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Time Runs Out for Christie Plan for Lengthier School Days, Longer School Years

Administration's $5 million innovation fund one of the casualties of budget process

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It was one of the centerpieces of Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address in January: a proposal to provide state help for schools to experiment with longer schooldays and years.

“Let’s face it, if my children are living under the same school calendar that I lived under, by definition, that school calendar is antiquated,” Christie said. “It’s antiquated both educationally and culturally for the world we live in." “Life in 2014 is much different than life 100 years ago, and it demands something more for our students,” he said. “It is time to lengthen both the school day and the school year in New Jersey.”

Six months later, both may have to wait.

In the back and forth of the state budget hammered out this summer, Christie’s proposal for a $5 million “innovation fund” to help districts expand learning time was ultimately eliminated from the spending plan by the Democratic-led legislature.

There wasn’t much explanation, other than Democrats’ plans to instead put $2.5 million into grants to help districts implement initiatives already in place, including new teacher evaluation. The other $2.5 million went to balancing the budget as a whole.

But the cut has left the Christie administration looking for alternative resources to fund what the governor made a signature initiative, at least for this year.

“We are currently working to identify other funding sources that could be used for a pilot program,” said Michael Yaple, communications director for the state education department.

“Our goal will be to reprioritize either state or federal funds for a grant program to encourage school districts to implement innovative approaches that lead to more instruction time,” he said. “It would be less funding than we initially envisioned, but we believe we can still create a meaningful program nonetheless.”

Among the initiatives launched by the department in March was InnovateNJ, a website that highlights best practices, including extending learning time. The department also still has allotted $1 million in the budget for grants to districts for after-school and summer programs.

That is not to say extended time hasn’t been happening anyway, albeit not exactly as the governor envisioned. Contract settlements between districts and teachers have seen longer school days and years across the state, albeit measured more in minutes, not days.

The state’s school boards association said that in each of the last three years, about a third of new contracts with teachers have included longer school days or years, be it for students themselves or teachers in training and preparation time.

“It has been ticking up,” said Jeanette Rundquist., an association spokeswoman.

Nonetheless, that was always the challenge to Christie’s proposal, that it would require additional resources to address the longer hours for teachers and staff.

The state’s largest union, the New Jersey Education Association, said there has been a slow increase in time required from teachers, but preliminary data showed it was at best incremental, with only a handful adding more than a day or two in the past decade.

Still, the Christie administration said it wasn’t giving up on the cause, while recognizing there isn’t a lot of public money to pay for it right now.

“Even though the innovation fund wasn’t in the state’s budget, we still intend to pursue the issue,” Yaple said. “It’s just that we’ll find other avenues to make it happen.”

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