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It’s Slow Going On Education Policy As Trenton Action Stalls Before Election

Not much is moving forward as New Jersey enters stretch of busy election season

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A state Board of Education meeting with virtually no agenda. Charter-school approvals that go unannounced. A slew of expected reports and initiatives that suddenly take a bit longer than anticipated.

Election season is nearing the finish line, and the slow pace of state education policy is certainly a reflection.

Departments often go through their quiet times during political seasons to avoid doing anything newsworthy. State agencies missing deadlines is hardly new in any season.

But with Gov. Chris Christie at the top of the ballot in less than a month, his state Department of Education has gotten quieter than most in the final weeks before the gubernatorial and legislative elections.

The state Board of Education’s monthly meeting in October was one of the first signs, with literally no agenda beyond announcing the state’s Teacher of the Year. That was despite a host of controversial and not-so-controversial regulations pending before the board.

Elsewhere, while the state would normally announce new charter school approvals, it took reporters’ questions earlier this month to learn that three bids had been preliminarily approved out of more than 30 applicants. A formal announcement has yet to go out.

A host of other matters before the department appear to be on hold, too, including some of significance to the state’s public schools.

For instance, two final reports on the state’s teacher-evaluation system and how it fared in 30 pilot districts over the last two years have yet to be released. One by a team of Rutgers researchers and the other by a statewide committee of educators have been eagerly anticipated, as schools statewide are in the first year of implementing their own evaluation systems and looking for all the insight they can get.

Also related to teacher evaluations, another report that would set numerical benchmarks for how teachers would fall on a four-tier scale – ranging from “ineffective” to “highly effective” – was first planned for release in early September, then said to be imminent, and now is not expected until November.

Whether all this is tied directly to Christie’s quest for reelection is hard to pin down. The Democrat-controlled Legislature isn’t exactly roaring ahead on education policy, either, with the Senate and Assembly education committees each meeting just once this fall.

And few outside the department would speak publicly to what they think is slowing things down, only saying that they are now waiting until November for any new developments.

Meanwhile, the list of pending matters continues to grow. The state this fall is required to be put out grades for every district on their efforts in the first full year of the new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. The grades are not ready yet, the department said.

New performance reports on individual charter schools and how they match revamped student performance expectations and other standards were first expected in the summer, but they also have yet to appear.

Michael Yaple, the state Department of Education spokesman, said each matter had its own explanation. In most cases, he said the information or reports are still forthcoming, and that they just need more work.

“Some reports are delayed because we need to ensure our information is correct,” he said. “It does no good to anyone to release inaccurate, useless information.

“For instance, this is the first year of the bullying self-assessments, and not all schools have responded yet,” Yaple continued. “We’re looking to have 100 percent of schools on board because we want this to be a constructive process that yields positive results.”

In one matter that has spilled into the public arena, the Christie administration’s required annual reports on three of its four takeover districts also have been delayed, this time drawing a formal complaint from advocates.

“The annual reports to the [Legislature’s] Joint Committee are the only requirement for the Commissioner to publicly disclose what progress the State is making in Newark, Paterson and Jersey City, and when these communities can expect to regain control over the education of their children," said David G. Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

Still, blaming this one solely on the election season may be difficult. The law center points out the department hasn’t filed these reports now for three straight years.

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