It was not an auspicious day for state Education Commissioner David Hespe to go before the state Legislature.
The setting was Hespe’s annual -- and usually fairly routine -- appearance before the Assembly budget committee to discuss the proposed $13 billion budget plan for education in fiscal 2017.
But almost immediately, he faced questions about the breakdown in the state’s PARCC testing, which led to the exams being suspended for a day.
It didn’t get much better, with legislators probing him about everything from the Christie administration’s vast underfunding of the school finance law to the canceled aid for state’s anti-bullying measure. Also on the agenda, although a separate line of questioning, funds to better secure private schools.
Through it all, Hespe valiantly fought off the questions and even reiterated his own support for a few Democratic-led initiatives, especially about amending the school-funding law.
But after three hours, several big issues remained.
Almost on queue, the first questions to Hespe were about the news of the day: a server problem with Pearson Education, the private vendor administering the PARCC tests, that led to scores of schools being unable to give the test yesterday.
Saying he spoke with Pearson’s vice president at 8:30 a.m. that morning, Hespe put the blame squarely on the company, calling the problems “unacceptable” and saying it was neither the schools nor the state that should be held responsible. He did not rule out financial penalties for Pearson, although he said it was still too early to tell.
“It is unfortunate, but in a long five-week window of testing, we need to be prepared for something like this taking place, and we have plans in place,” he said.
The problem was not resolved -- or explained -- by the end of the testimony, and it wasn’t until early evening that schools were notified that testing would resume as planned today.
“Although a review is ongoing, Pearson has confirmed that the problem was a log-on issue and was not attributable to server capacity or the actual test,” read a memo sent to district schools last night.
The memo concluded: “The Department will continue to be engaged with Pearson on this issue and will hold Person accountable for their failures today.”
Much of the hearing yesterday centered on remedies to the state’s underfunding of the School Funding Reform Act, the 2007 law that is meant to be basis of aid for New Jersey’s nearly 600 districts.
Hespe divulged that the state at this point was as much as $2 billion short in fully funding the law, and he said even new proposals for amending the law would not fully close the gap.
The most significant proposal is a bill being written up by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) that would redistribute more than $500 million in so-called “adjustment aid” that has been provided as a buffer to cuts in state aid.
The topic brought out dozens of t-shirt wearing parents and others from underfunded districts pressing for relief, including Freehold Borough, Red Bank and Del Ran.
But Hespe and legislators yesterday spoke candidly of the possibility of politically unpopular cuts for other districts if such a measure took hold.
“I do think there is a hopeful sign,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, the new executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, the suburban schools association. “There is more talk on both sides of the aisle that there are areas of the formula that need to be examined closely.”
Still, she acknowledged such discussions were in the early stages, at best, with the bill not yet being circulated. “I think there will be an enormous amount of discussion and hearings, so I don’t see it as being decided for next year’s budget,” she said.
As if this weren’t enough, Hespe fended off a number of questions as to why the Christie administration had not met its funding promises on a number of smaller items.
For state Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), chair of the budget committee, a prime issue in cuts in aid private schools for security, one that he said has potentially imperiled Jewish schools that could be seen as targets.
“So we are willing to give children money to attend a non-public school, but we are not willing to protect them when they get there?” Schaer said.
“Enlighten me,” the chairman said at another point. “Why would the administration take out funds that would protect children? I’m not talking about assisting children, but protecting their lives.”
Other legislators questioned how the administration has reneged on promised funding for schools to met the new anti-bullying law, citing $1 million provided three years ago but nothing since.