By Debra Bradley, Esq.
The State Legislature had an active day on October 22 with 10 legislative committees meeting and 62 bills considered. Additionally, certain committees heard public testimony on topics ranging from stormwater management to racial inclusivity and social justice in our educational system.
The following bills impacting our schools and NJPSA members were considered by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee:
- S-3045 (Sweeney) Chapter 44 Clarification
NJPSA supported this legislation which seeks to clarify the wording and legislative intent of the recently enacted health benefits reform legislation for school employees. Specifically, the bill clarifies our understanding and the sponsors’ intent that school employees who earn more than $125,000 annually will pay the same amount for the NJ Educators Health Plan as those who earn $125,000, rather than a percentage of salary. P.L. 2020, c. 44 which went into effect on July 1, 2020 is being implemented for the first time this fall and the open enrollment period is ongoing. The bill clarifies the employee contribution cap at the top salary levels above $125,000. The provisions of S-3045, which NJPSA lobbied for, reflect a key goal that NJPSA advocated for during the negotiations for Chapter 44 on behalf of our members.
NJPSA has continued to raise our significant concerns with A-970/S-2259 which mandates that schools annually administer a depression screening of every student in grades seven through twelve for depression. The screening must be proctored and conducted electronically via computer within a school building. The screening tool will be selected by the Commissioners of Education and Children and Families and must accommodate students with disabilities, ensure student privacy, and permit “real time” evaluation of screening results with same day intervention by a licensed mental health professional. A superintendent or designee will notify parents if the screening detects “an abnormality and advise the parent to seek the care of a healthcare professional for further evaluation and diagnosis. School districts must obtain written consent from parents prior to screening students for depression upon enrollment and at the start of each school year. This legislation has already favorably passed the State Assembly by a vote of 59 affirmative 10 negative with 5 abstentions. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee determined that the bill would cause an “indeterminate increase” in local costs depending upon the screening tool selected and the staffing
impacts of interventions by mental health professionals. The bill could be posted for a final vote as early as October 29 and then head to the Governor for consideration.
NJPSA supports this legislation which requires the State to enter into contracts and coordinate with certain cooperative purchasing systems to assist public schools and county colleges in the purchase of COVID-19 related goods and services. This bill would allow local boards of education to bypass the bidding process to instead work through these state level contracts to obtain these essential goods and services. The bill has passed the Assembly and is now on 2nd Reading pending a final vote in the Senate.
This legislation creates a Safe Remote Learning Program within the NJDOE. It permits school districts, charter schools, and renaissance schools that are operating remotely on a full-time or part-time basis to provide remote instruction facilities to assist students. The NJDOE must establish guidelines for the operation of these remote instruction facilities which must meet the health and safety standards of the NJDOE and the NJ Department of Health. The facilities, which can be repurposed space within a school building or space owned by a non-profit or higher education institution, must be equipped with online instruction equipment including connected devices and Internet access, comply with licensed child care center regulation and be staffed by appropriately qualified person during all hours of operation. If a school district chooses to open such a remote learning center, interested parents will request, in writing, a space for their child. Districts will determine preference in participation based upon students eligible for free and reduced-price meals and students whose parents are considered essential workers by the NJDOE including teachers, school administrators and other school personnel. The Department of Children and Families shall determine the qualifications of individuals to staff these centers except that individuals enrolled in educator preparation programs shall be deemed qualified and shall earn credit toward their educator preparation programs. Funding shall be provided from federal CARES Act funding through the NJDOE to reimburse school districts for their costs. This legislation is pending a vote of the full Senate.
The Assembly Education Committee heard testimony from invited speakers, including students, on the topic of racial inclusivity within the New Jersey curriculum and social justice within our schools. They also considered the following bills:
- A1184/A-4414 (Zwicker/Conaway) Student Discipline Reporting
This legislation expands school district reporting of discipline of students to additional subgroups of students and increases the frequency of reporting. NJPSA was successful in its efforts to work with the bill sponsors on amendments to the legislation which avoid duplication of existing reporting requirements yet add important data for consideration. As amended, the committee substitute for these merged bills now will require schools to report on student expulsions, in school suspension and out of school suspension every six months, instead of monthly as contained in the original version of the bill. It will include new subgroups of students to the data reporting. Subgroups of students receiving free and reduced meals and ethnicity will now be reported. The duration of suspensions and number of prior disciplinary actions taken concerning a student during the reporting period will be reported. All of this data will protect the privacy of the student and student records. Superintendents will include a discussion of this discipline data in its discussion of violence and vandalism data as already required by law.
- A-3392 (Reynolds-Jackson) Student Representative on Board of Education
This legislation requires a board of education of a district serving grades 9-12, include a student representative on the board of education. NJPSA was successful in its efforts to amend the bill to promote student voice by having students select their own representative in a method of their choice, rather than have the board of education appoint the student representative. The bill heads to the full Assembly for consideration.
This legislation places the statutorily-created Amistad Commission to be “in but not of” the NJDOE and discusses its organizational structure. The bill also supplements existing law requiring all boards of education to include instruction that infuses into all courses on the United States the accomplishments by African Americans in the building and development of America. The instruction must also emphasize the personal responsibility of each citizen to fight racism and hatred and to uphold the national ideas of freedom and justice. The NJDOE must also work with the Amistad Commission to ensure that the assessment tools for New Jersey schools are inclusive of the curricular requirements under the bill. The bill, supported by NJPSA, was favorably released and heads to the full Assembly for consideration.
- A-4454 (Murphy) Instruction on Diversity and Inclusion
NJPSA successful advocated for an amendment to this legislation which requires districts to incorporate instruction on diversity and inclusion into the curriculum in grades 9-12 as part of the implementation of the NJ Learning Standards. Initially, the bill required this topic to be taught in Health and Physical education. The recent updating of the NJ Learning Standards has incorporated such instruction in our standards. The bill requires the Commissioner of Education to provide sample learning activities and resources to districts.
- A-4545 (Conaway) Instruction on Social Justice Issues
Similarly, NJPSA worked with the sponsor to seek amendments to this legislation, to remove initially proposed curriculum mandates in the bill. Now the bill proposes that boards include instruction on social justice and racial discrimination issues within the curriculum of middle school students as part of the district’s implementation of the NJ Student Learning Standards in Social Studies. The bill moves to the full Assembly for consideration.
- A-4603 (Dancer) School Audit Extension
This legislation changes the timelines for the annual school audit in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee amended the bill, moving the audit deadline for district submission to the Commissioner to January 31, 2021.
- A-4596 (Quijano)
This legislation was considered for discussion purposes only and was not moved by the committee. Debra Bradley, NJPSA Director of Government Relations shared NJPSA’s support for the development of culturally responsive teaching practices in our schools but questioned the specific approach of A-4596. The bill would mandate the development of a “credential for culturally responsive teaching” to be made available to teachers, potentially as an endorsement or micro-credential.
Governor’s Veto of NJQSAC Legislation
Finally, in a move that took the Legislature and education community by surprise, Governor Murphy vetoed legislation, A-4006 (Chiaravalloti) that would have delayed the NJQSAC monitoring cycle for school districts as a result of the COVID-19 crisis. Specifically, the bill would have moved the NJQSAC review to school year 2021 -22 for any school district whose review was not completed in 2019-2020 due to the pandemic. Also, it would move the NJQSAC review for school districts scheduled this school year (2020-2021) to next school year. The Governor’s veto message can be read here. It is unlikely that the Legislature will vote to override the Governor’s absolute veto which moves the question of NJQSAC review to the desk of newly-appointed Acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan for consideration.