Key education bills worth watching in New Jersey

During this first 2013 session of the New Jersey Legislature, a lengthy catalogue of bills is wending its way through the serpentine law-making process that begins with a draft bill and ends (in a few cases) with the Governor’s signature. Some bills spin gracefully through the hazards of partisanship and special-interest lobbyists, while others lurch and stagger like extras on “The Walking Dead.” This session, bills relevant to public education include no ballerinas or, for that matter, any zombies, but here’s an annotated list of the more interesting ones, along with my two cents.

Bill S 1501 (which just got through the Senate Education Committee):Passage of this bill would mandate that all kids in kindergarten through 5th grade have 20 minutes per day of recess in order to promote healthy living and appropriate play. Micromanagement of schools is viewed dimly by both the NJ Principal and Supervisors Association and NJ School Boards Association, which are both fighting the bill. NJSPA argues that principals need the latitude to, for example, punish a bully by denying him or her the privilege of recess. NJSBA says that such details should be left up to local school boards. They’re both right. These are elementary schools, not sweatshops. Next the Legislature will mandate naptime. Give us a break.

Bill S 1191 (now up for debate in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee):This bill proposes to bar school districts from outsourcing cafeteria, custodial, and transportation services without first negotiating with the local unions who historically represent these workers. The genesis of the bill is no doubt the growing trend among districts to farm out these functions to private companies. While it’s nice to hire neighbors, it’s also more expensive because then districts are on the hook for health benefits and other entitlements. Outsourcing is a way to save money without detracting from instruction.

S 1191 is heavily promoted by NJEA. The primary teachers’ union recently issued a press release explaining that the bill “brings greater fairness” to a board’s deliberations over whether or not to outsource such non-teaching services by not allowing such a move during the term of an existing contract. Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, who seems to function largely as an NJEA lobbyist, explains, “We keep hearing about savings as a reason to oppose the bill. Who knows better ways to find economies than the people who do the job? All this bill does is require the parties to negotiate.”

NJSBA begs to differ. From its statement: “The NJSBA believes that it is critical that a board of education be permitted to enter into subcontracting agreements whenever, for reasons of economy or to advance the best interests of the school district and the educational welfare of the children, it determines such agreements are appropriate. Local boards of education should have a nonnegotiable, managerial prerogative to enter into subcontracting agreements.”

Whatever you think of the bill, it offers a rare window into NJEA’s complex dual personality disorder. It wants to be the champion of public education but also the champion of adult workers. Sometimes those roles knit seamlessly and sometimes they collide. In this case it’s the latter, because S1191 works for the benefit of grown-ups (who get job protection) and to the detriment of schoolchildren (when instruction gets cut in order to pay higher costs for services).

Again, from NJSBA: “Approximately 40 percent of the state’s school districts responded to NJSBA’s 2009 survey [on outsourcing services included in the bill].The responding districts reported annual savings of $34 to $38 million through subcontracting. They directed the savings to education programs, to decreasing the budget or keeping property taxes under control, and/or to new technology for the classroom, repairing facilities or hiring teachers.” Nuff said.

S-2562 (just approved by the Senate Education Committee)The bill “establishes a competitive grant program for school districts to support non-traditional and alternative STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education programs and instruction. Six districts would be eligible for grants up to $150K in order to beef up STEM education and career activities. Great! Pass it!

A-2869 (just approved by the Assembly Education Committee):This bill, heavily lobbied for by the Orthodox Jewish Union, would allow school districts to place special education students in religious special education schools. Historically, districts have only paid for “out-of-district placements” in non-sectarian schools, both public and private, when no appropriate program is available in-district.

This bill is troubling on a number of levels, both constitutional and curricular. Yeshivas, or private Jewish day schools, discriminate on the basis of gender and sexual orientation, not to mention religious affiliation. Typically these day schools allot half a day of instruction to Hebrew and Jewish studies, which makes it tough to find time for NJ’s mandated curriculum. More generally, do we really want to place kids in with disabilities in private placements on the basis of religious preference? According to federal law, special needs kids must receive educational services in the “least restrictive environment.” I’m not sure that yeshivas are even on that continuum.

One could argue that this bill is simply another form of school choice. Education reformers, unite! Not so much. New Jersey has pretty well signaled that our focus on expanding educational options needs to be directed at children in our lowest-performing schools, not at parents looking for a state-sponsored religious education. Let’s keep our eyes on the prize.

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Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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