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Op-Ed: Framing the Future of Education Policy in New Jersey

A new 'Framework for Excellence' can help guide governor and legislators through the next stage of education reform

janellen duffy
Janellen Duffy, executive director of JerseyCAN.

As we look ahead to 2014, there is a lot of speculation about what the governor and legislative leadership will prioritize in education policy.

Clearly, a focus on education reform was a hallmark of Gov. Chris Christie’s first term, which was tumultuous yet productive, with the passage of the tenure reform bill, a new teacher evaluation system, the Urban Hope Act, creation of Renaissance schools, a breakthrough teachers’ contract in Newark, and other wins. Notably, all of these accomplishments were ultimately negotiated and approved on a bipartisan basis.

Looking forward, key questions arise as to what will be next on the list to tackle, particularly given the governor’s potential presidential aspirations and the impact they will have on bipartisanship in Trenton.

To help inform this process, we at JerseyCAN undertook a project in which we spoke with educators, policymakers, and advocates across the state and delved into the best research to devise a set of both short-term and longer-term policy recommendations for New Jersey schools. The product is our new publication, "New Jersey Schools: A Framework for Excellence."

As we reviewed state trends, we found that there are two simultaneous and equally pressing issues that have to be addressed.

The first is the achievement gap, which continues to be a major concern, even in light of the most recent NAEP scores. Our black fourth-grade math students who scored proficient or higher trail their white peers by 37 points. Also in fourth-grade math, the gap between low-income students and non-low-income students is just as large. However, our concerns are not limited to certain groups of students living in certain areas of the state.

The second issue is that students across the state, in all types of districts, are not meeting college- and career-readiness standards, and as a result, they will not be competitive in the global economy. Based on recent results from the NAEP, only 38 percent of 12th-grade students across the state were considered college- and career-ready.

These are two significant challenges, but they are not unique to New Jersey. Fortunately, some other states as well as districts and leaders here in New Jersey are already working on solutions to address them, and we can learn from those efforts. Here is a snapshot of the lessons we gleaned when we looked at what has worked within our state and across others:

First, while we applaud the track record of recent bipartisan accomplishments noted above, there are some inadvertent problems created in recent years that have to be corrected.

Chief among them is the residency requirement embedded in the New Jersey First Act passed in 2011, which restricts school districts and charter schools as they attempt to hire the best and brightest to teach New Jersey students. At JerseyCAN we have heard from superintendents and other education leaders about how this residency requirement drastically hinders their ability to hire the best teachers and staff for their teams. This is a concern across the state, and particularly in districts that border Pennsylvania and New York. Across the spectrum of education advocates -- even among those who often disagree -- there is near-consensus that lifting this residency requirement would be extremely beneficial to expanding the pool of highly talented professionals who seek to improve schools in New Jersey.

Second, the governor has already been vocal about some of the unfinished business in education he wants to tackle in his second term. In particular, the governor has gone on the record saying that he will pursue the elimination of constraints that currently require school district leaders to make layoff decisions based on years of experience.

This will be a bigger lift given substantial pushback that arose on this topic during the tenure reform debate in 2012. However, if district leaders are struggling to provide a thorough and efficient education to their students as a result of policies like this, last-in, first-out (LIFO) must be revisited. New Jersey is one of only 10 states that currently include a LIFO provision in state statute, and it will require leadership and prioritization to break out of this group of laggards.

Other policy changes we recommend tackling are those that are not only critically needed but also ones for which there appears to be some momentum building within the state.

These changes include overhauling the state’s public charter school statute to reflect national best practices on charter school accountability, authorizing and oversight, autonomy, facilities, and funding.

Efforts in the short-term should also include ensuring that the Common Core State Standards and related assessments are implemented well and on time to truly raise the bar for all students across the state. Similarly, we have to work to ensure successful implementation of the tenure reform bill, new teacher evaluation system, and reforms to teacher preparation programs so teachers are equipped with the best training possible.

We welcome the opportunity to pursue other areas included in our "Framework" -- such as the expansion of high-quality preschool and improvements in the equity and efficiency of school funding. However, given the complexity of these issues and the complications created by funding challenges, these areas may take a longer period of time to accomplish.

While we recognize that the pursuit of many of these recommendations will be met by substantial political resistance, progress made in recent years has proven that even issues once known as “sacred cows” can be changed if our leaders commit to doing so. If we want to build on recent progress, the governor and the Legislature should roll up their sleeves once again, cut through new and even old political baggage, and tackle these outstanding issues. We have a framework to help them start.

Janellen Duffy is executive director of JerseyCAN.

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