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Cooperman Legacy: Gutsy Reforms, Unsolved Problems

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Trenton, NJ--Saul Cooperman has a saying tacked to his closet door: ''Never for the sake of peace and quiet deny your experience or convictions."

The quote is an apt one for New Jersey's outgoing Commissioner of Education, who is scheduled to leave office next month. For the past eight years, the dogged and persistent educator has pushed New Jerseyans to pioneer some of the nation's most controversial school reforms.

His state was the first to provide a minimum starting salary of $18,500 for beginning teachers; the first to allow non-educators into the profession through an "alternate route"; the first to seize control of an "academically bankrupt" school district.

In the process, the man who describes himself as "bookish and introspective" has frequently managed to outrage most of New Jersey's education organizations.

But he has also built a reputation as a leader with "guts," according to one educator, a "fierce debater" who shoots straight from the hip, according to another.

"You get no doubletalk from Saul Cooperman," says Senator Matthew Feldman, the Democratic chairman of New Jersey's Senate Education Committee. "He's very straight. If he feels he's right, he can be inflexible. But he doesn't dance around issues. He's not afraid to tackle tough problems. And he doesn't look for the easy way out."

Mr. Cooperman typifies the activist commissioners of the 1980s. Many took advantage of the national school-reform movement to further their own state agendas. Like his fellow commissioners, Mr. Cooperman guided the shift from a heavy emphasis on local control toward a much stronger state role in education.

But the blue-eyed, brown-haired executive has been more flamboyant and outspoken than most.

He was also "blessed"--in his own words--with an equally activist governor. As chairman of the Education Commission of the States and co-chairman of the governors' task force on education, Republican Thomas H. Kean earned national recognition for his leadership in school reform.

Together, the two transformed the Garden State into a testing ground for national ideas about schooling and exported many of their own notions nationwide.

Their legacy includes nearly 40 initiatives designed to increase expectations for students, create a better-paid and better-educated teaching force, and ensure a stronger system of state accountability.

But in the end, critics maintain, that sweeping agenda failed to address some of the most pressing problems in school reform.

They include the plight of urban school districts and the limits of a highly centralized, top-down bureaucracy.

Moreover, their final legacy may be the one they least desired: the probable loss of a school-finance suit, Abbott v. Burke, that could reshape the state's entire educational system.

"You certainly can't fault them for inaction," notes P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, Columbia University.

"They saw problems, and they tried to respond to them," he says. "But I think that they have very much met up with the limitations of their strategy in terms of the top-down imposition of standards and requirements."

'It Can't Be Me'

Few would have suspected that Mr. Cooperman, a relatively unknown local superintendent in prosperous Morris County, N.J., would end up on so many hit lists.

Indeed, he was not even Mr. Kean's first choice for commissioner.

In April 1982, Governor Kean nominated Ronald H. Lewis, then a deputy secretary in the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to become New Jersey's first black superintendent of schools. But Mr. Lewis withdrew his nomination a month later, after admitting that he had plagiarized large portions of his doctoral dissertation.

Mr. Cooperman, who began his career as a high-school history teacher, was nominated in June of that year, based on the recommendations of a professional headhunter.

"My wife and I took it as a lark, on the first interview," he recalls. "I thought: 'It can't be me. Here I am in a little district. I've never been down to Trenton. I've never been involved in politics. And I didn't give Tom Kean a nickel."'

Today, the native New Jerseyan appears self-possessed and assured as he prepares to leave office. Sitting erect, in rolled-up shirt-sleeves in the mid-afternoon heat, Mr. Cooperman answers questions openly and nondefensively.

So much so, in fact, that it is hard to imagine this is the man whose face reddens and jaw tightens when confronted with dissent, according to one critic, or, in the words of another, the man "who thought he was right all the time."

Perhaps the problem is that, while Mr. Cooperman was raised, educated, and worked all his life in New Jersey, he has never been an "insider."

As a state leader, he often championed school reforms over the loud protests of the education establishment and without an undue concern for consensus-building. Although top aides hasten to describe him as a ''warm" individual, they admit it is a side of his nature that is not readily apparent.

"He wouldn't be what I would call a drinking buddy," Harry A. Galinsky, superintendent of the Paramus Public Schools, says, referring to Mr. Cooperman's tenure as a local superintendent.

By the end of his first year, the fledgling Commissioner--who says he had "no mandate for massive change"--managed to alienate the powerful New Jersey Education Association by proposing that teachers' seniority rights be limited to subjects in which they had actually taught.

By the beginning of his second year, he and Governor Kean had unveiled a blueprint for school reform that included revising the state's testing and graduation requirements, raising the starting salary for teachers, creating a state academy to provide continuing training for educators, and piloting a master-teacher program.

"It was Cooperman's ideas and Kean's clout that combined to get ideas through," observes Robert J. Braun, a reporter for The Star-Ledger in Newark and, in the view of many, a staunch supporter of the Commissioner.

Governor Kean, Mr. Braun notes, was "inordinately powerful in the legislature, and popular, too."

Evidence of the Governor's popularity was the NJEA's endorsement of his bid for re-election in 1985, the first time that it had ever supported a Republican candidate. Indeed, few doubt that Mr. Kean could have won a third term, had the law permitted him to run.

The two men's respect for each other runs deep. Mr. Kean describes Mr. Cooperman as "the best education commissioner the state has ever had."

"What I liked was his thoughtfulness," the former Governor asserts. "He's particular. There weren't any loose ends."

'We Coined' the Term

One of the highlights of their early years together--and a hallmark of the Kean-Cooperman era--was a plan that opened up teaching to individuals without education degrees. Such "alternate routes" provide a fast track into teaching for people with subject-matter expertise.

"The whole term 'alternate certification' we coined," Mr. Cooperman says proudly. "We called it alternate certification because we really didn't know what to call it."

The state board of education adopted the proposal in September 1984 and implemented it a year later, despite harsh criticism from the NJEA and teacher educators nationwide. By allowing individuals to bypass traditional teacher training, one critic predicted, the plan would attract only "dogs, drunks, and derelicts."

Six years later, more than 1,500 teachers have been employed in New Jersey via the alternate route, including 24 percent of all first-year teachers hired last September. Most observers now single out the program as one of the shining lights of the Kean-Cooperman Administration.

According to the Commissioner, the program has unearthed a "gold mine of talent" for New Jersey's schools.

In 1989, the President's Education Summit identified alternate-routes for teachers as one of five initiatives that ought to be pursued nationwide. Since 1984, at least 20 other states have created some form of alternate certification designed to attract nontraditional recruits into teaching.

'Outstanding' or 'Outrageous'?

The alternate route has been an "outstanding accomplishment," says Susan H. Fuhrman, director of the Center for Policy Research in Education. "It's become a model. It isn't perfect, but it was carefully designed. And some very interesting people have been attracted to teaching as a result."

At the same time, the state tried to strengthen existing teacher-education programs by raising admissions standards, requiring students to major in an academic subject, and limiting the amount of professional- education coursework.

But critics charge that Mr. Cooperman built up the alternate route without first trying to strengthen traditional teacher preparation. And they are particularly harsh regarding the lack of support for alternate-route candidates, who are supposed to receive much of their supervision and training from mentor teachers at the school site.

According to a study of 73 alternate-route candidates released last month by Joe M. Smith, an associate professor of education at Trenton State College, two-thirds did not receive supervision in any given week during their first 20 days in the classroom. Twenty-three percent were never observed during that time. "It's outrageous, absolutely outrageous," he asserts.

A 1988 report by the Council for Basic Education similarly criticized the training and supervision that alternate-route candidates received.

Nicholas M. Michelli, dean of the school of professional studies at Montclair State College, also contends that by failing to involve teacher educators in the program from its conception, the Commissioner "created a wall between the department of education and the higher-education community in New Jersey that was never really scaled."

'Top-Down Mentality'

The alternate-route program--on which Mr. Cooperman later expanded by proposing alternate routes for both principals and superintendents--set the tone for many of his future interactions with the education community.

"Commissioner Cooperman had a definite, top-down administrative mentality, which evidently came with him into the job," complains Betty Kraemer, president of the NJEA "And no matter how many times we tried to talk to him about that ... he just kind of put his head down. The reforms were coming out of his department, and that was the way it was going to be."

Although Mr. Cooperman would occasionally hold meetings to ask for input, she contends, "when it was given, it was totally disregarded."

The criticism is not fair, Mr. Cooperman maintains.

In 1982, for example, Mr. Cooperman appointed a committee with broad representation to help design the state's new monitoring system. The alternate route for teachers was modified to encourage districts to work closely with colleges and universities, based on the recommendations of educators. And in the final version of the state takeover bill, Mr. Cooperman bowed to political demands not to eliminate tenure for principals.

But it is true that a number of the most controversial proposals were released without prior consultation with the education community. Often, critics say, the proposals were already so finely crafted that educators were put on the defensive and found it difficult to react.

Saul Cooperman has "taken on a couple of sacred cows," says Dennis G. Kelly, superintendent of the Ewing Township Public Schools, "which I think is very commendable. He has tried to force movement in the districts. But in the process ... he has not brought along people at the local level. So it's a double edged sword: trying to get movement from the top and not involving people at the bottom."

Both fans and critics portray Mr. Cooperman as a man who believed so strongly in his agenda that he sometimes had trouble accepting alternative points of view.

But Richard Mills, a former aide to the Commissioner and to Governor Kean, maintains that Mr. Cooperman was "easily moved by rational argument and facts."

"He was not movable at all, if you wanted to apply political pressure," adds Mr. Mills, who is now the Commissioner of Education in Vermont. "I can remember many times when the pressure started to mount, and, on matters of principle, he would just dig in."

In his defense, Mr. Cooperman says the role of a leader is to act, not to find the "safe ground" or to "accommodate special interests."

"I never thought I'd have this job," he now says. "I was thrilled when I got it. I was honored to be working with a guy like Kean. And I felt I had to go at flank speed every minute because I didn't know how long this was going to last."

"My friends would say I'm determined and persistent," he asserts. ''I like those words. My critics would say I'm stubborn."

State Takeover

Certainly, one of the most prominent examples of Mr. Cooperman's--and Governor Kean's--persistence is New Jersey's state-takeover legislation.

According to the Commissioner, he first proposed the idea to Mr. Kean in November 1985, based on an article he had read in Forbes magazine about how receiverships worked in the business community.

Governor Kean unveiled the initiative, which allows the state to assume control of districts that fail to meet academic standards, in June 1986. But it was not approved by the legislature until January 1988, after having been voted down twice.

In May 1988, Mr. Cooperman began proceedings to take over the Jersey City Public Schools, describing the district as "bleak" and rife with political patronage, cronyism, and fiscal misdealings. Since then, the department of education has replaced the district's superintendent and its school board.

The takeover of an "academically bankrupt" school system is the final step in New Jersey's monitoring system, which Mr. Cooperman has repeatedly pointed to as one of the primary ways for the state to ensure a "thorough and efficient" system of education for all its children, as required by the state constitution.

According to Mr. Cooperman, he was probably the "least likely" individual to propose such a drastic measure.

As a local superintendent, he had believed that with "enthusiasm, motivation, and intelligence, you get people to do a better job." And he had been a frequent critic of his predecessor, Fred Burke, for excessive state intrusion in local affairs.

"I abhor monitoring," he maintains. "I don't like to be an inspector. But it's the law. I do it."

Observers say it is still too early to tell whether the state's takeover of a local school system will significantly improve education for students. But according to Richard W. Roper, director of the program for New Jersey affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, enactment of the legislation "gave credibility to the idea that the state has a major role to play in helping urban school districts improve."

"I think there was a sense on the part of urban parents that something had to be done," he says, "and the state-takeover program was accepted in a number of places as a clear indication that the state was willing to take action."

'A Total Failure'

Yet, it is in the area of urban education that Mr. Cooperman meets his harshest critics.

Although New Jersey is the second-wealthiest state, a 1982 study conducted by the Brookings Institution found that 4 of the nation's 11 most distressed cities are located there. In 1980, more than half of the state's black population and more than one-third of its Hispanic population lived in seven New Jersey cities.

According to Marilyn J. Morheuser, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in Abbott, any efforts that Mr. Cooperman made to correct urban deficiencies "were so small or so bungled because of a lack of real concern that I think he was a total failure in urban education."

Such allegations bring Mr. Cooperman rising out of his seat.

"We have an urban agenda," he asserts, "that we should, first of all, not have disruptive children; kids should learn the basic skills; they should speak English; there should be specific programs tailored to urban children; and we should reach out to parents. There was a five-part program, and, under each part, we had very specific initiatives."

Although many of those initiatives were statewide and were not limited to urban schools, he maintains, "the great preponderance were tailored" to urban students. As an example, he notes that the state increased funding for compensatory education from $80 million to $150 million to help students meet new testing standards. The bulk of that money went to urban districts.

But one of the Kean Administration's most widely touted urban programs--Operation School Renewal--is conceded, even by Mr. Cooperman, to have been a "mediocre" success.

And the state dropout rate has remained relatively flat. A study by Philip Burch, a research professor at Rutgers University, estimates that dropout rates in such urban districts as Paterson, Jersey City, and Trenton approach 50 percent.

Josiha Haig, superintendent of the East Orange School District, said the state's assumption of East Orange's fiscal affairs and its emphasis on enforcing regulatory standards "helped to bring back respectability and accountability" in that city.

But in general, he asserts, "there was very, very little consideration of the kinds of problems that inner-city school districts were having."

'Two New Jerseys'

Most urbanites are now looking anxiously toward the Administration of Gov. James J. Florio, a Democrat, to correct that situation. Mr. Florio, whose support comes from the cities, has already intimated that he will focus heavily on urban issues.

Late last month, he nominated John Ellis, the superintendent of the Austin, Tex., school system, to succeed Mr. Cooperman as Commissioner. And he has pledged to unveil a revised school-aid formula that would direct more state money to poor districts and shift the burden for financing education away from local property taxes.

In an October 1989 article in the New Jersey Reporter, Thomas B. Corcoran--now Governor Florio's education adviser--and Herbert T. Green, director of the Public Education Institute, took Mr. Cooperman to task for his failure to improve urban schools.

By replacing the state's existing basic-skills test with the more demanding High School Proficiency Test, and then moving the examination to the 11th grade, Mr. Corcoran says, Mr. Cooperman raised standards and achieved "modest" progress.

Scores on the hspt have gone up dramatically in the past four years, he notes, "including some fairly dramatic gains in urban districts."

In addition, Mr. Corcoran asserts, the state's monitoring system has led to positive results in some big-city school systems, such as Asbury Park, Pleasantville, and Camden.

But, he argues, because the state's monitoring effort emphasizes basic skills and mandated programs, it has resulted in "two New Jerseys": wealthy suburban districts that offer advanced courses in science, music, art, and social studies, and poor urban areas that have reduced such coursework in favor of basic-skills instruction.

Mr. Corcoran and Mr. Green also accuse the state of using a "heavy-handed, threatening" approach with local officials, rather than providing technical support and assistance.

Such allegations rankle the Commissioner.

"If you want to prevent dropouts, if you want to give a kid a real sense of worth," he asserts, "they must master the basic skills. That's the bedrock of education. And the argument is so specious that if we force the kids to do basic skills, they can't have the art and the music and the so-and-so. That's like saying, 'Gee, if we make you eat your vegetables and fruit, Saul, you're not going to have much room for the ice cream."'

Mr. Cooperman also notes that his proposal to develop proficiency levels for core courses in all public high schools would have gone a long way toward enriching English, math, science, and social-studies instruction in urban areas. But that proposal, which would have cost $1.95 million in fiscal 1991, has been put on hold by the Florio Administration.

'Mind-Boggling' Interpretation

Critics assert, however, that Mr. Cooperman's real attitude toward urban problems is most accurately conveyed by his position in the Abbott case. The decade-old school-finance suit asks the courts to declare the state's system of financing schools unconstitutional because it deprives urban students of a "thorough and efficient" education.

In an August 1988 opinion, Administrative Law Judge Steven L. Lefelt recommended that the state's school-finance system be discarded based on what he described as "vast program and expenditure disparities" between property-rich suburban and property-poor urban school districts.

In some cases, he found, the disparties had actually increased since 1975 when state policymakers passed the Public School Education Act in response to an earlier lawsuit.

In February 1989, Mr. Cooperman rejected Judge Lefelt's recommendations. The matter is now before the state supreme court, which is expected to issue a ruling next month.

Although the defendants in the case have admitted that some disparities exist among New Jersey's school districts, they have attributed the problems largely to local failures of effort, mismanagement, political maneuverings, and "outright illegalities." Using "effective schools" research, they have also argued that improvements could be made in many urban school systems without a significant infusion of funds.

In defending his decision in the Abbott case, Mr. Cooperman likes to make a distinction between "intellectual," "emotional," and "political" judgments: a line that he often draws in describing his tenure as New Jersey's chief state school officer.

"It's not what I wanted to do," he maintains. "It's not, emotionally, do I want kids to have computers, or do I want to reduce class size, but what are the legal issues? What are the constraints that I'm bound by?"

In his ruling, he maintained that the state constitution does not require either a sameness of programs or an equalization of educational inputs across districts. And he insisted that any disparities among school systems are not systemic in nature.

According to the ruling, whatever disparities exist are capable of being remedied both programmatically and financially through the state's existing monitoring system and its school-funding formula.

In particular, Mr. Cooperman asserts, districts that have been certified under the monitoring system are presumptively "thorough and efficient."

"While money is important, it has not been demonstrated that there is a minimum spending level necessary to provide" a thorough and efficient education, he wrote. "The Commissioner does not believe that a blanket infusion of monies without change of budgeting and management behaviors will serve to increase student achievement or increase opportunity."

Many urban advocates view Mr. Cooperman's steadfast attempt to underplay the importance of resources as nothing short of outrageous. And Mr. Green describes his narrow interpretation of what the phrase "thorough and efficient" requires as "mind-boggling."

Most now believe that the supreme court's decision, when it does appear, will side with the plaintiffs. Even Governor Kean, in his last few years as the state's chief executive, alleged that the school-finance system was "unjust" and "outdated." But he maintained that it should be changed by legislative, rather than judicial, fiat.

During his tenure, however, Mr. Kean never advanced a major bond referendum or school-facilities bill to aid urban districts. And the school-finance formula has never been fully funded.

"I think [Mr. Cooperman's] point of view is about to lose," Mr. Timpane of Teachers College predicts. "And if so, the state will have wasted several years when it could have been reconstructing its school-finance system. And that will be a considerable indictment."

'Initiate More, Direct Less'

Only time will judge the eventual outcome of the Kean-Cooperman agenda.

The criticism "might be valid that we should have done more" in urban areas, Mr. Cooperman concedes.

But, he adds: "Quietly, we were building a better mousetrap. And what we're saying is expectations, ends, that's what it's all about."

"What we were trying to accomplish, obviously, was to improve the education of the average student in the state," Mr. Kean says, "and I think we made a great impact on that. But unless somebody continues to put schools first ... then we're not going to make it."

Governor Florio has already signaled his interest in departing from some of the Kean-Cooperman initiatives. In March, he unveiled a budget for fiscal 1991 that would eliminate several of Mr. Kean's more recent proposals. They include a program to experiment with school choice, school district "report cards," the plan to set core course proficiencies, and an alternative-schools project.

In their place, Mr. Florio has recommended four new reforms. The first, a $600-million program for school construction and renovation, would turn schools into community centers that offer services to the elderly, families, and preschool children.

The Governor has also pledged to rework the state's monitoring process to "cut the red tape for our best school districts." He has proposed $4 million to expand access to health, nutrition, preschool, and child-care services for low-income families. And he has recommended another $1 million to expand existing math and science-education initiatives.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cooperman is quietly wrapping up his last few days in office.

The Commissioner submitted his resignation this winter, after learning that Governor Florio planned to launch a nationwide search for his successor. Mr. Cooperman would have been required to recompete for the post.

So far, the chief state school officer has been approached by the Bush Administration to serve in the Education Department; by two colleges that asked him to be president; and by a private financial firm that offered almost double his $98,000-a-year salary. But he has turned them all down.

"What I'd like to do is work for a small organization," he asserts. "I'd like to initiate more, and direct less. In this job, there are about 20 phone calls a day I have to return; 100 pieces of paper. Eighty percent of the meetings are people who want to see me and tell me what I ought to do, or ask me for things."

The man who describes himself as an "omnivorous reader" says he wants time to write, to speak, and to talk about issues.

In New Jersey, meanwhile, an era is coming to an end.

Whether people liked or disliked Governor Kean and Mr. Cooperman, most admit they were a remarkable team.

Together, asserts Lawrence S. Feinsod, superintendent of the Madison Public Schools, they "helped to put New Jersey on the education map.''

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