education," Henson said, adding that his approach appeals to his voting base more than to traditional Republicans, some of whom have been critical of the Perry administration on higher education.

Perry's pronouncements could mesh with a strategy to position him for a presidential or vice presidential candidacy, Henson said. The governor said last week that he would think about running for president.

"Conservative think tanks, which I think he listens to and trusts, have been very suspicious of the tenure system and the research mission of a lot of tier one universities," said Daron Shaw, a professor of government at UT. "It's not bad politics (to challenge the status quo), given his constituency and perhaps long-term interests."

Debate over the future of public higher education in Texas reached a full boil in March when Gene Powell, Perry's choice for chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, hired a $200,000-a-year adviser who had written dismissively of much academic research. The adviser, Rick O'Donnell, was dismissed after charging that officials were suppressing data on professors' salaries and workloads.

O'Donnell previously worked for charitable foundations run by Jeff Sandefer, a Perry donor and architect of several Perry-endorsed recommendations, including bonus pay for teachers based solely on student evaluations. When the Texas A&M University System adopted such a bonus system, the Association of American Universities called it a simplistic approach.

Some of the governor's appointees to the UT board, including Alex Cranberg and Brenda Pejovich , have pressed the nine UT academic campuses to pull together extensive data on faculty salaries, workloads, research grants and other measures of productivity — an exercise that UT President William Powers Jr., the Ex-Students' Association and others have faulted because it does not account for the quality and impact of professors' work.

Powell has both defended the regents' right to request such information and criticized an analysis of the draft data by an Ohio University researcher, who concluded that 20 percent of UT-Austin professors instruct most of the school's students.

The broad outlines of Perry's higher education policy, with an emphasis on affordability, access and accountability, first emerged on Jan. 3, 2001 , when he began crisscrossing the state to promote proposals from his Special Commission on 21st Century Colleges and Universities, a panel he established in 1999 while he was lieutenant governor.

The most important recommendation called for overhauling the way public colleges and universities are funded. Instead of appropriating money to schools, the state would place it in the hands of students.


British School reprimands seven-year-old boys for playing 'army game'

A primary school has been condemned by parents for disciplining two seven-year-old boys after teachers ruled playing army games amounted to "threatening behaviour". Staff at Nathaniel Newton Infant School in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, reprimanded the two boys after they were seen making pistol shapes with their fingers.

Teachers broke up the imaginary classroom shoot-out and contacted the youngsters’ parents, warning them that such behaviour would not be tolerated. The school, which caters for around 180 pupils aged four to seven, said the gun gestures were “unacceptable” and were not permitted at school.

However, parents have described the reaction as “outrageous”, while family groups warned that “wrapping children in cotton wool” damages their upbringing.

Defending its policy, a spokesman for Nathaniel Newton Infant School said: “Far from stopping children from playing we actively encourage it. “However a judgement call has to be made if playing turns into unacceptable behaviour. "The issue here was about hand gestures being made in the shape of a gun towards members of staff which is understandably unacceptable, particularly in the classroom."

A father of one of the boys who was disciplined said: "It’s ridiculous. How can you tell a seven-year-old boy he cannot play guns and armies with his friends.

"Another parent was called for the same reason. We were told to reprimand our son for this and to tell him he cannot play 'guns' anymore. "The teacher said the boys should be reprimanded for threatening behaviour which would not be tolerated at the school.”

The community primary school was rated as “good” overall in an Ofsted report published last year, but warned that children oughtt to have greater freedom to play. The inspectors praised pupils’ behaviour as “outstanding”, telling them in a letter: “Your behaviour is excellent and you work very well together.” They added that they had asked teachers to “make it easier for the children to play and learn outside”.

Parenting groups condemned the school’s reaction to the children’s game of soldiers, warning that it risked causing a rift between the school and parents.

Margaret Morrissey, founder of the family lobby group Parents Outloud, said: “It is madness to try to indoctrinate children aged seven with political correctness in this way. “Children have played cowboys and Indians like this for generations and it does them absolutely no harm whatsoever. “In my experience, it is the children who are banned from playing innocent games like this who then go on to develop a fascination with guns.

“We cannot wrap our children in cotton wool. Allowing them to take a few risks and play games outside is an essential part of growing up. “By reprimanding these youngsters at this age, the school makes a very big issue out of something trivial, which will divide the parents and teachers.”

The case follows a string of similar incidents in which children’s playtime activities have been curbed by overzealous staff over health and safety concerns. Earlier this year, a Liverpool school banned youngsters from playing football with anything other than sponge balls amid fears youngsters might get hurt.

Research last month also found that one in six British schools had banned conkers over concerns of pupils being hit in the face. Other traditional playground games such as British bulldog and even leapfrog are prohibited at 30 per cent 10 per cent of schools respectively, a study by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers union found.

Marcus Jones, the Tory MP for Nuneaton, said: “It is quite apparent that the seven-year-olds would be playing an innocent game. "This is political correctness gone mad. When I was that age that type of game was common place and I don't remember anyone coming to any harm from it."


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