On Monday, June 20, the Senate Education Committee considered and favorably released the following bills impacting our schools:
State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission: S-2372 (Sweeney, Ruiz)
Following a press conference announcing this legislation a week ago, Senate President Steve Sweeney presented S-2372 to the Committee. The bill establishes the State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission consisting of four public members with two appointed by Governor Christie, one by Senate President Sweeney and one appointed by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. The appointees must have knowledge and experience in public school finance AND knowledge and experience in State Budgeting and finance, thanks to an amendment obtained by NJPSA advocacy efforts. Employees of the Department of Education and the Department of Treasury will staff the Commission.
Modeled after the BRACC Commission (Base Relocation and Consolidation Commission) which dealt the controversial issue of military base closings, the Funding Fairness Commission differs in a significant way from typical legislative commissions. The legislation specifically mandates that within one year, proposed legislation to implement Commission recommendations must be developed and submitted directly to both houses of our State Legislature for a vote with no opportunity for modifications. The Commission recommendations will be presented “as is” to the Legislature for a vote this time next year. The regular legislative process of committee hearings in each house is specifically eliminated in order to avoid the impact of politics on the funding decisions for our schools. The public will have the opportunity to weigh in through public hearings however.
The Commission is specifically charged with reviewing our school funding law, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, P.L. 2007, c. 260 (C.18A:7F-43 et al.) (SFRA), which has been fully funded only once since its enactment. In recent years, changes in district enrollments, community composition and tax status have impacted our schools, but the State has failed to address these changed circumstances in state aid allocations. As a result, the Commission will study and develop recommendations on the following funding issues according to its constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient system of free public schools:
- The issue of adjustment aid and State aid growth limitation provisions of SFRA which impact a district’s ability to meet its adequacy budget under law to provide a quality education in the district;
- The tax levy cap and its impact on school operations;
- The administrative spending cap which serves as a “double cap” on administrative costs; and
- The calculation of local fair share which defines a community’s obligation to fund its schools.
NJPSA testified in support of the legislation in concept, but recommended enhanced qualifications for Commission members as noted, a more open and transparent public participation process and the opportunity for public weigh in after legislation is proposed before any legislative vote.
The NJEA, while supporting the goals of the Commission, objected to its composition and limited membership – particularly the fact that Governor Christie would appoint half its members. A day later, Governor Christie proposed his controversial approach to school funding fairness by proposing an equal funding level for every student, regardless of educational need. The Governor’s proposal has been thoroughly rejected by both leaders in the Legislature, NJPSA, NJEA and other stakeholder groups.
Accordingly, the future of S-2372 is uncertain in the context of the Governor’s actions.
Mandatory Recess : S-1144 (Turner/Diegnan)
S-1144 is a re-filing of previously passed legislation mandating the provision of a 20 minute recess to all students in grades K-5 that was pocket vetoed by Governor Christie. Exceptions to this daily requirement include cases where a student has violated the code of student conduct although in such cases a student cannot be denied recess more than twice per week. Additionally, districts could deny recess based upon medical advice or a student’s 504 plan. Recess would not be required where the school day is substantially shortened. Recess cannot be used to meet current physical education requirements pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:35-5. NJPSA supported the bill but sought a clarification that the bill would apply to elementary K-5 settings not necessarily grade 5 in a middle school setting. This proposal is under consideration by the bill sponsor.
NJPSA supported both pieces of legislation which have already been passed by the N.J. Assembly. The bills address two key areas of school security – funding needed enhancements and addressing local training and policy requirements. A-2241/A-2158 authorizes the use of emergency reserve funds or proceeds from bonds issues by the Economic Development Authority to finance school security improvements. S-2242 establishes a NJ School Safety Specialist Academy within the NJDOE to serve as a central organizer, training entity and clearinghouse for best practices, training standards, prevention efforts and resources on school security issues. Each superintendent will select a school administrator to serve as school safety specialist within the district to ensure appropriate district security policies are in place and implemented in collaboration with law enforcement. All training and services of the Academy will be offered free of charge to school districts.
Other bills favorably released include:
S-436 (Allen, Ruiz): Media Literacy
A permissive bill, S-436 encourages school districts to offer instruction in media literacy, including the means to demystify violent images, as part of its Language Arts curriculum.
S-1451 (Ruiz): Special Education Decisions Database
NJPSA supported this legislation which directs the NJDOE to maintain a database of all special education decisions available on its website.
S-1472 (Ruiz): Pilot Program to Recruit Disadvantaged/Minority Male Candidates to Alternate Route Program
In an effort to present positive role models to students in chronically failing schools, S-1472 establishes a two year pilot program to recruit and place minority and disadvantaged male teaching candidates to serve in certain failing schools. The Commissioner will select six chronically failing schools to participate in the program and report on outcomes within two years. NJPSA supports this bill.
S-2182 (Singer/Kean): Notice to Students NJ STARS Program
This legislation expands the current notification to students and parents about their eligibility and the parameters of the NJ STARS program to eighth grade students.
S-2168 (Cruz-Perez)/A-1657 (Schaer/Vainieri Huttle) – Establishes “breakfast after the bell’ incentive fund.