Hectic Week in Trenton As Legislative Committees Resume Their Work
After a month-long budget break, the State Legislature resumed its committee work this week along with its continued budget deliberations. The education community saw lots of action!
On Monday, Commission of Education Allen-McMillan testified before the Assembly Budget Committee in a multi-hour hearing. After providing opening remarks, she was questioned by committee members on a wide range of topics many focused on issues related to the reopening of schools. On issues concerning learning loss, summer school programs, attendance, reopening plans and the role of the Department, the Commissioner generally provided few specifics but reiterated the Departments willingness to assist districts in developing their local plans. Committee members urged the Commissioner to be more proactive in reopening plans statewide and in the judicious spending of federal funds coming to the state and local school districts.
On the issue of fully funding our school funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act, Commissioner Allen-McMillan replied that the Administration is continuing on a path to achieving full funding of the formula b 2025. The issue of extraordinary special education funding as a state obligation was raised by Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-Union) who noted that this particular budget item is only receiving a $25 million increase whereas expanded preschool programming was receiving a $50 million increase. Munoz also pressed the Commissioner on her leadership for addressing learning loss in our schools and the need for NJDOE proactive guidance and support to districts.
The budget committees are wrapping up their public hearing schedule and will be soon proposing a draft fiscal year 2022 budget for deliberation. The final budget agreement must be reached by the June 30 deadline.
Assembly Education Committee
The Education Committees in both chambers met this week with the Assembly Education Committee meeting on May 12. The following bills were considered and favorably released by the Committee:
A-679/S-225 and A-1599/S-585 concern the protocols for school districts to follow when a student suffering from a concussion seeks to return to school and/or athletic activities. It requires the NJDOE to revise the athletic head injury safety program whenever the CDC changes or updates the “Return to Play Progression” recommendations, currently a six-step process. It requires school districts to do the same. The bill clarifies that these protocols apply to student-athletes or cheerleaders, and that a return to regular school activities after symptoms have ceased is a required step in the return to competition. S-1599 focuses on the evaluation of the student by a licensed health care professional and the need for written clearance prior to return to school and engaging in any physical activity. (NJPSA Supported)
Asian Heritage Commission within NJDOE
A3369 establishes the Commission on Asian Heritage with the NJDOE, but it would operate as an independent commission. Its purpose is to survey, design, and promote the implementation of Asian cultural and education programs in New Jersey. This 21-member commission will focus on providing assistance to the public schools on potential educational programs in our public schools, on outreach to county and local school officials, on cataloging existing resources on Asian culture and heritage and compiling a statewide roster of volunteers willing to share their expertise in classrooms and workshops across the State. (NJPSA Supported)
School Ethics Act Prohibition on Political Activity by School Officials
NJPSA strongly opposed A-4693 which seeks to amend the School Ethics Act to prohibit school officials (board members, superintendents, principals and supervisors) from using their official positions to promote or advance “political activities” within 90 days of an election. The sponsor, Assemblywoman JoAnn Downey amended the bill at committee to prohibit school officials from “using or attempting to use school district resources funded by taxpayers such as official letterhead, mail or email distribution lists or social media accounts to engage in electioneering or any other communication designed to influence any partisan or non-partisan election.” NJPSA Director of Government Relations testified in opposition to this overreaching legislation noting the lack of evidence of abuse in this area by school officials, the overly broad language of the bill and the appropriateness of school leaders engaging in the democratic process.
Legislation to establish a statewide retention policy was considered in A-5365. The Assembly bill would permit parents of students in grades K-8 to request the retention of their child to the grade he/she was in during the 2020-2021 school year. The policy of the bill would apply to the 2021-2022 school year. The parent request would be submitted to the principal by June 30, 2021 who would review the request after the parent has met with the student’s counselor, child study team or IEP team and teachers. If the school determines, in consultation with the parent that retention is necessary to meet the academic and social and emotional needs of the student, the principal shall grant the request. If the parent and school disagree and cannot reach consensus on retention, the superintendent will make the final determination.
The Assembly bill varies from a Senate retention bill that would obligate the superintendent to grant the retention request based upon a parent’s “concerns” about learning loss during the pandemic. NJPSA opposed the Senate version but was able to support A-5365 which relies on an evidence-based approach, collaboration and the expertise of educators in making the final determination.
Special Education Extension for 21-Year-Old Students
S-3434/A-5366 is sailing through the State Legislature. Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senator Dawn Addiego have already led this legislation to a 36 to 1 vote in the Senate on March 25. The Assembly Education favorably released it on May 12 and it is already posted for Assembly Appropriations consideration on May 18.
This legislation permits special education students who turn age 21 during the 2020-21, 2021-2022, 2022-2023 school year to continue to receive services despite the fact that they have “aged- out” of the K12 system under state law. The rationale for the bill is that these especially vulnerable students failed to receive critical services, including transition services, during the pandemic that will impact their lives and their transition to work beyond their K12 schooling.
NJPSA was able to obtain amendments that have the IEP team determine, with the parent, the scope of compensatory services to be provided. We also urged the Legislature to fund this mandate which is not eligible for IDEA funding. The Legislature has funded its state mandate through the use of federal pandemic dollars and state dollars from the Property Tax Relief fund.
Senate Education Committee
The Senate Education Committee met in person on May 13 to consider an agenda of 20 separate bills!
Mandatory Summer School
Significant among these bills was S-3531, legislation mandating summer school programs in grades K-12 for the next two summers. NJPSA raised significant concerns with this state mandate including the need for local districts to assess and address local student needs, funding, staffing, summer construction, other implementation obstacles and local community demand. Debra Bradley testified about these concerns but was able to advocate for a significant amendment to the bill which allows districts to seek a waiver from the NJDOE of the requirement. The waiver if granted, must be posted on the district’s website.
Parents who wish to send their child to a summer program must file a written request with the principal 45 days prior to the start of the summer school program except for kindergarten students. Students with IEPs will have summer programming requests handled through the IEP process. The focus of the summer programs is to mitigate the effects of learning loss with a focus on mathematics and literacy although Chairwoman Ruiz indicated she would add language regarding social emotional needs to the bill. The bill now moves to Senate Budget and Appropriations for consideration. There is no Assembly companion bill at the present time.
Retired Teachers Can Return to Classroom
S-3685 permits teachers who are retired in the TPAF system to return to employment during the public health emergency for COVID-19 in order to staff our schools. This temporary measure would only permit this employment for two years. The rules under the bill track the rules for interim administrators, requiring a bona fide retirement, one-year contracts that can be renewed for one additional year (unless the Commissioner approves an extension) and allow the teacher to collect their pension and salary without jeopardizing their pension. NJPSA supported this temporary measure to address the current staffing shortage.
Mental Health Package
The Senate Education Committee favorably released a mental health bill package, most of which originated in the Assembly. NJPSA supported the bill package which contained the following legislation; here are excerpts from NJPSA testimony on the package:
S-2715 addresses the long-standing problem of a shortage of mental health professionals working in our schools by creatively establishing a competitive grant program to expand the pipeline of mental health service providers and professionals. Some schools do currently work with higher education institutions to allow supervised graduate students to do their field work in the school setting in hopes of hiring these individuals once licensed. This bill will expand this approach to additional districts and provide start-up funding.
- Student Wellness Grant Program
NJPSA fully supports the creation of grants in S-2716 to enable districts to implement school-based programs and services to promote mental wellness, social and emotional learning and student resilience. Through clinics, workshops, on-site counseling and more, students will benefit directly from these services at school.
- School-Based Youth Services
NJPSA members fought hard to retain funding for the School-based Youth Services Program in our most recent State Budget process. Principals rely on the funding and programming to meet so many student needs from mental health to pregnancy counseling. Due to the major need for mental health services statewide, we do understand giving priorities for programs focused on mental health counseling, but caution against making the program description too specific in statute which could result in schools losing their very successful and much needed program funds. We also urge the Legislature to increase and sustain funding for this necessary program in next year’s State budget.
- Expanded Suicide Prevention Training
NJPSA supports the requirement in S-1025 that certain additional school district personnel, not currently subject to a current professional development requirement, but who do have regular and direct contact with students, complete a training program on suicide prevention. Raising awareness about suicide risk and response to everyone who has regular and direct contact with students is not only prudent, but could be life-saving.
- Student Mental Health Impact on Learning Pilot Program
NJPSA fully supports the establishment of a four-year pilot program in S-1030, in which school districts will initiate a mental health assistance program to identify the issues affecting student mental health and the impact of those issues on academic performance as well as provide intervention, support, and referral services in a confidential setting.
Other bills considered include S-3684 which requires the NJDOE to create a central registry of individuals willing to tutor students. NJPSA obtained an amendment requiring background checks on these individuals. A Summer Earn and Learn Pilot program is established in S3725 and an Alleviating Learning Loss Program in S-3479. NJPSA supported both programs. S-3654 creates an Amistad Curriculum Award Program for excellence in teaching the Amistad curriculum. S-3469 requires that teaching candidates receive training on remote teaching before certification.
For further information on any of these bills, please contact Debra Bradley or Jennie Lamon in the NJPSA Government Relations department.