Officials call for civility in NJ education debate

| 15 Feb 2012 | 10:03

    ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Education officials meeting in Atlantic City last week called for more civility as the debate intensifies over sweeping changes in New Jersey public schools. Gov. Chris Christie and the powerful teachers' union have clashed as Christie attempts to advance an education agenda that includes abolishing lifetime teacher tenure, awarding teacher raises based on merit and tying their evaluations to student achievement. On Wednesday, the executive director of the union and Christie's own education commissioner asked that discussions be less politically charged in separate panel discussions sponsored by the New Jersey School Boards Association. “The political discourse we are having in this state about educator effectiveness is unusually, and I think unnecessarily, charged," Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf said. “It's characterized by remarkable misstatements and political posturing." New Jersey Education Association Executive Director Vince Giordano said earlier that a continued lack of civility could doom efforts to bring about education changes. The changes sought by Christie and others are being driven by the achievement gap between low- and high-income school districts. While statistics show New Jersey has among the highest graduation rates in the country, that rate drops to 24 when students graduating by alternate means are factored in, said the Rev. Reginald Jackson, executive director of the Black Ministers Council and an advocate of overhauling urban schools. New Jersey has the fourth widest achievement gap in the nation between rich and poor students, and Christie has said repeatedly that many urban schools are failing the students who attend them and the taxpayers who pay for them. Proponents believe that changing the way teachers are retained, evaluated and compensated will improve student performance. Others insist that the larger problem of poverty must be addressed or impoverished students will continue to lag. Opponents of Christie's agenda fault him for eliminating funding for a popular afterschool program for low-income children and for cutting funding to schools in his first year in office. Facing a slightly improved economy, Christie returned some of the money he had cut from the education budget this year. The state Supreme Court also ordered the administration to budget hundreds of millions more for poor, urban schools than was proposed for the year. The latest debate involves what changes to make to public education and how best to make them.