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Looking Ahead, Unresolved Matters and New Issues Will Mark Year in Education

Ranging from old topics like PARCC and Common Core to new federal rules, 2016 promises to be an eventful year for NJ education

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A year ago, NJ Spotlight’s preview of 2015 predicted a lively year ahead in New Jersey public education, as the state under Gov. Chris Christie moved from debates over new education policy to debates over the actual implementation of those new policies in the schools.

The big story lines were many, including the first real consequences of the state’s new teacher tenure and evaluation law, the advent of PARCC and all its related political battles, the heightened place of charters in the state-operated Newark and Camden school districts.

Not to mention a governor who was off and running for the GOP presidential nomination -- and all the surprises that would bring (read “Common Core? What Common Core?”).

The new year begins with those issues all still unresolved, just like Christie’s presidential hopes. Add in a few others like expiring limits on superintendent pay, expansion of preschool offerings in the state, and the looming race to succeed Christie in 2017, and it should make for a particularly interesting 2016 indeed.

Standards and assessments, again

Any preview of education issues in the coming year must include the topic of standards and testing, the dominant theme in public education not just in the last few years but arguably over the last couple of decades.

And New Jersey and its schools will start 2016 where they left off in 2015, still grappling with exactly what they want of their students and how to measure it.

It will begin with the release this month of school-by-school results from last spring’s first administration of PARCC, the much-debated online assessments in language arts and math for grades 3-11.

The state’s overall – and sobering -- numbers are already out, already lowering expectations for the individual results, but it will be a little different with the release of results for individual schools with their reputations on the line.

Also to be released are the long-awaited numbers for how many students in each school did or did not participate in the PARCC’s inaugural run, an “opt-out” tally that is expected to be among the nation’s highest, potentially emboldening the movement for this spring’s second round of PARCC testing.

First quarter reports

Meanwhile, plenty of questions remain about the standards linked to the PARCC testing. After Christie renounced the Common Core State Standards last summer, in what was widely viewed as a largely political pronouncement, he appointed a series of panels to revisit New Jersey’s standards and recommend where to depart, amend or add to the Common Core.

After six months, those panels are expected this month to come back with their proposals. Wholesale changes are not anticipated, but don’t rule out contentious debate in any event.

Separately, another task force born out of political compromise has for the last year been looking at the state’s testing regimen as a whole, including New Jersey’s place as one of just six states still administering the PARCC test, along with slew of other assessments of student performance and achievement.

Few expect the group to recommend a departure from PARCC just yet, but the commission is expected to suggest new PARCC benchmarks required for high school graduation.

ESSA is the new NCLB

The year ended with President Barack Obama signing the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a less stringent successor to its one-size-fits-all predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act.

The new law is a departure from the sweeping changes NCLB mandated for all schools, focusing more on the very lowest performing schools. It also will separate the requirements for teacher evaluations now tied to student performance.

But with the new regulations and guidelines set to be developed and rolled out in 2016, ESSA will still to bring with it new mandates for the states, not just in the area of student assessments but also in making schools and teachers more accountable.

Annual budget, annual debate

No list is complete without talking about funding of schools in New Jersey -- and this year’s funding battles could be epic.

Smack in the middle of the Republican primary season, Christie will announce his state budget for fiscal 2017. School funding, as usual, will account for roughly one-third of the total budget, a sum that has largely held steady since the steep aid cuts in Christie’s first year.

What will happen next depends on what the governor – and more likely the state Supreme Court – decides to do about the state’s pension obligation, a multibillion expense that will significantly limit what the state can afford for public education.

The Christie administration has already vastly underfunded the state’s School Finance Reform Act, and that’s not expected to change in 2016. But state Education Commissioner David Hespe has said some additional help is clearly required for those districts that have been shortchanged the most, and the state-operated districts of Camden, Paterson and Newark will be hard-pressed to withstand another year of flat funding.

But Hespe has also reminded those who will listen that every increase likely means corresponding decreases for other districts. There’s also a lingering obligation for school construction, both in urban and suburban districts, some of it also ordered by the court and maybe coming to bear in 2016.

Preschool for all -- eventually

If advocates have their way, 2016 will be the year of preschool expansion – or at least the first serious discussion of it in more than a decade.

Led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a likely candidate for governor in 2017, Democratic leaders have put forward a package of public investment proposals, including an expansion of preschool and other early childhood offerings by more than $165 million over two years.

A set of bills is expected to be introduced in the early part of the year, including a proposal for a new funding mechanism to leverage private dollars to help expand preschool programs. But any proposed increase in expenditures for preschool, however modest, will face competition from needed funding to address the state’s transportation, infrastructure and environmental needs.

Superintendents get their day

Five years after he stunned the education establishment with his cap on salaries for school superintendents – limited to no more than the governor’s own $175,000 paycheck, give or take a few exceptions – the cap is set to expire in late 2016.

One option is for Christie to renew the salary cap outright. After all, he didn’t hesitate to unilaterally impose the cap in the first place, sending a number of veteran superintendents into retirement or, in a few cases, across the state border to better paying jobs in other states.

But with legislative pressure strong to at least loosen the limits, including from lawmakers in Christie’s own party, some predict that changes will coming in the form of greater flexibility and increases that take inflation into account.

Politics, politics

Not only will 2016 mark an obvious turning point in Christie’s political fortunes – whether he heads to Washington or returns to Trenton to finish his term – but it will also see the unofficial launch of the 2017 gubernatorial race and all that comes with it.

Sweeney, the state Senate president, has already become to make education a prime issue with his preschool plan. Other expected Democratic candidates like Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop and former U.S. Ambassador Philip Murphy are sure to have their education planks as well, and the conjecture over who might run on the Republican side has only begun.

But the politics for the governor’s seat is only a piece of it, as advocacy groups continue to sprout up around this or that issue – preschool and charter schools, to name just two.

The role of outside money will get its share of attention as well, including the end of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million foray into Newark schools.

Inside the state, the New Jersey Education Association, the teachers union, has since Christie took office outpaced political spending by every other group by far, and it has just gotten started, to be sure.

In fact, the next two years should prove quite a ride for public education, but we’ll save the rest for the next new year.

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