Waters: As N.J. Governor, Legislature & Teachers Union Wrangle Over PARCC, the Fate of 170,000 High School Seniors Hangs in the Balance

Gov. Phil Murphy (Michael Brochstein / Getty Images)

Phil Murphy won his New Jersey governorship in 2017 by promising progressive action on items as varied as a $15 minimum wage, raising taxes on millionaires, increasing gun control, and fully funding schools and teacher pensions. Another of those promises, as he vowed during his keynote at the 2016 New Jersey Education Association convention, was to “scrap PARCC day one.”

Now this anti-Chris Christie is in a bind, because while he has successfully, if incompletely, fulfilled some of those promises, other remain out of reach. And the story behind his promise to eliminate PARCC testing — which, for the first time in the state, accurately evaluates student readiness for college and/or careers and neatly aligns with the “gold standard” assessment called NAEP — offers a window into what may make him a one-term governor.

Blame it on the New Jersey Education Association. Or, more precisely, blame it on Murphy’s sycophantic appeals to the union leaders’ good graces, the power they yield over his agenda (his deputy chief of staff is the union’s former associate director of government relations), and their animosity toward state Senate President Steve Sweeney, whom Tom Moran, editor of the Star-Ledger, recently dubbed “Gov. Sweeney.” (Sweeney was actually a gubernatorial contender until Murphy bought out the county bosses. There’s a reason New Jersey is called the “Soprano State” — and it has little to do with real housewives, Jwoww, or Snooki.)

One example among many of Murphy’s obeisance: Last spring, he enfeebled the state’s 2012 tenure reform bill by reducing the weight of student outcomes on teacher evaluations from 30 percent to a meaningless 5 percent. Union president Marie Blistan said approvingly, “Governor Murphy showed that he trusts parents and educators when it comes to what’s best for students.”

Let’s circle back to PARCC. When first administered in 2014, after years of state tests that artificially inflated student outcomes, these accurate proficiency scores were a shock to families and an embarrassment to the union because they empirically demonstrated New Jersey’s habit (shared with many states) of handing out high school diplomas like participation trophies at tee-ball games. For example, at Essex Community College in Newark, 85 percent of first-year full-time freshmen have to take remedial math courses, and only 8 percent graduate. Thus, to fight implementation of reliable assessments and spike the opt-out rate, the union started a political action committee called NJ Kids and Families and spent somewhere between $10 million and $15 million in member dues on billboards, test refusal “tool kits,” and media buys. While opt-out rates were high that first year, particularly in white rich suburbs, participation is way up and scores continue to rise.

Yet five years later, the union maintains its animus to end-of-year course assessments. (There are alternative routes, including portfolio assessments.) When PARCC was first implemented during the Christie administration, passing grades on six tests (English Language Arts 9, 10, and 11, Algebra 1, Geometry, and Algebra 2) were diploma requirements, which does seem like a lot. And so this past September, Murphy’s education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, proposed to the State Board of Education that New Jersey reduce those six qualifying tests to two: ELA 10 and Algebra 1.

The board demurred and added back ELA 9 and Algebra 2. State Senate Education Committee chair Teresa Ruiz said in relief, “I’m in favor of change all the time. We should be changing the mark. But it should be moving it up, and not staying in one place or even lowering the bar.”

But that wasn’t the end of union advocacy for lower standards and inflated proficiency rates. Seizing on a technicality — a 1988 statute that limits graduation proficiency tests to 11th- and 12th-graders — Education Law Center, which derives one-third of its funding from the union and shares its agenda against accountability and school choice, sued the board, state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, and Christie’s last education commissioner, Kimberley Harrington.

In December, the appellate court ruled in the center’s favor.

From the ruling:

“We hold N.J.A.C. 6A:8-5.1(a)(6), -5.1(f) and -5.1(g) are contrary to the express provisions of the Act because they require administration of more than one graduate proficiency test to students other than those in the eleventh grade, and because the regulations on their face do not permit retesting with the same standardized test to students through the 2020 graduating class. As a result, the regulations as enacted are stricken.”

The union, Education Law Center, and Save Our Schools released celebratory balloons. Blistan called the decision “beneficial to students.” An Education Law Center attorney said that “today’s ruling vindicates our position.”

Or not.

New Jersey may be a hot mess, but we’re blessed by a small cohort of educationally literate legislators, including Ruiz and the chair of the Assembly Education Committee, Pamela Lampitt. On Jan. 17, the state Senate and Assembly released companion bills, backed by the New Jersey School Boards Association, that would change that 1988 law and allow Christie’s graduation requirements, approved by the state board in 2016, to stay in place.

Ruiz explained, “The easiest way to go about it, we all decided, was to have a legislative fix.” That fix would grandfather in 170,000 high school seniors due to graduate in June as well as next year’s seniors, allowing them to use the requirements that were valid before the court ruling — i.e., passing the 10th grade English and Algebra 1 PARCC tests or meeting a benchmark on a variety of other exams including the SAT, ACT, Accuplacer, and the military eligibility assessment. Meanwhile, the Education Department would develop other tests. The vote had been scheduled for Feb. 4.

But on Jan. 24, the Murphy administration formally requested that the Legislature delay the vote until the department appeals the court’s ruling, a plea echoed in this letter to Sweeney from Education Law Center. Ruiz, according to NJ Spotlight, didn’t name names but “took PARCC opponents to task for leaving students mired in uncertainty, saying that chaos is ‘precisely what other groups want to see happen.’”

Indeed. As Shakespeare put it in Othello, Murphy is led by the nose, “as asses are”: 170,000 students are due to graduate in five months without any clue about how to meet diploma requirements because the administration’s actions are driven not by what’s best for students but what’s best for the teachers union’s leaders.

Yet herein lies an opportunity for Murphy to demonstrate to voters that he’s not a doormat but a leader, not a pawn for special interests but capable of making decisions that reflect this state’s ongoing efforts to stop inflating graduation rates, retain transparency for families regarding student achievement, and raise standards.

Can he do it? The jury’s out on that. But if he can reel back the chaos (which extends far beyond diploma requirements) and extract that nose ring, he may have a chance to resuscitate his flaccid governorship and — who knows? — win a second term.

Laura Waters writes about education policy and politics at NJ Left Behind, New York School Talk, Education Post, and other publications. She just finished serving 12 years on her local school board in Lawrence, New Jersey, and was president for nine of those years.

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