A package of bills intended to improve and support New Jersey’s vocational and technical schools got a nice – and relatively speedy – boost from the Legislature last week, as the state Senate approved the last of those bills.
The final passage was quick by Trenton standards – the bills intended to bolster vo-tech schools and their burgeoning career academies were introduced only five months ago. The package had the strong backing of not just the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, led by state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, but also the state’s business community.
But uncertainty remains, as Gov. Chris Christie has not indicated whether he will sign the bills and there are lingering questions about two funding bills that supporters say are among the most significant parts of the legislation.
Both were approved by the Senate on Thursday by wide margins. One would restore funding for adult education programs that was eliminated amid state budget cuts in 2010. The other would provide extra state aid to vo-tech schools with enrollment increases exceeding 10 percent.
But those votes were largely along party lines, with dissent from Senate Republicans who questioned why vo-techs should get more money while other public schools statewide continue to struggle financially.
Several Republicans prefaced their remarks with expression of support for the vo-tech schools in their own counties, but each then used the opportunity to rail against the state’s school-funding system as a whole.
“We have 36 K-12 districts that have seen enrollment growth in excess of 15 percent but are more than 10 percent below the formula’s adequacy standard, and we’re not addressing them,” said state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth). “To me, it’s hard to consider this legislation in a vacuum.”
State Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren) talked about what has been a long-standing focus of frustration on both sides of the aisle – the fact that the administration determines school-aid distribution early in the state budget process and the Legislature has virtually no say before most schools set their spending plans for the coming year -- at which point it’s too late.
“The fact that we are passing this bill, the Legislature needs to step up and have the will against the commissioner determining how the aid is distributed,” said Doherty (R-Warren).
Doherty’s comments drew rare agreement from key Democrats, including state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate education committee, and state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chair of the budget committee.
Under the current system, Sarlo said, “By the time we adopt our budget in June, the ship has quite frankly sailed already and we’re left out of the process.”
He said the Democratic leadership already planned to ask to meet with the administration before the governor’s next annual budget introduction to discuss how school aid is to be distributed.
Afterward, Prieto said that for all the debate, he still hopes the vo-tech bills will be signed by Christie. While he did not have a firm price tag for the two bills, one legislative analysis said the adult-education school aid would come to about $6.2 million a year for the nearly 5,000 students currently enrolled.
“Budgets are about prioritizing, and it is something that we will have to do,” Prieto said in an interview. “I have had conversations with (the administration), and while not 100 percent sure, I am confident we can get this accomplished.”
In addition to the two funding bills, these proposals have already passed both the Assembly and Senate:
Require New Jersey’s school performance reports to include specific indicators of student career readiness;
Require preparation programs for teachers and school counselors to include coursework to support improved student career readiness;
Establish a four-year county vocational school district facilities partnership grant program;
Require all school districts and public colleges to enter into dual enrollment agreements to provide college-level instruction to high school students;
Provide regulatory leeway for county vocational school districts’ programs held in industry settings and other offsite locations,