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Businesses' Report Cards on Schools Spark Anger in New Jersey

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In the wake of an uproar over state-issued report cards on school districts, New Jersey business leaders are acknowledging that changes must be made in the accountability measures that they helped design and fund.

Despite the anger of educators throughout the state, though, corporate officials insist their efforts at quantifying the fiscal and student-achievement status of school systems will continue.

"If opponents think they can spook the business community back into its corner, they're misguided," said Charles R. Hogan Jr., executive director of corporate contributions for Merck and Company, who spearheaded the New Jersey Business Roundtable's report-card effort.

Last month, 555 districts in New Jersey received report cards that compared each system's taxing, spending, student-teacher-administrator ratios, and academic performances with state averages and "similar" districts. The report cards were funded by an $85,000 grant from the state's Business Roundtable to the Public Education Institute, a nonprofit organization that compiled the data and forwarded it to the state for dissemination.

But what had been touted as a model business-education initiative became embroiled in the volatile political issues that have rocked the administration of Gov. James J. Florio since he persuaded the legislature last year to pass a $2.8-billion tax package, much of it for education.

Almost as soon as the report cards were issued, the education community was accusing the Governor of using the assessments to sabotage district budgets and turn the electorate against the state's school boards on the eve of last month's school-budget elections.

Some educators claimed that the report cards had deliberately portrayed districts as overspending in order to convince voters to reject district budgets, force further education cuts, reduce property levies--and enable Mr. Florio to regain some of his lost popularity by portraying himself as having cut taxes.

"To put these out two weeks before the election was confusing and misleading," said Betty Kraemer, president of the New Jersey Education Associatio/nea "Something that started out as a good idea turned out to be very political."

The resentment of many educators was increased by the fact that the report cards contained several mistakes that may have given voters a distorted picture of district spending efficiency.

The state education department, which supplied much of the rough data, miscalculated statewide averages for teachers' salaries. The cards' figures for minimum and maximum average salaries for teachers with bachelor's and master's degrees were anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 too low.

As a result, the cards led many taxpayers to believe that their district's teacher salaries were far above the state average, even when they were not.

Corrections were later attached to the report cards, and the state acknowledged the mistake last month with a public apology from Commissioner of Education John Ellis.

Although Mr. Ellis added that the rest of the data were "solid," another minor correction was forwarded to district officials last week. This time it was revealed that a graph indicating test-score trends misidentified 1986 test scores as 1987 scores.

Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said complaints about incorrect data were still reaching his office last week from districts.

Mr. Hogan expressed frustration over the errors. "If you want critics, we would line up at the front of the line," he said, adding that he was "very upset" with the final product.

"In the final analysis, the integrity of the data is most important," he said. "If someone says, 'This is a great book, but there's an error on page 50,' others will say, 'Gee, maybe there's an error on page 46, and what about this on page 60?' We really played into the hands of those who want to discredit the report card."

While most of the anger was directed at Mr. Florio, some educators lashed out at business as well.

"What if the education community came out to do a report card on America's business?" asked Robert E. Boose, executive director of the state school-boards association. "Let's talk about the S & L's going belly up; let's talk about Chrysler losing millions of dollars but paying their executives well over a million a year; let's talk about profitability and ethics."

"It doesn't help in the long run to be bashing when the same symptoms happening in America's schools are happening in America's corporate boardrooms and assembly lines too," he said.

Mr. Boose accused business leaders of trying to pigeonhole districts into statistical performance measures that do not accurately portray district achievements. Although quarterly reports can quantify a corporation's profitability, he argued, they are virtually worthless in the complex arena of education.

Business leaders last week appeared to have accepted criticism of their efforts calmly. The timing of the report cards was unfortunate but unavoidable, they suggested.

Those involved in the project said they had wanted to release the information at least a month before the elections, but decided to wait until the final state education-funding figures were approved by the legislature.

Because of delays in final legislative action, however, sponsors had to print the report cards without next year's aid figures in order to be able to distribute them before the elections. That decision also angered educators, who said the project should have been shelved if updated state-aid figures could not be included. Next year's figures, educators said, were especially vital because they include significant increases in aid previously approved by the legislature.

Business leaders vehemently denied any intention to undermine district budgets or school boards but said they understood much of the anger elicited by the cards.

"This certainly wasn't planned to be an injection into the politics of education," said Peter Goldberg, vice president of corporate contributions and the Roundtable representative for the Prudential Corporation. "But anytime you put out data like this, it's impossible to insulate it."

Added Mr. Hogan, "No one likes report cards."

Herbert T. Green, executive director of the Public Education Institute, said that officials from his organization, the Roundtable, and the state education department will sit down next month to discuss the brouhaha and the positive and negative aspects of the project.

Changes suggested by Mr. Green and Mr. Hogan included putting more emphasis on academic achievement and less on finance issues and changing some of the comparisons.

Local officials were irked, for example, that when districts were compared to "similar" systems, the similarity was merely grade range--thus putting affluent districts such as Princeton up against poor, urban districts such as Newark just because they also served grades K-12.

Future report cards may base comparisons on district socioeconomic conditions, Mr. Hogan said.

Observers said last week that other business groups becoming involved in an increasingly politicized education arena could learn much from the New Jersey controversy.

Frederick Edelstein, a senior fellow at the National Alliance of Business's Center for Excellence in Education, said the episode raises interesting questions for business leaders to confront before leaping into a project.

Those in the private sector, he suggested, need to consider the timing of the effort, the appropriate role of business in education policy and how to discover that role, and who is asking for help and why.

Mr. Hogan admitted the Roundtable exhibited a lack of political sophistication in the way the project was conducted, but said business leaders would learn from their mistakes.

"Education is terribly politicized in this state," he said. "We learned that the hard way. We were trying to focus just on the welfare of the children, but that's not easy sometimes."

Mr. Hogan reiterated business's commitment to education in the state and to holding districts accountable for education and expenditures.

"The worst thing we could do now is to fold up our tent and say, 'That wasn't much fun. Let's go build a hospital,"' he concluded. "This is a difficult playing field, but it's our playing field, and we're not going to pack up and leave."

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