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Pivotal Questions Await Answers as School Bells Ring in New Jersey

Controversial reforms – and whether Christie will run for president – among major issues as kids and teachers return to classrooms

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It’s not easy to list the top issues affecting New Jersey students, educators and taxpayers as the school year begins. There are just so many to choose from.

School reforms and school funding. Loud public protests in places like Newark and the quieter tensions simmering in suburban districts across the state. New ways to evaluate teachers and old battles over teacher pensions and benefits.

And then there’s the question of how politics – and whether or not one man decides to pursue his presidential aspirations – affects all of those issues, and how they would be addressed by the lawmakers who might succeed Gov. Chris Christie.

Here are six key questions – political and pedagogical – to start the 2014-15 school year:

  • Is New Jersey ready for Common Core and PARCC?

The first half of the question may seem a moot point, as New Jersey has slowly been rolling out the Common Core State Standards for the last three years. But the 2014-15 school year will see the standards in language arts and math have an impact like never before, as New Jersey will see its first statewide tests tied entirely to the standards.

Those Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests will be the first administered almost entirely online. What’s more, they will provide an almost-instant measure of how New Jersey students fare against students in other states who take the exact same tests.

There has been plenty of fighting already, enough to force Gov. Chris Christie and his administration to step back and lessen the weight the new testing will have on teacher evaluations.

But the Common Core standards and testing are coming nonetheless, and there is hardly any certainty that all districts will even have their computers ready for the new tests, let alone the related classroom instruction.

  • Will things ever settle down in Newark? And what does the situation in Newark mean for Camden?

The summer break saw no break in the debates over state-appointed Superintendent Cami Anderson’s plans to overhaul Newark’s public schools.

Fresh off her reappointment by Christie, registration problems got Anderson’s “One Newark” plan -- which calls for universal enrollment for both district and charter schools in the city -- off to a shaky start. The reform initiative now faces legal challenges, and some parents are even threatening a boycott of Newark schools as they open this week.

While that fight isn’t going away anytime soon, and with Anderson being kept on a tighter leash by the Christie administration, the more interesting story may be 80 miles down the NJ Turnpike in Camden.

In his job now for a full year, state-appointed schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard is bringing his own reforms to the Camden district, with a focus on new safety initiatives and leadership training.

But that’s not to say dramatic changes aren’t under way in Camden, too, with the advent of three large charter networks that will ultimately encompass 15 schools and include more than 10,000 students. And that’s on top of the nine charter schools already operating in that city.

Will Rouhanifard, who worked under Anderson in Newark for a year, face the same type of tempest in Camden? Or has his calmer style and more visible outreach helped quell that? Parents are already planning their own legal challenge over the new charter networks, but it is remains to be seen whether Camden becomes “the next Newark.”

  • Nearly 20 years after the first one was adopted, will this be the year that New Jersey enacts a new charter- school law?

This has become a perennial question, as politicians and policy-makers for several years have pledged to enact new rules for the quasi-independent schools. This year could be the year when it finally happens. Really.

There are now politically viable bills pending in both the state Senate and Assembly that would remake the process for reviewing and monitoring charter schools, starting with the creation of an outside authorizing board that would serve as the state’s gateway for new charters.

The latest legislation comes from state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the influential chair of the state Senate’s education committee, who has long talked about a new bill -- and now has actually filed one.

But that will hardly end the debate. Neither her bill nor the one sponsored by state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) addresses the funding of charter schools. And neither one addresses the issue of binding local find approval of charter applications, which has been rallying point for charter-school critics.

  • Is a teacher-evaluation system with more accountability really here for good?

For all the attention that New Jersey’s 2012 passage of a new teacher -tenure law received, 2014 may actually be the year when its real impact will be felt.

New Jersey’s teachers have been through the inaugural process of determining how they rate on the evaluation system’s four-level scale, which ranges from “ineffective” to “highly effective.”

But the stakes in this second year under the new system will only be higher, as the law gives school districts the power to bring tenure charges against teachers who don’t fare well in a second consecutive year, putting new pressures on teachers and placing new responsibility on schools.

Some of that pressure was eased when the Christie administration scaled back the weight student test scores will have on teacher evaluations in the next two years, but that only applied to a minority of teachers. For the rest of them, 2014-15 could be a pivotal year.

  • Have schools weathered the fiscal storm -- or is the worst yet to come?

The cuts in education spending made in 2010, in Christie’s first full year in office, seemed tough enough, with three-quarters of the state’s school districts still not reaching pre-Christie state-aid levels even though the state is spending more on education than ever before.

But when it comes to the operation of districts, Christie and the Legislature’s subsequent 2 percent cap on property tax increases is clearly having a more lasting impact, as schools try to meet escalating costs with fewer financial resources.

News this summer that teacher contracts are starting to come in over 2 percent again only adds to the pressure. And that doesn’t even take into account the state’s fiscal crisis over how to pay for rising pension and benefit costs – which is sure to further limit any possible financial relief for schools.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney and acting Education Commissioner David Hespe will be in Lambertville today to tout school regionalization as one way to deal with rising education costs. But it remains a limited pot of gold, and New Jersey schools enter the school year with more fiscal questions than answers.

  • What does 2016 politics mean for New Jersey’s school in 2014?

Christie is expected in the next eight months to decide whether he will run for the Republican presidential nomination. If he runs, education is sure to be one of his big issues.

Education policy would let him play up his focus on bipartisan cooperation, at least on issues like tenure reform, while maintaining his image of being tough on the teacher unions and low performing school districts.

GOP rivals are sure to seek chinks in Christie’s claims, too, and the governor may have a few more initiatives up his sleeve as well.

But it’s not just about Christie. It’s also about those who might look to replace him.

Sweeney, the Senate president who is on the short list of Democratic gubernatorial possibilities, has already hinted that he would slow down Christie’s education reforms, especially pertaining to testing. Meanwhile, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop -- also on the list of possible candidates -- has made that city’s education reforms his own calling card.

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