Acting Commissioner Hespe Appears Before Senate Budget & Approps Committee – SFRA, Evaluation and PARCC Questions Predominate

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Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe defended the Administration’s FY2015 education budget – which every year accounts for more than one-third of overall state spending — during a three-hour appearance before the Senate Budget Committee Apirl 3.  Much of the hearing before the state Senate’s budget committee centered on K-12 education funding, with Acting Commissioner David Hespe making his first appearance before the Legislature since Gov. Chris Christie appointed him to the post last month.  Some familiar issues  – including evaluation, PARCC implementation and early childhood education were also discussed.

School Funding Front & Center

The hearing began with chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) challenging the claim that the Administration’s budget, with its $37 million increase over last year, represents an historic high.

“I understand it’s part of the budget message and it’s great rhetoric, but it is also true that 462 districts are receiving less than they did in the 2010,” Sarlo said. “Do you feel the appropriation we’re making today is adequate?”

“Yes, absolutely,” said Hespe, who returned to Trenton last month to run the Department of Education, a position he held from 1999-2001 under Gov. Christie Whitman.

Sarlo pressed Hespe about the administration’s failure to follow the 2008 School Funding Reform Act formula and asked what amount would be needed to cover the formula. He also referred to a lawsuit filed last week by the Education Law Center asking the Supreme Court to require the state to calculate the aid as called for by the law. The ELC maintains the state has underfunded these programs by more than $5 billion over the last few years.

Hespe said yesterday that his department will provide the information demanded in the ELC’s motion. In the next few weeks, he said, districts will receive new state-aid summaries detailing what they are entitled under the SFRA.  Details are still being worked out, he said, including how specific weights for different student demographics will be used. But Hespe sought to reassure the committee, saying, “I think that should satisfy the requirements.”

Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) questioned the rationale behind the current funding plan, which increases state aid by $20 per student over this year.

“Picking $20 per student … out of thin air doesn’t seem to make any sense,” she said. “It’s troubling. I don’t understand how the decision was made to increase it by that amount without having any data.”

Eval & PARCC

Other lawmakers asked Hespe about the changes to annual student testing via the introduction of PARCC and its intersect with evaluation that is at the heart of the new tenure reform law. Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) wondered about the readiness of districts to administer the PARCC assessments, the computer-based annual tests that will replace the NJASK and HSPA tests next spring.

According to Hespe, over 70 percent of districts are ready to handle the computerized tests. Hespe said, adding that state officials are working with districts that are not.   More than half of the state’s districts are putting the new assessment, known as PARCC, through a test run.

Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) asked about delaying this year’s evaluations and next year’s PARCC tests, requests he said he has heard repeatedly from teachers and other education officials.

“I think delay would put us back so far from where we want to be that we might never get there,” Hespe said. “In terms of the point that we’re moving too quickly? The state board of education adopted the Common Core in 2010, four years ago. This is not being rushed.“

Hespe described the new curriculum standards, the computerized assessments and the tenure reform as “a change process of enormous magnitude.”

"There’s going to be a fair amount of push back, of difficulty. We’re seeing problems, we’re solving problems,” he said. “I don’t see any reason (to delay). We should stay focused. We’re getting the results you want.”

SDA In the Hot Seat

Even more difficult moments came when legislators grilled the leader of the Schools Development Authority, which oversees school construction in the state and announced that the multi-billion-dollar program was nearly out of funds.

The SDA usually plays second fiddle at budget hearings, but the agency’s new executive director, Charles McKenna, got some prime-time attention as discussion centered on projects that have been long-stalled under Christie.

Most of the questions came from state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a member of the budget committee and chair of the Senate education committee, who pressed McKenna on the slow pace at which construction money has reached districts over the last decade – funding ordered under the Abbott v. Burke school-equity rulings.

During the discussions, it was revealed that the SDA is down to its last funded projects under the court order that saw the state borrow more than $8 billion for school construction since 2002.

McKenna, a former counsel under Christie until his new appointment, said just $350 million remains.

A host of pending projects are already covered financially, he emphasized, including the long-discussed Trenton High School repairs and upgrade..

But after that and other approved projects are completed, McKenna said, only limited funding will be available for other construction unless the Legislature approves additional borrowing.

“I’m not sure we have all the money we need to deal with all the projects,” McKenna said in response to Ruiz’s questions.

He said the SDA would likely need to ask the Legislature to authorize additional borrowing, a lengthy process in itself. He also maintained it would likely need public approval through a bond referendum, although others said school construction could be exempt.

“That is something we would need to be in contact with the governor’s office and may very well need public approval,” McKenna said.

But Ruiz pressed him on whether the SDA has pushed hard enough to complete projects that already have funding.

“The length of time from conception to completion is extraordinary, it is frustrating,” she said. “I just don’t understand what takes so long.”

“If we have $350 million in hand somewhere, I am sure there are several districts that can indicate how the money should be spent,” she said. “Let’s appropriate this money into projects, let’s get people working, and let’s get children into safe and adequate schools.”


Source: NJSpotlight,