New Jersey lawmakers focus on education bills as session winds down

 (Image provided by NJ Spotlight)

(Image provided by NJ Spotlight)

While New Jersey’s state budget in the end provided little drama for public schools, there were plenty of education bills getting attention yesterday as the Legislature headed toward its summer break.

The most-closely watched was a bill that would delay the use of new state testing in the evaluation of teachers and schools. Support for the bill gained momentum in the last couple of weeks, and the state Senate appeared poised to pass it yesterday and move it to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk.


But as the day progressed, the legislation was held at the last minute, as Christie himself offered up news of a possible compromise — although he wouldn’t say just yet what it was.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) after the session did not rule out reviving the bill when the Senate meets again on Monday, but he said he would first wait to see what Christie would present.

“He has mentioned to us he is working out something … but if we haven’t come to agreement on some kind of executive order by Monday, then we’ll move (on the bill),” Sweeney said in an interview.

Meanwhile, a second bill that would strengthen and possibly expand the Urban Hope Act and its new “renaissance schools” in Camden barely won enough votes for passage in the Assembly, after its sponsor frantically worked reluctant Democrats on the floor and in side rooms to gain the necessary majority.

That bill also won passage from the Senate, albeit with far less suspense, and will go to Christie for his expected signature.

The 11th-hour jockeying on these and other education bills was a sideshow to deliberations over the state budget, in which schools represent the single biggest expense — but not much was going to change yesterday.

The more than $12 billion in school financing first proposed by Christie — including an increase of less than 1 percent in direct state aid to districts – remained in the Democrats’ budget approved yesterday. Although Christie is sure to veto pieces of the overall plan, school aid is likely to be pretty much untouched.

Also included in the Democrats’ budget was a new $2.5 million grant program for school districts, with half of the money earmarked to help pay for implementation of the new PARCC tests and the other half allocated for continued staff training related to the state’s new teacher-evaluation system. The program would replace Christie’s initial proposal for a $5 million “innovation fund.”

Apart from the budget, the bill to delay the consequences of the PARCC testing had been one of the most discussed in the last month, and it increasingly gained support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

The bill would effectively create a task force to review the impact of the new testing and the Common Core State Standards that serve as the testing’s guideposts, and would hold off using the test scores as part of certain teachers’ evaluations until that review was completed. It sets a maximum timeframe of two years.

The bill overwhelmingly passed the Assembly, with 72 of 80 votes in favor, and appeared to have similar support in the Senate. But Christie headed off a showdown when he unexpectedly announced that he would have a proposal in the coming days, raising the likelihood of unilateral action like an executive order or regulatory change.

The governor’s press office did not respond to a request for details yesterday, and Sweeney and others said they were unsure of the specifics. But the Senate president said he expected the move would seek to give some flexibility to districts, and he would give it a chance.

“We’ve asked the administration to provide some relief, but we don’t have anything yet,” Sweeney said of his talks with the governor’s office.

“We’re looking for it to be a little more real, rather than all these expectations,” he said. “We’re rushing to doing a test, and nobody is against the test, but let’s be sure that it’s accurate.”

Meanwhile, the Urban Hope Act extension did see action yesterday from both chambers, but just barely. After the Senate passed it without discussion, its fate was uncertain in the Assembly until near the end of the session.

The legislation would add another year for new proposals under the law, which created hybrid, well-funded charter schools in specified low-performing districts.

The extension would apply specifically to Camden, the only selected district that has taken advantage of the new law. Three charter projects in the city have won at least preliminary approval to open next fall, with up to 15 new schools possible over the next several years.

The sticking point yesterday appeared to be a separate provision that would provide early retirement options for Camden district staff who have been working under the shadow of sweeping layoffs in the state-run district.

Republicans have balked at the package, and Democrats in the Assembly appeared to be hesitant about some pension concessions in the package, too, especially at a time when their party was separately criticizing Christie for skipping out on his promises to fund the state pension system.

For much of the session, state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) could be seen on the Assembly floor working various Democrats to support his bill. He ultimately he corralled enough votes to exceed the 41 needed. The bill ended up with 42 votes in favor, including two cast by Republicans.

“The bill was introduced in a short period of time, and I think people needed to feel more comfortable with it,” Singleton said afterward. “But after we did some educating today, I think there is a comfort level. There was some confusion on the pension and early retirement issue.”

“I’m optimistic the governor will now sign it,” Singleton said.

The day did end with the fate of a few other bills still uncertain.

One was a contested bill backed by Sweeney that would have provided some exemptions to the state’s residency requirement for school districts in 10 counties along the New York and Pennsylvania. The Senate passed the bill, but it stalled in the Assembly.

Another bill advanced that would set in place new requirements for districts seeking to close schools, requiring them to have public votes or at least hearings before the schools could be shuttered or sold off. The bill was aimed at Newark, where the state-appointed superintendent has sought to reorganize the district, including school closures.

The Senate gave the bill final approval yesterday, but with some amended language for state-run districts that would require a public hearing and resolution by the local advisory board but it would not make it necessarily binding. That bill also now moves on to Christie.


NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.

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