Why Should You Care That Murphy’s Department of Education Is In Shambles?

When my younger daughter was in eighth grade, she and her classmates had to give a short speech about themselves. The topic she chose was “Everyone In My Family Is a Nerd Except Me.” Dad was a “genome nerd,” her older brother a “history nerd,” her older sister an “environmental science nerd,” and I was a “piano nerd.”

As my sweet girl, protestations aside, blossomed into her own nerdiness (bio-geo-chemistry, if you must know), I spent much of my time immersed in the arcane world of education politics and policy: government documents, state plans to fulfill federal law, databases, test scores, statistics. I still do.  And sometimes I forget to emulate my friend and colleague Lane Wright, whom we at Education Post call the “Jargon Slayer.” A case in point is my recent series of posts on dysfunction within the New Jersey Department of Education, rife with shoptalk that would provide ample fodder for Lane’s sword.

I want to do better. There’s too much at stake.

Example: in my last (jargon-laden) post, I discussed the DOE’s harsh audit of Asbury Park Public Schools, which revealed misallocations of federal funds. This happened while Lamont Repollet was superintendent there. Right after Gov. Murphy appointed him Education Commissioner he cancelled all audits, also referred to as “consolidated reports,” an act that several staffers described to me as retalitory.

Who cares? Just paperwork, right? Total nothing-burger. Nerd city.

Or not.  Why? Because Asbury Park’s failure to comply with federal regulations overseeing the use of federal funds hurts schoolchildren, almost all of color and low-income. This failure resonates dissonantly with an Administration that claims as its cornerstone equity, progressive values, and a focus on N.J.’s disenfranchised residents. (Full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Democrat and I voted for Murphy.)

Yet the full impact of Asbury Park’s negligence — as well as other districts — gets lost in obscure, nerdy rabbit holes of audits and funding streams and compliance regulations.

So let’s make this real. Let’s name a student at Asbury Park High School “Aliyah.” Aliyah is determined to be financially independent (like the majority of her peers she is economically-disadvantaged) and has her heart set on earning a certification in fashion design by the time she graduates. To earn that certification, she needs to take a sequence of courses that are part of Asbury Park’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) studies, funded by the federal government through “Perkins funds.” 

But there’s just one problem, revealed by this 2015 audit of Asbury Park’s CTE programs: “The district is offering a variety of electives without regard to sequencing for program completion”  and fashion design is specifically called out. In other words, Aliyah signed up for courses that she thought would lead to a career certification but the sequence of courses she needed to qualify didn’t exist.

So Aliyah graduates high school without her certification. She’s stuck.

She’s not the only one. Nerd alert: If you look at Asbury Park High Schools’ Performance Report under the category number of students that earned at least one industry-valued credential,” the number is 0.

Zero.

Asbury Park took Perkins money based on the premise that they had an intact program that would allow students like Aliyah to graduate with CTE certifications.  In one of the 32 findings of mismanagement described in the audit, the DOE under the Christie Administration ordered Asbury Park to “remit all charges associated with the district’s fashion design program of study during FY 2012-2013 and FY 2013-2014 to the NJDOE. Additionally, the district must implement procedures to ensure that only expenditures related to programs approved by the NJDOE are charged to the Perkins grant.”

So what happened next? Upon appointment by Murphy, Repollet cancelled all further audits, also called “consolidated reports.” (See here for the email sent to staff.)

It’s so easy for nerds like me to get lost in the data. But this isn’t just about accountability for CTE programs: It’s about Aliyah, let down by an mismanaged school district. Murphy’s appointment of Al Alvarez as Chief of the School Development Authority isn’t just about political favoritism: It’s about Katie Brennan, a Murphy campaign volunteer, allegedly raped by Alvarez, a senior campaign official. The multiple problems within the DOE’s Student Services Division (see here and here) aren’t just about abstractions of incompetent leadership: They’re about demoralized staff and lack of oversight for our neediest students.  Gov. Murphy’s subservience to NJEA leaders isn’t just about political expedience: It’s about pandering to patrons who demand a moratorium on public school choice despite parent demand for quality seats in districts like Asbury Park and erasing NJ’s ability to accurately measure the academic growth of students like Aliyah. 

Even incurable nerds like me can figure that out. It’s not the paperwork. It’s the people.

What do you think?

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