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Assembly Efforts to Focus on Teacher Preparation, Mentoring and Support

State's lower chamber has busy spring ahead of it working on package of education legislation

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex)

Although the details are still to be worked out, a package of bills to improve teacher preparation and induction in the state will be among the priorities in the Assembly this spring, said the Democrats’ top legislator on education.

State Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Assembly‘s education committee, said he hoped to have a package passed by the summer. He said the specifics are still being discussed, but they were along the lines of a proposal unveiled this fall by a coalition of groups led by the state’s teachers union that sought to tighten requirements on teacher training and support once on the job.

One bill already on the docket and up for discussion before Diegnan’s committee on Thursday would create new tier of “teacher leaders.” The measure, sponsored by Diegnan and state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), would provide a career step for teachers short of leaving the classroom.

Filed a year ago, the bill passed the Senate education committee in December.

Other proposals could include mandates for mentoring new teachers, Diegnan said, and closer collaborations between teacher education programs and local school districts.

Mentoring new teachers is now required under a 20-year-old state law, but critics say it contains few consistent guidelines or provisions for training, and it receives no state help in terms of funding.

Diegnan said money is the stumbling block to any substantive proposal, noting that the state is facing a steep fiscal cliff given its current liabilities for pensions and transportation funding.

“That’s the thing with all of them,” he said. ‘They all cost money, but they also work.”

“We are trying to put together a package that we believe can move forward,” Diegnan said. “We are working now to put meat on the bones, but I think it is still a work in in progress.”

The New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has pressed for enactment of the proposals it helped develop and announced in October, which called for a multistep plan for changing how teachers are taught and supported.

The NJEA initiative also encompasses the state’s principals association and the association of teacher colleges, among other groups.

In addition to the mentorship and the teacher-leader proposals, others proposals include creating “professional learning communities” in schools where teacher collaborate and share, and requiring that those teaching in teacher-prep programs be certified for the classroom.

Ginger Gold, the NJEA’s chief lobbyist, said the union continues to work with the Christie administration to try to make some changes through administrative code and regulation.

“We’re in a little bit of a holding pattern to see how much we can do through the regulatory process instead of the legislative,” Gold said yesterday. “There will end up being some legislative action, but that is often a path that takes the longest.”

Another priority on Diegnan’s list is a familiar one: revisions to the state’s charter school law. It’s been a perennial topic for the past few years, and players on all sides of the contentious issue have said the state’s nearly 20-year-old law badly needs improvements in the review and approval processes.

But the Christie administration has been less supportive of an overhaul of the law, and while there are bills pending, there hasn’t appeared much momentum for passage so far.

Diegnan said he would still like to see some action this spring, and said that a bill sponsored by state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) has many of the key pieces required, as well as apparent support.

Under the bill, the state would create a new targeted process for charter schools to apply and be reviewed, as well as a second authorizing agency besides the state Department of Education. A similar bill is sponsored in the Senate by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, that chamber’s education chair.

Diegnan said he liked the bill, but there remain big issues to resolve around how much say local say there should for any new charter approval. Also being debated: to what degree must charter enrollments match those of local districts.

Diegnan strongly supports a binding local vote for any new charter, but Singleton’s bill would only make the vote part of the process and not required outright. Diegnan said yesterday that it remains a condition for his support.

“To me, these are real threshold issues,” Diegnan said.

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