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Bill Would Stretch the School Day, Extend the School Year

Three-year pilot would be funded by corporate contributions that would earn 100 percent tax credits.

A Democratic-backed bill aimed at extending the school day and the school year could morph into a broader measure that also pays districts to experiment with innovative approaches as to how time is used in schools.

The bill (S-2087) would furnish up to 25 districts with grant funding to evaluate longer school schedules. The pilot would run for three years and be paid for with corporate contributions that in turn would earn 100 percent state tax credits.

The measure passed the Senate Education Committee yesterday; it was voted out by the Assembly education committee in June.

Just as soon as it passed, one of its chief Senate sponsors said yesterday that she would revise the bill significantly before taking it to a full vote, opening up both the programs available for grant funding and the financing mechanisms to pay for them.

“Let’s really raise the bar,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate committee. “Let’s see what other best practices we can weave into this to make this a comprehensive bill.”

“I wanted to get the conversation going, and get everyone moving on this,” she said.

Ruiz said the bill could complement a proposal by the Christie administration to set up a so-called Innovation Fund in the fiscal 2014 state budget. It would provide $50 million in grants for a range of yet undefined projects.

If the new measure passes, it would award comparable sums for stretching daily and annual schedules, as well as for other scheduling innovations: up to $24 million in the first year, $48 million in the second, and $72 million in the third.

Ruiz yesterday said she still wanted to keep the focus on extended schedules, pointing to growing support for longer time in the classroom. Still, she said the current bill needed some stricter guidelines as to what districts could try.

“While I don’t want the state to tell districts what these will look like, we should set down some parameters,” Ruiz said after the committee hearing.

Cosponsored by state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), the current bill would require a district to have the support of a majority of its families and its staff to even apply for the funding. The state would pick a cross-section of districts (geographically and socio-economically) to participate in the pilot.

Several advocates yesterday testified that the state not only needs to lay out clearer guidelines to ensure a good sample of districts, but also to require that the strategies be closely tracked and evaluated.

“One thing we’d like to come out of this is a robust research project so that we have a sense of what works and what doesn’t work,” said Jennifer Keyes-Maloney of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

“If we decide to scale this up statewide, we would have a true understanding of what the best programs are throughout the state,” she explained.

Others asked for a more stable funding stream than just corporate contributions, even if tagged to state tax credits. Ruiz said she would add provisions that would include federal and philanthropic funding as well. A federally funded program now in place is already testing extended days in a handful of districts.

The only dissenting vote on the committee came from state Sen. Michael Doherty (D-Warren), who said he objected to the premise that longer school days required additional funding.

“Not sure we should have a policy or imply that right out of the box,” he said. “We by any measure already have the most expensive education system in the country, if not the face of the earth, and this will only add additional costs.”

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