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Fine Print: School Red Tape Review

Will the new Education Transformation Task Force mean the end of QSAC and its dreaded 570-item checklist?

Summary: Gov. Chris Christie yesterday signed Executive Order #58 creating the Education Transformation Task Force, charged with reviewing state regulations and other mandates on public schools and recommending changes.

What it means: Such scouring of the rules and regulations placed on schools are nothing new. Various commissions and task forces have been charged over the years with freeing up schools from burdensome mandates. The last one was in 2004. But why this one may be different is the reason many measures are taking on a new sheen these days: the economic crisis has forced hard choices.

A few examples to consider: Front and center in this review will be the state’s four-year-old monitoring system for schools, awkwardly dubbed the Quality Single Accountability Continuum (QSAC). It includes more than 500 items to be reviewed in a district’s operations, governance, procedures and finances, and it has never been much popular with districts.

Cerf’s heard the complaints: "The process in which it was implemented involves a great deal paper shuffling, and superintendents I have spoken to all say, ‘Judge us on how well our students are doing, and whether we’re fiscal stewards of taxpayer money,' " said Chris Cerf, the acting education commissioner. "But boy, a 570-item checklist? They say, 'Hold us accountable but give us the means to make our own decisions.' "

He’s right: The formation of the task force immediately won praise from the state’s school boards association and its superintendents association, the latter no best friend of the governor’s lately. The school board association’s spokesman wrote: "While monitoring is necessary, there has been some concern over frequency and the burden of the process for high-performing districts. In terms of the accountability regulations, everyone wants accountability, but some aspects of these regulations represent true micro-management."

Every mandate has a reason: The tricky part of any red tape review is that there was some reason such requirements were enacted in the first place. One of districts’ biggest complaints is new accountability regulations enacted in 2008 around fiscal efficiency, all at a time when new caps were being placed on school spending and taxes. Sound familiar? And maybe the two biggest mandates are those around student testing and special education, neither unlikely to be much watered down and both with federal requirements as well.

Deja vu all over again: Lynne Strickland, a long-time lobbyist for suburban districts, served on the 2004 mandate review commission and concedes not much came of it. "We are cautiously optimistic this time," she said.

What’s next: The seven members of the task force -- drawn from teachers, administrators and others -- need to be appointed. Christie has asked the group to finish its initial report and recommendations by August 15 and continue work through the end of the year.

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