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With Confirmation Hearing After Lengthy Delay, Hespe Finally Gets His Day

On the job nine months, education chief is almost certain to be confirmed – but here are three tough questions he’s likely to be asked

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe

After nine months as New Jersey’s acting education commissioner, David Hespe is finally coming before the state Senate for confirmation on Thursday.

His confirmation is all but assured, despite the lengthy delay. Why it took so long is not clear, although it likely represents another instance of the occasional political tugs-of-war between Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

One thing for certain is that Hespe will face questioning from the Senate judiciary committee about the many tough issues facing public education in the state, from charter schools to standardized testing to finances.

In that spirit of dialogue, NJ Spotlight predicts a couple of possible lines of questioning for the commissioner:

With the prospects slim for new school aid, are you going to change how the state distributes its existing amounts?

Hespe has the unenviable task of overseeing a state-aid picture for schools that continues to be dire, with the state’s obligations to education competing with multi-billion expenses for its pension system and its transportation infrastructure.

The biggest decisions will come in the next few months as the Christie administration devises its budget for fiscal 2016, a process that all but cements how school aid will be distributed next year, since school districts have little time afterward before they strike their own budgets.

By law, the distribution of aid should be dictated by the state’s school-funding formula, but that aid formula hasn’t been fully funded since its first year, and the end result is often a balance between across-the-board decisions about state-aid totals and a few extraordinary exceptions.

Legislators from both sides of the aisle have voiced frustration that they are not consulted during the administration’s number-crunching process, and Thursday’s questioning of Hespe may prove to be a chance for lawmakers to say – at least in public -- what they’re looking for in the budget-making process.

Call it a coincidence or unlucky timing, but this week will also feature oral arguments at the Mercer County courthouse in the Bacon v. NJ Department of Education case, which maintains poor rural districts are being especially shortchanged in state-aid funding.

Is New Jersey ready for the new online state testing -- instructionally, technologically, or politically?

The biggest unknown next year for New Jersey public schools will be the launch of a pioneering new set of online tests aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

The PARCC tests – named after the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, which is developing the exams – will start in March, for students in grades 3 through 11, in language arts and math.

While Hespe and the state Department of Education officials have said they are confident the schools and the state are ready, not everyone is so certain.

For instance, the administration has said 90 percent of schools are technologically prepared, according to its latest count. But how that figure was arrived at is unclear, and that would still leave 250 schools working on having computers in place and ready within three months.

Aside from the technology requirements, this is a significantly different form of testing -- even in terms of content -- than has ever been seen by a vast majority of the state’s 2,500 public schools. That means that how well teachers have prepared their students will surely be tested, with even supporters of the new tests expecting a decline in scores.

And that all leads to the politics involved, with growing protests by both grassroots and mainstream groups catching the attention of legislators. It was largely the Legislature -- and specifically Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto – that forced Christie last summer to scale back some of the consequences that the new tests will have on teachers and students next year.

It remains to be see how much more pressure might be brought to bear on Hespe and the administration on Thursday.

What’s next for Newark and New Jersey’s other troubled school districts that have been taken over by the state?

This is becoming somewhat of a broken record for New Jersey education commissioners, as the state has mastered the art of taking over school districts but is still working on finding its way out of them.

This is especially familiar for Hespe. During his first tenure as education commissioner under former Gov. Christie Whitman, he oversaw the state’s early withdrawal from Jersey City schools, a process that is still incomplete. Now, the issue is Newark and the bitter politics swirling around the tenure of state-appointed schools Superintendent Cami Anderson.

Where the Legislature comes in here is that Anderson – who is directly under Hespe’s supervision – has so far declined repeated invitations to appear before the Joint Committee for Public Schools.

And legislators have also started to get directly involved in some of the controversies involving Anderson, including the One Newark reorganization plan and what to do about the district’s most troubled schools.

Meanwhile, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has directly asked Hespe to intervene in issues related to this fall’s tumultuous opening of Barringer High School, as well as the lackluster results of Anderson’s initiatives in lowest-performing schools.

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