Most New Jerseyans support education reforms proposed by Gov. Chris Christie, such as tenure reform and voucher programs, according to a Monmouth University/NJ Press Media Poll released on Monday.
The public also supports some form of merit pay based on student performance, but is uncertain that current state tests are the best ways to determine that.
Teacher compensation has been one of the main sticking points in the current debate on education reform in New Jersey. Currently, 38 percent of New Jerseyans say that public school teachers are paid too little. This compares to 15 percent who say they are paid too much and 41 percent who say they are being paid about the right amount for the job they do. These findings are every similar to the results of a state poll conducted in 1992.
Christie wants teacher salaries to be based on student performance and classroom evaluations rather than simply a teacher’s academic credentials and years of experience. The public agrees with the governor, to a point. About one-third (32 percent) say that performance-based metrics should weigh more heavily in determining teacher compensation. However, nearly half (47 percent) feel that performance and experience should be given equal weight in determining an individual teacher’s salary. Another 18 percent feel that years of experience and academic degrees should be the most important factor in teacher pay.
Under one proposal, a major component in determining teachers’ performance would be how well their students do on the state “ASK” tests. While most New Jerseyans support the use of student performance in setting salaries, few are confident that the current tests are particularly good measurement tools. Just 1-in-3 say the standardized tests used in New Jersey schools do an excellent (6 percent) or good (29 percent) job at accurately measuring students’ abilities. Another 39 percent say they do an only fair job and 20 percent say they do a poor job. The findings are nearly identical when asked if these tests measure how well teachers are doing – 4 percent excellent, 27 percent good, 41 percent only fair, and 21 percent poor. These findings are similar for parents of public school students and other New Jersey residents alike.
“Democratic leaders in the Legislature have put the kibosh on merit pay, but the New Jersey public does not feel this is such a bad idea, Patrick Murray, the poll‘s director, said. “The sticking point is how to measure teacher and student performance.”
Another contentious issue is tenure reform. After working in a New Jersey public school for three years, a teacher is either given tenure or let go. The poll described tenure for teachers as being “basically given a permanent job unless they engage in serious misconduct.” More than half (52 percent) of New Jerseyans disapprove of this practice compared to 42 percent who approve of it. There is a clear partisan divide on this issue with 53 percent of Democrats approving of the current tenure policy and 69 percent of Republicans disapproving. Most independents also disapprove (54 percent).
Despite the political divide on the current tenure policy, more than 3-in-4 (77 percent) New Jerseyans of every partisan stripe, would support changing it to a limited tenure system which would evaluate teachers on a regular basis. A teacher who fails an evaluation would be given up to three years to regain their tenure or they could be fired if they do not improve. Only 18 percent of residents oppose the proposed change. Importantly, even among those who approve of the current lifetime tenure policy, an overwhelming 73 percent would support this change.
“It appears that New Jerseyans want some type of job protection for public school teachers, but broadly support modifications to the current system,” Murray said.
Another proposed change in education policy would be to provide vouchers for low-income students to attend a public or private school of their choice. A majority of 55 percent support “tax funded vouchers” compared to just 34 percent who oppose it. This is nearly identical to voucher support levels measured in a 2004 state poll.
When asked about the impact of vouchers on New Jersey’s education system, 27 percent say that vouchers would serve to strengthen public schools and 25 percent say they would weaken public schools, with another 42 percent saying that vouchers would have no impact on public schools. Seven years ago, slightly more (32 percent) New Jerseyans said vouchers would improve public schools while 26 percent – similar to the current poll – said vouchers would weaken them.
Charter school expansion is another area that Christie has emphasized in his reform agenda. The first charter school in the state opened its doors 14 years ago. Currently, 65 percent of New Jerseyans have heard about the state’s charter schools, which is up from 56 percent seven years ago.
There is some confusion over what a charter school is. Among those who say they are aware of New Jersey’s charter schools, only 36 percent know they are technically public schools. More (40 percent) believe they are actually private schools, and another 24 percent say they do not know whether charters are public or private. Among those who say they know a great deal about charter schools, 50 percent say that charter schools are public, 33 percent say they are private, and 17 percent say they do not know.
Furthermore, about half (49 percent) say they do not know whether charter school students are required to take the state’s standardized tests. Another 41 percent correctly say that they must, while 10 percent believe that charters are exempt from this requirement. Among those who say they know a great deal about charter schools, 55 percent say that charter schools must use the state’s standardized tests, 10 percent say they do not have to, and 36 percent do not know.
Among those who are aware of New Jersey’s charter schools, 39 percent say they provide a better education than traditional public schools compared to just 10 percent who say they do a worse job. Another 39 percent say charters provide the same standard of education. In 2004, 44 percent said charters did a better job, 11 percent said they did a worse job, and 26 percent said they did about the same as traditional public schools in educating students.
Public opinion on the impact of charter schools on traditional public schools is similar to vouchers. About 1-in-5 (20 percent) say charters actually strengthen public schools compared to 22 percent who say charters weaken them, with another 51 percent saying they have no impact on the quality of traditional public schools. Seven years ago, 14 percent said charters strengthened public schools to 24% who said charters weakened them.
Accountability has been one of the major issues in the charter schools debate, since charter schools are overseen by the state and not by individual school districts. Just over half (51 percent) of those familiar with charter schools say that better measures are needed to hold these schools accountable for the education they provide, while 28 percent say that appropriate measures are already in place. Another 21% have no opinion. This is comparable to New Jersey opinion about accountability for public schools in general.
Six-in-ten (63 percent) Garden State residents say their own local schools need more accountability – which is up from 55 percent in a 2006 poll – compared to just 29 percent who say adequate oversight is already in place – which is down from 39 percent five years ago. Among those who are familiar with charter schools, 33 percent say both their local public schools and charter schools need more accountability, 17 percent say public school oversight is adequate but charters need more accountability, 19 percent say charter oversight is adequate but public schools need more accountability, and 7 percent think both public and charter schools have adequate accountability.
Overall, ratings of the state’s education system have remained stable over the past 15 years, with a majority rating New Jersey’s public schools as either excellent (13 percent) or good (43 percent). Another 31 percent rate them as only fair and 10 percent say they are poor.
Some supporters of these education reforms say they will help lessen disparities in student performance based on wealth and race. The public is not particularly convinced this would happen. While 71 percent of New Jerseyans agree that it is very important to close the achievement gap between white and minority students, just 25 percent feel that the proposed reforms in New Jersey would accomplish that. Another 11 percent feel that they would actually widen the achievement gap and 41 percent say these reforms would have no impact.
The poll was conducted by telephone with 802 New Jersey adults from Aug. 3 to 8. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM