Author Archive: Bill Orr

About Bill Orr

University of Virginia Masters in English. Have lived in Argentina, Panama, Delaware, Virginia, California, NYC, and New Jersey for the last 25 years. Former editor and manager at McGraw-Hill, former President of Gay Activist Alliance of NJ, founder of NJ ActUp, and North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) in Newark.

Senator Buono Issues RTTT Subpoenas

The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee yesterday was granted the power through a Senate vote (21-14) to subpoena two key individuals in the state’s failed Race to the Top (RTT) federal education grant application. The committee met following the Senate session and formally issued subpoenas to former state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler and Larry Berger, CEO of Wireless Generation, the vendor chosen by the state to compile its application.

Senate Majority Leader and the committee chair Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) called the action “extraordinary but necessary,” because of the administrative roadblocks that have allowed officials to keep vital documents out of lawmakers’ hands, despite an extensive request for information under the state’s Open Public Records Act. Sen. Buono added, “As people hide behind OPRA, the more it raises the question of what they are hiding. Residents deserve answers, plain and simple.”

There had been an earlier agreement brokered between Governor Christie and Sen. President Sweeney that permitted release of partial OPRA material. However, to her credit, Sen. Buono has been persistent. Now with two key participants in the grant process under subpoena, more useful information should become available.

The Senate Legislative Oversight Committee will convene its RTTT hearing on Thursday, October 7. The committee’s subpoenas will seek testimony from the two individuals and demand they release all correspondence and documents related to the application. According to PolitickerNJ Sen. Buono told the Senate, “If the testimony taken and the documents produced at this hearing open an area of inquiry that suggests that we need broader subpoena power I’ll be back.”

NJ Education: Yes We Can!

“New Jersey’s commitment to implement its Abbott plan and ensure equitable resources to all students proves that it can be done at the state level – as New Jersey is the only state with a significant Black male population with a greater than 65% high school graduation rate.” John H. Jackson, J.D., Ed.D, President & CEO, Schott Foundation for Public Education

YES WE CAN: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010 presents positive news about education in NJ. The study demonstrates that whereas the US White Male Graduation Rate is 78%, in NJ the Black Male Graduation Rate (BMGR) is 69% and in Newark it is a high 75%. NJ overall ranks 9th among the 50 states in BMGR, but it is Newark’s record for which we can be most proud. As the report points out, “The increased resources from Abbott v. Burke funding in NJ, which became effective about 2003, have allowed the much-maligned Newark school district to nearly close the gap for Black males with national White male graduation rates.” Newark is ranked #1 in the Ten Best-Peforming Large Districts for Black Males.

The report also looks at the data by the percentage of Black male students scoring at or above proficiency, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2009, Grade 8 reading percentages.  This reveals that NJ and Kentucky Black male students rank at the top, with 15% at or above proficiency. As a point of comparison the highest ranking for White male students was 45% (MD) with NJ a close second at 44%, and the lowest score was 18% (WVA).

The report indicates that within NJ there continues to be significant gaps between Black male students and White male students.  As indicated above, the gap between 8th grade reading scores between Blacks (15%) and Whites (44%) is a significant 29%. Likewise, although the graduation rate of Black male students in NJ (69%) is not far below the national White male rate, 78%, it is considerably below the rate of NJ White male students, 90% which is 3rd highest in the country.

Decreasing the gaps is an important goal, but we have every reason to be extremely proud of NJ’s and Newark’s record. And we have cause for concern in how our record has been recently portrayed. As Bob Braun comments in today’s Star Ledger, “Christie, of course, refers to urban education in New Jersey as “obscene.” So, it’s little surprise he didn’t cite the Schott report, or other indicia of success. That wouldn’t fit the narrative he is trying to make us all believe, a narrative that somehow justifies cutting back on the very programs that were succeeding and replacing them with the sort of things in Washington, DC, that were not succeeding but do meet an ideological test.” Washington’s low male graduation rate was Black: 41% and White 57%.    

NJ Education: Yes We Can!

“NJ’s commitment to implement its Abbott plan and ensure equitable resources to all students proves that it can be done at the state level – as NJ is the only state with a significant Black male population with a greater than 65% high school graduation rate.” John H. Jackson, Schott Foundation for Public Ed.

YES WE CAN: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010 presents positive news about education in NJ. The study demonstrates that whereas the US White Male Graduation Rate is 78%, in NJ the Black Male Graduation Rate (BMGR) is a high 69% and in Newark it is an even higher 75%. NJ overall ranks 9th among the 50 states in BMGR, but it is Newark’s record for which we can be most proud. As the report points out, “The increased resources from Abbott v. Burke funding in NJ, which became effective about 2003, have allowed the much-maligned Newark school district to nearly close the gap for Black males with national White male graduation rates.” Newark is ranked #1 in the Ten Best-Peforming Large Districts for Black Males.

The report also looks at the data by the percentage of Black male students scoring at or above proficiency, using the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2009, Grade 8 reading percentages.  

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“Glory Days Glory Days”

“The problem was not that Americans lived beyond their means but that their means had not kept up with what the larger economy could and should have been able to provide. The American economy had been growing briskly … but a larger portion of the economy’s winnings had gone to people at the top…. The central challenge is to rebalance the American economy so that its benefits are shared more widely.” –  Robert Reich: AFTERSHOCK (Alfred A. Knopf – 2010)

Brescia:The Cost of Inequality substantiates this lack of balance. Inequality in NJ can be viewed in terms of 1) our poverty rate: 8.7%; 2) differences in our median household income: Whites: $47,036, Black: $29,293 and Latino: $35,744; and 3) the difference between the median income of the three above groups and the State median income of $64,470, suggesting a number of individuals with a disproportionately high income. In comparison with other states NJ fares worse, but not significantly so because these disparities have become widespread throughout the U.S.

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Dear Mayor Booker and Miss OPRA

             “I have very determined educational views,” Booker said. “Let’s trust Newarkers to be able to make the common commitment to… what that education should be.”

Mayor Booker has done a superb job of obtaining one of America’s largest grants for a school district. Mark Zuckerberg has been exceedingly generous. Governor Christie and the State Education Department, while maintaining veto authority, have indicated they will provide Booker with substantial authority. The reality is, however, that the individual who is successful in obtaining any large grant can not implement it alone but must rely on a variety of stake holders to carry out the effort, and it is these stake holders who ultimately generate the successful or unsuccessful outcomes.

Mayor Booker in the above quote reveals his conflicted nature.  As the charismatic visionary who motivated Mr. Zuckerberg to contribute, Booker says he has “determined educational views,” an important attribute to obtain the award. But he goes on to say, “Let’s trust Newarkers,” an even more important attribute needed to assure success.

Let’s hope he follows through by displaying leadership, by listening, and by seeking consensus.  His first step should be to be make public the terms and conditions of Zuckerberg’s grant, which provides the initial basis for future actions. So far he has not done so, but such action would show he “trusts Newarkers.” To encourage openness of discussion an OPRA request to the State Department of Education, which has legal authority over the Newark schools, has been issued. A second step for Booker is to make public with some specificity the intended use of the matching funds he is soliciting. Booker’s future and more important that of Newark school kids hang in the balance.  

What Is This Bridge and To Where Does It Lead?

Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant is a wonderful opportunity for Newark schools, but so far its contents have been wrapped in secrecy. In a grant there are terms and conditions upon which the donor and recipient agree. This grant is public information and its full contents must be made available.  So far there has been a TV show announcement, telephone conference call, numerous press releases, newspaper articles, and a press conference scheduled for 2:30 this afternoon at the Robert Treat Hotel. We have heard a lot of enthusiasm and platitudes, but little about what the grant specifies. I have twice emailed the city of Newark requesting a link to the grant, but have received no response.  Rather than hearing spin we need to see the award itself.

It appears that it will be paid out over a period of five years, that it may be in the form of Facebook stock, and that it requires matching. Does it include an advance payment available before matching funds are received and if so how much and when is it payable?  What is the payment schedule and required terms for ongoing payment? What are the matching requirements?

Does the grant specify goals and objectives and require certain tasks such as closing unsuccessful schools, creating vouchers, or investing in charter schools? Does it support enhanced nutrition, counseling and other indirect, but important, needs for Newark students? Does it have time frames to complete objectives? Does it require certain outcomes for ongoing funding? Does it require outside monitoring of activities and auditing of expenditures? Does it address the relationship between the city, state and Newark Board of Education?  

These are just a few questions the public has a right to know. There should also be information on the use of monies to be received by the foundation set up to solicit matching funds. Soon there should be a clear, written school reform plan from Newark officials, but in the meantime to bolster trust and support the full grant should be available for all to read.  

A Modest Proposal

        “I have been assured that a young healthy child is a most

        delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food.”

Jonathan Swift’s satirical Modest Proposal for ending the problem of poor children was for their parents to eat them. Today too many young and poor children, both American and foreign, fall into the grip of human traffickers. Now a Modest Proposal has been sponsored, initially by three Republicans and one Democrat, to further address the crisis. It provides an opportunity in our often divisive legislature for members of both parties to join together to pass a bill with little cost but a huge impact on those affected.

Senate Bill S-535 directs the Attorney General to publicize information about human trafficking hotlines and mandates law enforcement training on responding to the needs of victims of this crime. The 3-page bill just passed the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been sent to the Budget Committee. There is a companion House bill A1795.

As Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31) says, “For the victims of human trafficking, life can be a nightmare of abuse, forced servitude and ever-constant fear and intimidation. We need to give them the tools to break the cycle of servitude, and give the law enforcement community the training to meet the unique needs of these people. This affects runaways and at-risk kids who think that they have nowhere else to turn and fall in with the wrong crowd, and it affects individuals who’ve become dependent on illegal drugs and are forced into prostitution to get their next fix, among many others.”

We shall see if Democrats and Republicans work together to enact this Modest Proposal. The statewide hotline to report trafficking is 877-986-7534.

Thank the Giver and Implement Wisely

We have to await more information to understand the potential impact of Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg’s generous donation of $100 million to Newark for education. Money alone will not solve Newark’s long-standing school woes, but in this “once in a lifetime opportunity,” if used wisely it can certainly help. The total amount of money to be received is unclear. The “too many cooks spoil the broth” could present serious problems. However, it is likely that the award is open-ended enough to provide latitude for the creativity needed to strengthen Newark’s education system.

more below the fold

Democratic Senate and Fight Club (Continued)

     Fight Club Rule #7: Fights will go on as long as they have to.

Sen. Barbara Buono’s effort to get to the truth of what happened with the RTTT application has been undercut by both Governor Christie and Sen. President Sweeney who negotiated an agreement on Tuesday. The result of the negotiations represented a pyrrhic victory for Democrats – the governor’s agreement to release some OPRA requested documents but to maintain his right of executive privilege. Sen. Buono can proceed to examine the documents she will receive, but she will ultimately need subpoenas or other court intervention to get the complete story.

One of the outcomes of the negotiations was the governor’s agreement to turn over certain documents by Wednesday. As reported in yesterday’s diary Democratic Senate and Fight Club Rules, “receiving documents on Wednesday does not provide Sen. Buono’s committee enough time to prepare for a Thursday hearing or to verify whether all pertinent documents were supplied.” As a result, Sen. Buono’s Legislative Oversight Committee RTTT Hearing scheduled for Thursday, September 23, has been cancelled.

Another result of the negotiations as mentioned in the above diary was that “Sen. Sweeney gave away the right to receive documents from the Executive Office and to question the governor’s immediate staff.” As reported in today’s Star Ledger, Christie reaffirmed on Tuesday “he reserved the right to invoke executive privilege, which shields the governor from open records laws.”… “We’re going to turn over those documents which we believe are appropriate to turn over. If there are areas that we believe are covered by executive privilege, we’ll assert them and we’ll go from there.” In the most prominent case involving executive privelege then President Nixon initially refused to turn over Watergate tapes. He  finally did so but portions of them had been erased.

A matter left unclear is who will be available to testify at a rescheduled RTTT hearing. Some of the Governor’s staff members could appear, but on certain issues the governor has made clear they will invoke executive privilege. Both former Education Commissioner Schundler and the contractor Wireless Generation declined to appear before the earlier RTTT Assembly hearing. Sen. Buono has her work cut out for her, but she should follow Fight Club Rule #7: “Fights will go on as long as they have to.”

Democratic Senate and Fight Club Rules

Fight Club Rule #1 and 2: You do not talk about Fight Club

Fight Club Rule # 3: If someone says stop, goes limp, taps out, the fight is over

Fight Club Rule #7: Fights will go on as long as they have to

Following a slow start the Senate Democrats are now showing signs of fight. Thanks to Sen. Weinberg and others they displayed gumption in their failed veto override effort, but they promise  to continue their struggle with two new women’s health care bills. Their effort with regard to Sen. Buono’s investigation into RTTT was a phyrric victory. In a negotiation between Sen. President Sweeney and Governor Christie, they gained the acquiescence of the Governor to provide requested OPRA documents from the Education Department but gave away the right to receive documents from the Executive Office and to question the Governor’s immediate staff. As in the movie of the same name, they don’t have to talk about Fight Club (Rule #1 and 2); they just have to follow Rule #7. Governor Christie, Senate Republicans, and The Treasurer covered themselves with shame in the process.

Stalking horse Sen. Diane Allen (R-7th), an erstwhile supporter of the women’s health bill, brought news to the Senate chambers.

read about it below the fold….