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COMMISSIONER CHOOSES PRIVATE, CLOSED PROCESS TO SOLICIT BIDS FOR EVALUATION OF STATE EDUCATION DEPARTMENT

WILL REVIEW BE INDEPENDENT, COMPREHENSIVE AND THOROUGH?

On the heels of another internal "reorganization" of the NJ Department of Education, Commissioner Lucille Davy has initiated bidding for an outside review of the Department. However, the process is raising serious questions about whether the evaluation will be independent, comprehensive and thorough, as the Legislature intended when it authorized the review last fall.

On March 26th, Commissioner Lucille Davy issued a private "Request for Qualifications" (RFQ) to solicit bids from a small, select list of firms to conduct a "management audit" of the NJ Department of Education. The firms invited to submit bids are corporate accounting and business consultant firms, and one of those firms – KPMG – is now conducting in-depth audits of Abbott school districts under a $10 million contract with the NJDOE. No research firms, organizations or universities with experience in education reform were invited to bid on the project. Only those firms on the Commissioner’s list can submit bids.

The RFQ was issued in response to Joint Resolution No. 3 signed into law by Governor Corzine on January 29th. The law requires the Commissioner to contract with an "independent entity" to undertake a "thorough and comprehensive evaluation of the Department" to identify "organizational and staffing deficiencies" and recommend ways to improve the agency’s capacity to provide oversight of school districts, and effectively respond to both "operational and educational issues." The law requires the evaluation be completed within six months.

The Commissioner’s RFQ indicates that the "management audit" will "focus" only on the Department’s activities related to monitoring school district compliance with state and federal laws. It does not appear that the "audit" will evaluate other critical NJDOE core areas and functions – such as policy development, state academic standards and testing, school finance, school facilities, the Abbott mandates, special education, research and evaluation, assisting struggling schools and districts, and administering the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Dissatisfaction with the Department’s performance in these areas, and of its ability to assist schools and districts as well as "monitor" them, was a major reason for the Legislature’s action. It was also why the joint resolution specified an independent external review instead of the internal reorganization originally proposed by the Commissioner.

The invited firms must submit bids by April 13th. It is unclear when the contract will be awarded, but the winning firm must complete a draft of the "management audit" by June 11, with a final report by June 25.

According to David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director, this time frame is too short to do the evaluation called for by the Legislature. "Even if the contract is issued by May 1st, that leaves barely more than a month to complete the work. Given the Department’s size, budget and scope of responsibilities, there is simply not enough time to conduct the ‘thorough and comprehensive evaluation’ required by law. We’re prepared to support a request to the Legislature for more time, and the Commissioner should do so right away. This is too important to rush through."

The narrow focus of the "audit," as described in the RFQ, and the Commissioner’s decision to conduct a private bidding process, limited to a select list of business consultant and accounting firms is also raises serious concerns.

"The Commissioner has converted what the Legislature called for – a comprehensive and thorough evaluation of the Department’s operational and educational capacities – into a narrow "management audit" of the Departments’ legal and regulatory compliance activities," said Mr. Sciarra.

Even more troubling is the private process for soliciting bids, limited to business consulting and corporate accounting firms, thereby excluding universities or policy research organizations with experience in education reform and in helping districts and state education agencies improve their performance.

Mr. Sciarra added that, by limiting the list of potential bidders, "we may be excluding the most qualified organizations. It doesn’t make sense that nationally respected institutions, such as the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Annenberg Institute, were not included."

"To ensure the independence of the evaluation, we are calling on the State Treasurer to exclude from the bidding process any firms currently doing business with the NJDOE or that have done so in the past three years."

Prepared: April 10, 2007