By Ryan McNeely
I read this morning that Gov. Christie (R-NJ) is going to apply for $268 million in federal education aid authorized by the state aid bill — or, as conservatives have come to call it, the “teachers’ unions bailout bill” — which could save 3,900 teacher jobs in New Jersey. Though he had publicly waffled on whether to apply for the funds, Christie follows in a long line of conservative governors who ultimately decided that it was better to take the benefits for their constituents rather than join with Washington Republicans and continue to oppose congressional action on ideological grounds. Had Christie not applied for the funding, the federal government would have simply “bypass[ed] the state government” and distributed the funds itself. But good for Christie to relent and allow New Jersey to have a say in the distribution of these dollars.
But I was wondering — what is really going on with teachers’ jobs in New Jersey? In nearly all the reporting on this issue, there is a citation to a survey from the New Jersey School Boards Association that shows that “more than 80 percent of districts earlier this summer reported they would have fewer teachers this fall.” That sounds extremely dire, and the figure is being widely reported. In this story about the survey, however, we get a passing tidbit in the third paragraph: the survey was “completed by 40 percent of the state’s school districts.”
Well, I don’t think this survey tell us very much, then. Taking a look at the NJSBA press release, you don’t see which districts returned the survey and which did not, so you have no idea if the 40% of survey respondents are representative of NJ school districts as a whole. In fancier terms, the survey seems internally valid for those districts that replied, but the results are not externally valid to all NJ school districts, as many reports seem to imply. 40% is a low response rate for this type of survey; for good results, you’d want to see something like 80% or higher response rate, or else a random sampling of school districts to be surveyed.
You can construct all sort of hypotheticals — with varying degrees of plausibility — as to why the districts that did respond might not be “normal” districts. Perhaps they have had to lay off a high number of teachers and were very motivated to report back to the NJSBA about their plight. In the other direction, perhaps districts suffering from massive budget cuts and teacher layoffs didn’t have the staff time to complete the survey. Whatever the case, it’s a shame that type of thing has formed the basis of much of the reporting about the true education situation in New Jersey.