by Debra Bradley
As the clock ticks toward the June 30th deadline for adoption of the State Budget, the Legislature has also considered legislation impacting our public schools. An important bill is being considered that would require local boards of education to adopt a policy requiring every high school senior to fill out the FAFSA or file an exemption to this requirement to receive a high school diploma. A-1181 (Jasey)/ S-2054 (Turner) was considered and released from the Assembly Education Committee on June 8 and the Joint Committee on the Public Schools considered the legislation on June 9th. The bill could be posted for a vote of the full Assembly later in June; however, the Senate has not yet considered the legislation.
As amended, A-1181 requires the State Board of Education to require every local school board to adopt a policy that “requires that local graduation requirements include the requirement that a student and the student’s parent or guardian, if applicable, complete and submit a financial aid application in a form prescribed by the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESSA), as a prerequisite to the student receiving a high school diploma.” This requirement would begin with the Class of 2024 and apply to the Class of 2025 and 2026, effectively creating a three- year pilot program.
A student shall be exempt from the requirement if the student or his/her parents/guardians submit a waiver form signed by the parent or 18-year-old student. Additionally, school counselors may authorize the waiver under the bill if a waiver from the parent or guardian “cannot be reasonably obtained. NJPSA was able to obtain amendments that clarify the role of the school counselor and shield them and all school employees from liability in connection to this requirement. Specifically, the bill states that nothing in this law shall be construed as requiring school counselors or any other school employee to assist students in completing the financial aid application. The bill further states that no private cause of action shall exist against the school district or State.
The bill contains conflicting language. On the one hand, it clearly requires every high school senior to meet this filing requirement to receive a diploma (FAFSA or waiver). On the other, the bill states that “No adverse action shall be taken by a board of education against any student who is exempted from the requirement to complete and submit a financial aid application” pursuant to this legislation. NJPSA and other statewide education associations have pointed out this inconsistent language and seek clarity within the bill.
HESSA and the NJDOE must provide resources for school districts, parents, and students that include instructions on how to complete the financial aid application, which must include webinars, presentations, guidance documents and a list of available State and federal resources. The Executive Director of HESSA must make these resources directly available to school counselors and school employees who must share this information with students and parents. Each school district must annually provide notice of this requirement to students and parents.
NJPSA raised significant concerns with this legislation and is still seeking to work with the bill sponsor to address them. We understand that the legislation is well-intended with a goal of making more students aware of potential resources available to them as they consider their future plans following high school. However, we have concerns with the bill’s impact on students. NJPSA objected to the creation of a nonacademic graduation requirement for students which is based upon the action or inaction of their parents and is outside student control. Many students may have alternate plans than attending college or post-secondary education following their graduation, such as students beginning employment or joining the military. NJPSA expressed concerns about the message this requirement is sending those students. Additionally, we raised concerns about the negative stressors this requirement may place on students, such as undocumented students, students whose parents refuse to file this paperwork, students whose parents have language barriers, and homeless students.
In addition to this legislation, the following bills saw legislative action this week:
S-2416 (Greenwald) – This bill requires Medicaid reimbursement for covered behavioral health services provided by a local education agency to students who are an eligible Medicaid beneficiary. NJPSA supported this bill.
S-3814 (Ruiz) – This legislation establishes an emergency teacher certification in high need fields. Under the bill a superintendent may apply to the executive county superintendent or Commissioner of Education for an emergency instructional certificate in high need fields including bilingual/bicultural education and special education if the superintendent can demonstrate the inability to locate a suitable certified candidate. The teacher candidate must be enrolled in an educator preparation program, have a bachelor’s degree, and have passed the applicable subject matter test of content knowledge in the area the emergency instructional certificate is sought. If an emergency certificate is granted, it can be renewed up to two times. The candidate must stay within the district under this emergency certificate and can be employed on a full-time or part-time basis. The bill caps the number of emergency certificates a district may seek to 20% of the district’s teaching population. NJPSA supports this legislation.
S-3850 (Gopal) – This legislation establishes a nonpublic school transportation program to provide funding to consortiums of nonpublic schools that will assume responsibility for mandated nonpublic school busing. NJPSA was neutral on this legislation.
S-3890 (Ruiz) – This bill prohibits the State Board of Education and a Commissioner- approved college educator preparation program from limiting the number of semester-hour credits earned in the field of professional education at a county college that may be accepted toward meeting the educator preparation program’s requirements, except as otherwise required by the institution’s accrediting organization. NJPSA supports this bill.
A-5459 (Freiman) – This bill requires the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a Farm to School Local Food Procurement Reimbursement Grant Program which will reimburse school districts for costs expended in sourcing and procuring local foods for students. The bill appropriates $6.5 million for this program. NJPSA supports this legislation.
A-5573 (Coughlin) – NJPSA supports A-5573 as part of Speaker Coughlin’s anti-hunger package. This bill requires schools with lunch programs to provide free lunch to gradually increasing numbers of income-eligible students and, after a five-year phase-in period, to all students, regardless of income or eligibility. The bill is fully funded, either through federal program assistance or state funding.
A-5164 (Coughlin)/S-530 (Ruiz) – NJPSA sought an amendment to this legislation which requires certain school meal information be provided to public school students’ parents and requires school districts to request that families apply for school meals under certain circumstances. NJPSA sought the ability to provide this information and application electronically as is the practice in school districts.
A-1349/S-1221 (Mosquera/Ruiz) – This legislation established a program within the NJDOE to reimburse school districts for providing menstrual products in public schools educating students in grades six through twelve. The bill mandates that the State of New Jersey will pay these costs. NJPSA supports this funded legislation.
A-4727 (Jasey) – This bill requires the Commissioner of Education to receive approval from the NJ State Board of Education prior to imposing new standardized assessment requirements for the public schools. Based upon last year’s Start Strong fall requirement, NJPSA enthusiastically supported this legislation.
A-5575 (Gopal) – This bill assists Freehold regional school district with state aid reductions.
A-5576 (Coughlin) –This legislation appropriate $10 million to create an Office of Community Schools with the NJDOE to provide support to school districts seeking to provide a community schools approach to meet student and community needs within the district. NJPSA supports this bill which we believe should be merged with legislation we previously supported on community schools sponsored by Assemblywoman Mila Jasey.
A-5577 (Freiman) – This legislation seeks to modify the school funding formula to avoid large fluctuations in state aid to school districts based upon property valuation. It would require the use of a five-year average of equalized property valuation in the calculation of a district’s local fair share under the State school funding formula. NJPSA was neutral on this legislation as we seek more information about its impacts on school districts across the state.
Please contact the NJPSA Government Relations team if you have any questions about this proposed legislation.