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2015: Education in NJ Will See the Consquences of Earlier Policy Decisions

PARCC, school funding, teacher evaluations, takeover districts -- it’s going to be an interesting year for New Jersey public schools

christie
Credit: Governor's Office/Mykwain Gainey
Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Center for Great Expectations in Somerset, announcing a new round of state funding for anti-drug abuse efforts.

At the start of 2014, questions about state education policy centered on whether Gov. Chris Christie’s second term would be as eventful as his first.

At the start of 2015, one of the biggest questions is whether Christie will even be around to finish his second term.

It should be a busy year for education policy and politics in New Jersey, with Christie’s fate -- or at least his intentions -- near the top of the list. But the state also stands at several crossroads when it comes to its public schools.

The following lists several of the big issues, well as a few that are likely to come in under the radar:

PARCC testing is here

Not only will 2015 answer whether New Jersey’s schools are ready for the new PARCC testing, it could also be an important gauge as to whether the public is ready.

The testing, developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness of College and Careers (PARCC), will be most districts’ first wholesale experience of online assessments, and concerns have been raised as to whether both the technology and the instruction is ready for the change.

Any new testing often comes with significant impact on results, too, and state officials have been bracing for the likelihood of a drop in scores that could prove a gauge of the public’s confidence in the measures.

In addition, a fledgling but real backlash already exists from families that are pulling their children out of the testing in protest for its longer duration and higher stakes. The administration has played down the protest, but it appears to be growing and becoming only more emboldened as the PARCC tests approach.

School funding on the front burner

It’s a perennial topic: How will New Jersey schools fare in terms of state funding? It hasn’t gone very well the past few years, as funding after steep cuts in Christie’s first year has yet to return to 2009 levels for a vast majority of districts.

But this year brings some new important nuances to the issue.

Christie will present a fiscal 2016 budget this winter in which school aid is the largest piece of the pie, and few expect significant increases for schools -- if any at all -- while the state faces deep holes in its pension liability and its transportation infrastructure costs.

But within that larger context, schools are also feeling significant challenges under the state’s 2 percent property-tax caps, which have left little leeway, especially when it comes to rising special education costs.

A state task force is at work looking at options for how to pay for these programs, and it should bring more attention -- and pressure -- to the issue.

Teacher evaluation faces its consequences

Last year was an important one for the rollout of the state’s new educator-evaluation system, with districts being required for the first time to follow a standardized path for judging their teachers and administrators.

This year will see the first of the consequences.

The 2012 tenure reform law requires districts to bring tenure charges against those with ratings of ”ineffective” for two consecutive years, and two years later, 2015 will be the first test to see if districts will move on the opportunity.

Meanwhile, a segment of teachers -- mostly in elementary and middle schools -- will see for the first time their ratings even partially influenced by how students fare on the new PARCC testing.

Takeover districts tested

The state’s control of the Newark, Camden, and Paterson districts (and partial control in Jersey City) has led to what may be New Jersey’s hottest education debates over the past few years, and 2015 is unlikely to be much different.

But 2015 could prove pivotal to what happens next.

Newark especially may be at a turning point, with embattled superintendent Cami Anderson on notice from the administration that starting in 2015 she will be under yearly reviews of her performance and what has been a stormy relationship with the community.

She also faces her own budget challenges, as well as the end of a labor contract with teachers that was historic for its performance bonuses but far less popular within the district’s rank and file.

In Camden, the newest to the state-controlled class, schools will continue to adjust to the changes brought by state-appointed superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard. It will also be the first full year of the new quasi-charter “renaissance schools” in the district, with more likely on the way under an extension of the law in 2014.

Christie policies go national

The governor’s education policies have been keenly felt within the state for the past four years, but if and when he decides to run for president in the coming months, those policies will have a national audience as well.

He is sure to play up those that fit his campaign message, especially the bipartisan tenure law of 2012 and the state’s aggressiveness in districts like Newark and Camden.

But others may prove a tougher sell to more conservative elements of the Republican party, including a pension reform gone sour and Christie’s embrace of the Common Core State Standards that have become deeply unpopular on the right.

With former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush looking more and more likely to join the race and compete for the moderate wing of the GOP, it will be interesting to see if Christie tries to distinguish himself by breaking from Common Core or other more moderate policies.

Issues not getting the attention

These are hardly the only issues that will draw attention. The Legislature will again spend a lot of time talking about revisions to the state’s charter school law, but that is becoming a familiar exercise without much tangible result so far.

And Christie’s controversial caps on superintendent pay will continue to be debated, although 2016 will probably be a more pivotal year when the caps technically expire.

There are a few other issues that could have an impact, even though they are not getting as much attention.

Among them will be the expiration of the 2011 health-benefit reforms that have seen school employees paying more for their insurance coverage, which opens the way to negotiations.

Preschool expansion could get a boost with the state securing additional federal funding in late 2014, and early-childhood education is one of the few issues to have support across party lines.

Just to keep things interesting, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has openly said it will press for reforms in teacher preparation and induction. And others have called for more accountability when it comes to these programs, including the first ratings of colleges and universities for the effectiveness of the teachers they train.

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