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School-Reform Legislation, Education Aid Among Items on Year-End Agenda

Last-minute votes could delay Common Core-related tests, reconfigure impact on teacher evaluations

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Up against the state budget deadline, the Legislature today will consider a few last-minute items that could prove pivotal in the debate over school reform.

The Democrat-led Legislature is expected today to decide on a state budget for fiscal 2015 in which school funding accounts for more than one-third of the spending, at more than $12 billion of a $34.1 billion budget.

The vast bulk of that will remain intact, whether or not Gov. Chris Christie agrees with the Democrats’ budget as proposed.

The most contentious debate -- over additional taxes on the wealthy and businesses -- is unlikely at this point to much on education spending.

But the Democrats’ budget nonetheless includes a few other tweaks in state spending for schools that are consequential. And the Legislature is also set to decide on some other contentious bills, including one to delay the consequences of new state testing tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Here are the three big education-related questions as this legislative session enters its stretch run:

+1) How much will school aid be impacted by the last-minute budget jockeying?

Overall, the $9 billion in direct state aid to districts is unlikely to change much at this point, with the vast majority of local districts’ budgets already adopted.

Christie had proposed -- for virtually every district – state aid increase of less than 1 percent overall, equating to about $20 per student.

But Democrats made some late changes this week that could open up a few new avenues of funding. For instance, a $5 million fund proposed by Christie for “innovative” programs had been eliminated, replaced by a smaller $2.5 million pot of money called the Education Reform Implementation Grant Program that will go to specific purposes that are at the forefront of the Christie education agenda.

Of that, $1.25 million will be made available to districts in grants to help pay for training of administrators and teachers in the state’s new teacher-evaluation system under the tenure reform law known as TEACHNJ.

The remaining $1.25 million will fund a second grant program for districts needing additional resources to implement new state online testing -- known as the PARCC or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers – to begin in 2015.

The new fund is just one of a few changes in the state budget in the Democrats’ plan, which also includes $4.5 million more for non-public schools and an additional $3 million to help pay for charter schools.

The non-public school aid has been a pet issue for state Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee.

+2) Will the Legislature force Christie to slow down the consequences of PARCC and the new Common Core standards?

It’s been one of the biggest dramas of this spring’s legislative deliberations, with momentum building for several bills that would slow, if not stop, the state’s use of new testing tied to the Common Core standards in evaluating teachers and schools. The use of the new PARCC testing, now only field-tested by the state, is scheduled to start in 2015.

A bill already passed by the Assembly would delay use of the tests for up to two years while a state task force reviewed implementation of the standardized exams. After the Senate education committee declined to endorse the measure, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) this week nonetheless posted the bill for a full Senate vote today.

But a twist came yesterday, when Christie himself said at one of his town hall-style meetings that a measure could be offered in coming days to address the testing concerns, raising the possibility of a unilateral executive order or regulatory change.

Further details were unavailable, but state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) repeated yesterday that she has been pressing the administration to make a change in the consequences of the bill, including the possibility of reducing the share that test scores will carry in teacher evaluations in the first year. That change could be done by regulation, without legislative approval.

Ruiz said it would address the state’s obligation, under federal regulations, to retain at least some use of student performance measures, while providing time for districts to adjust. The federal requirements have been the administration’s main defense of the current rules.

“I am committed to working with the leadership and the administration to come up with a compromise that protects teachers, students and schools,” Ruiz said in an interview.

+3) What about Camden school reforms and other unfinished business?

There are a couple of other pending matters on the Legislature’s docket for tomorrow, including an 11th-hour bill that would further loosen the reins on the Urban Hope Act in Camden.

But s few other items will now move to the fall, if not beyond.

The most prominent is legislation to rewrite the state’s nearly 20-tyear-old law dictating how charter schools are approved and monitored. There have been several bills filed with proposals for revamping the charter law, but none have been acted on, even in committee.

One exception is the Urban Hope bill, submitted on Monday, to extend the application deadline under the 2011 law that permits new hybrid charter schools in Camden, Trenton and Newark.

The proposed extension would only apply to Camden, which has fueled speculation that more projects might be on the way. Three applicants have already received at least preliminary approval for up to 15 new schools in Camden.

The bill would also extend an early retirement offer to Camden teachers and staff who are facing more than 300 layoffs in the state-run district. The last day of work for the laid-off employees is Friday, but the bill help remaining teachers and administrators in the case of potential future layoffs, say supporters.

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