Senate Education Committee Approves Legislation Highlighting Chronic Absenteeism Issues, Also Moves Package of Special Education Bills

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The Senate Education Committee moved a number of bills at its November 16 meeting, including a package of bills related to special education, as well as a measure, S-3245 (Allen/Ruiz), which attempts to spotlight the issue of chronic absenteeism.  Also approved was legislation, S-2727 (Bateman), to establish a taskforce to examine issues related to school district regionalization.

Special Education Package

The Committee moved a number of measures related to special education as a package, hearing testimony on only those bills that individuals had question on.  Universally the education stakeholders, including NJPSA, supported the package.

S-445 (Ruiz) – Establishes Response to Intervention initiative in DOE to support and encourage school districts in implementation of Response to Intervention framework.

This bill directs the Commissioner of Education to develop and establish an initiative to support and encourage the use of a Response to Intervention (RTI) framework by schools which at a minimum includes: 1) high quality research-based instruction in the general education setting; 2) universal screening procedures to identify students at risk for poor learning outcomes or behavioral challenges; 3) multiple levels of evidence-based interventions that are progressively more intense, based on the student’s responsiveness; and 4) continuous monitoring of student progress.  The Commissioner must also provide training to assist school districts in implementing the framework.  NJPSA supports this legislation.

S-1039 / A-2888 (Ruiz / Benson / Mukherji / Mosquera) –  Requires teacher preparation programs for instuctional certificates with teachers of students with disabilities endorsements include credit hours in autism spectrum disorder..

The amended bill would require individuals receiving a students with disabilities endorsement to get exposure in autism spectrum disorders prior to graduation, making it almost identical to the Assembly bill.

NJPSA, in addition to NJEA, support the bill as amended, having worked with the Assembly sponsor to more directly reflect current practice in teacher prepatory programs.  The Association also worked with the sponsor to ensure that all special education aspiring teachers receive pre-service training on autism, rather than create a new separate endorsement in autism.

S-447 (Ruiz) – Directs DOE to make database of special education decisions available on website.

This bill requires the Department of Education to maintain an electronic database of legal decisions concerning special education in New Jersey.  The department must make the database available on its website so that it can be easily accessed by parents, school districts, child study team members, or other interested members of the public who wish to obtain information on legal decisions regarding New Jersey special education matters.        The database will contain a full-text copy of each decision rendered by the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law (OAL) in a special education due process hearing.  If the OAL decision is appealed, any subsequent decision on the matter rendered by a New Jersey State court or a federal court must also be included in the database.  The database will include each special education decision rendered after the bill’s effective date.  NJPSA supports this legislation.

Chronic Absenteeism

Also heard was legislation spurred on by a recent report by Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) on issues related to Chronic Absenteeism.  ACNJ’s showcased efforts by districts with a chronic absenteeism (defined as exceeding 10 percent of the student population) to address the problem (ACNJ Releases Report on Chronic Absenteeism, September 11, 2015).  That report found that about 125,000 K-12 students – roughly 10 percent of New Jersey’s public school population – were chronically absent during the 2013-14 academic year.

The legislation before the Committee November 16 – S-3245 (Allen / Ruiz) – would require the Commissioner of Education to include data on chronic absenteeism and disciplinary suspensions on the School Report Card.  Currently the chronic absenteeism metric is included on the School Performance Report in grades K-8.  Suspension data is reported across all grades.

The bill uses the standard metric for “chronically absent,” meaning a student’s attendance record includes a total number of absences, including excused absences, unexcused absences, and absences due to  disciplinary actions, that meets or exceeds 10 percent of the total number of school days in the school year, or in the case of a student who enrolls in the school after the beginning of the school year, 10 percent of the total number of school days from the date of enrollment until the end of the school year

The legislation would also, in event that ten percent or more of the students enrolled in a public school are chronically absent, require a school to convene a ‘Chronic Absenteeism Coalition.’ Under the bill, the coalition must include at least one parent and one teacher from the school community, and such other members as determined appropriate by the principal.  The purpose of the coalition would be to regularly review and monitor school chronic absenteeism and develop a corrective action plan to improve absenteeism rates. The coalition must annually present its findings and recommendations to the board of education until the percentage of the student body that is chronically absent falls below ten percent.

NJPSA urged that the Intervention & Referral Services Team (I&RS) be the entity required to develop a school based action plan in light of their work on an individual basis with kids in crisis, including issues related to absenteeism.  The Association also urged extreme caution in including a parent, in light of privacy concerns.  NJASA expressed similar concerns in its testimony.

SR-147 (Ruiz / Sweeney) – Urges DOE and school districts to develop creative solutions to address chronic absenteeism.Chronic Absenteeism

This legislation urges the Department of Education and local school districts to work collaboratively to develop and implement creative solutions to address the issue of chronic absenteeism in New Jersey’s public schools.  NJPSA, in addition to the other education stakeholders including NJEA, NJASA, NJSBA, support the bill.

Other Legislation

S-1766 (Rice) – Prohibits State Board of Education from limiting number of certain two-year college credits that may be applied towards meeting teacher certification requirements

Current State board regulations provide that, for most candidates for teacher certification, no more than six credits earned in the field of professional education at a regionally accredited two-year college can be applied towards meeting the requirements for teacher certification.  This bill would prohibit the State Board of Education from limiting the number of professional education credits earned at a regionally accredited two-year college that may be applied towards meeting the requirements for teacher certification, provided that  the credits are accepted by a State-approved college professional education preparation program.  According to the bill statement, it is the sponsor’s belief that the current State board regulations in this area pose an impediment to the full implementation of P.L.2007, c.175, which seeks to foster a seamless transfer process and the academic success of transfer students at senior institutions of higher education.  NJPSA is monitoring this legislation.

S-2727 (Bateman) – Establishes Task Force on School District Regionalization.

The proposed legislation would create a 16-member task force, including NJPSA, to review issues related to  school district regionalization. Members would consider the challenges and benefits of consolidations, identify incentives to encourage districts to merge, and submit their findings and recommendations in a report to the governor and Legislature. NJPSA supports the legislation.

S-3067 (Barnes, III) – Requires teachers of health and physical education in grades kindergarten through six in public schools to possess appropriate endorsement to instructional certificate.

Under existing State Board of Education regulations, in order to teach health and physical education, physical education, or health in grades kindergarten through six in a public school, a teacher is not required to have these specific endorsements to the instructional certificate. A teacher with an elementary school endorsement, pursuant to certain regulations, would be permitted to teach these courses.  This bill requires that teachers appointed to teach health, health and physical education, or physical education in grades kindergarten through six possess the appropriate endorsement to their instructional certificate. However, the bill exempts from the bill’s certification requirements persons who teach former Abbott district kindergarten students under a contract between the former Abbott district and a licensed child care center or other provider. The bill also includes a “grandfather” provision that will allow teachers who received an elementary school endorsement prior to the bill’s effective date, to continue to be permitted to teach health and physical education, physical education, or health at these grade level.  NJPSA supports the legislation in light of the liberal grandfathering provision. 

S-3240 (Lesniak) – Authorizes establishment of recovery high school alternative education programs.

The bill would authorize school districts to establish alternative education programs, including recovery high schools, with the approval of their boards of education.  Under the bill’s provisions, a sending district could enter into an agreement with a school district that has established a recovery high school alternative education program for the provision of services to a student who is currently enrolled in the sending district. If the student is admitted to the recovery high school alternative education program, the sending district would pay tuition to that district.   Similar legislation was conditionally vetoed by the Governor earlier this year to allow local districts, in addition to county districts to establish these schools.  NJPSA, in addition to the other education stakeholders including NJEA, NJASA, NJSBA, support the bill.

S-3247 (Ruiz / Pou) – Eliminates cap on cost of SDA district school facilities projects that may be constructed by district and included in capital outlay budget.

Under current law, an SDA (former Abbott) district may include in its annual capital outlay budget and construct one or more school facilities projects if the cost of each project does not exceed $500,000 and the Commissioner of Education approves the inclusion of the project upon a demonstration by the district that its  budget includes sufficient funds to finance the project. This bill eliminates the $500,000 cap on the cost of projects that may be constructed by an SDA district and included in its annual capital outlay budget. The bill also provides that the commissioner will approve the inclusion in consultation with the New Jersey Schools  Development Authority. The commissioner’s approval may also contain specific conditions including, but not limited to, a requirement that the district follow the design requirements and materials and system standards established by the development authority.  Evidently SDA requested this change in the law.  NJPSA, in addition to the other education stakeholders including NJEA, NJASA, NJSBA, support the bill.