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What Do Budget Reviews Mean for Education Department?

Christie’s plan boosts spending at agency to implement school reforms.

When the state Department of Education starts off the legislature’s budget reviews this week, much of the attention will be on the $11.7 billion in state aid that the agency distributes to more than 500 school districts across New Jersey.

But also of interest will be the budget for the department itself, and the money Gov. Chris Christie is putting aside to implement and administer his education reform agenda.

It has been a sore spot, as critics have questioned the department’s own capacity for putting in place and overseeing what is an aggressive agenda based on teacher quality, student testing, and school performance.

It appears the governor is paying attention to meeting those needs. According to Christie’s budget detail submitted last month, the education department will be one of the few in the executive branch to see a significant increase for direct services and administration, from $66.1 million to $69.4 million, or about 5 percent.

That is still well below two years ago when it topped $73 million, but Christie has nevertheless proposed adding 50 personnel to a department that has been decimated in the past year. The budget lists a total of 404 state-funded positions.

The budget detail outlines that the vast bulk of the increase will go to two areas: $1.7 million to staffing the new Regional Achievement Centers (RACs), including 19 new employees; and $1.7 million for additional high school testing that is being rolled out over the next several years. There are also signals of money continuing to be steered toward non-traditional programs, such as charters and virtual schools.

Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf and his top staff yesterday would not discuss the details of the department’s budget, saying they would save it for Thursday’s meeting before the Senate budget committee. The department is the first to go before the committee in an agency-by-agency budget review process that is expected to go on for more than a month.

None of the new initiatives come as surprises, even if they are waiting to be fleshed out. Maybe more notable is that the RACs and testing programs are the only significant increases in Christie’s budget plan for the department, with the vast bulk of the department’s spending not much changing.

Cerf this winter announced the new RACs as the centerpieces of his effort to focus on the state’s lowest performing districts and schools. The RACs will be spread across the state, staffed with education experts and replacing some of the functions of the existing county offices in providing more direct support and assistance.

The department has begun interviewing for the new positions, including new “master educators” who will be each center’s director. State officials said that much of the staffing also would come from department employees reassigned from elsewhere.

The new high school testing is also on the way, although its details are a closely guarded secret. The budget outline said that the $1.7 million would go toward implementation of “five new end-of-course exams,” presumably similar to the subject tests that the state has tried with biology and algebra.

Department spokesman Justin Barra said they would be part of a nationwide testing initiative known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) that the Christie administration has signed on to, including the extensive use of online and multiple testing in each grade. It is unclear whether the state would go beyond PARCC testing for high schools, though, since that program only includes tests in language arts and mathematics.

Schools are waiting for the release of a report from a task force appointed by Christie last fall to look at high school graduation requirements and how they can better meet the skills needed for college and career. The task force was headed by Cerf’s chief of staff, David Hespe, and following several public hearings and discussions, it filed its report at the end of the past year. The report has yet to be released to the public.

A few other line items drew attention from lobbyists and others as well. The budget follows the divisions that Cerf has created in the department since he took the job at the start of 2011, including a new section for Innovation that will be headed by an assistant commissioner yet to be named.

Under the new budget, $1.6 million will go to that line item, the same amount as in this year’s budget. A good chunk of that money this year was for the expanded charter school office, now with 10 employees, officials said. It appears the department will maintain that amount for next year, although some could be carried over.

“It’s a budget that recognizes the new organizational structure of the department,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Some of those functions like the RACs have yet to come to fruition, so we’re anxious to see how they operate. And for others, we’re anxious to see what they mean.”

The addition of more staff is a good first step for those who have worried that the department is getting stretched thin. At the same time it is only adding to the responsibilities for itself and for districts.

“The department needs to have a greater breadth in order for it to be truly supportive for districts,” said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a mostly suburban school organization. “If they are beefing up, that’s only better for all of us.”

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