Easing the Bureaucratic Burden on Public Schools

Christie and Cerf argue that student achievement is more important than complying with more than 2,000 pages of regulations

More than a century ago, a county superintendent annually visited a public school in New Jersey to check its buildings (including outhouses), the “efficiency of the teachers,” and the “character, record and standing of the pupils.”

Jump cut 100 years and public schools — according to critics — are burdened by more than 1,000 pages of regulations and 1,200 of statute. And Gov. Chris Christie is the most recent governor to decide things have gone too far.

Yesterday, Christie launched the latest phase of his school reform agenda with a plan — or a loose timeline — for revising the rulebook.

“These requirements often come out of either a good idea that wasn’t implemented correctly or a bad idea that shouldn’t have been approved in the first place,” Christie said.

Christie will be doing a series of these events. Another is planned for today in Cherry Hill.

On Monday, it was a roundtable discussion at Hopewell Valley Central High School. Christie and his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, invited several superintendents to discuss the recommendations of the Education Transformation Task Force to ease the bureaucratic burdens on school districts.

Stressing Student Achievement

The discussion centered on the administration’s long-running plans to replace the state’s monitoring process with a system that stresses student achievement over complying with policies.

Cerf has made that a centerpiece of his reorganization of the Department of Education. But replacing the current monitoring system would likely require legislative approval, no easy lift.

Still the task force furnishes more fuel for that effort, as well as other streamlining, which helps explain why the acting commissioner called the report a “revolutionary and powerful set of recommendations.”

The task force was headed by former commissioner David Hespe, now Cerf’s chief of staff. Its report includes a series of smaller recommendations for reviewing, if not repealing, specific administrative code that dictates everything from the staffing of custodians to the kinds of paper that schools may use.

Mandate reviews like this have been undertaken by governors every decade of so, but Christie has put more heft behind this one with an executive order last spring that ordered the review.

What was included in the task force’s 49 recommendations was an indicator of Christie’s and Cerf’s priorities. For instance, the report contained eight recommendations for loosening regulations on charter schools.

For instance, Cerf has lately pressed that charters be held more accountable for their performance once approved, but the task force took a different tack in suggesting ways for them to get started.

Virtual Charters

One recommendation would no longer require charters to have physical locations or serve contiguous communities, an opening for virtual charter schools that the state has preliminarily approved but have yet to open.

Another would no longer require charter schoolteachers have the same tenure rights as those in traditional schools, touching on another favorite issue of the governor.

Even more recommendations centered on the districts providing preschool, both in their own schools and through private providers. One would lift the requirements that private centers have at least 90 students, a disincentive for smaller programs, the report said.

Another would revisit a requirement that programs have “community parent involvement specialists,” with the report saying parent involvement is important but districts should have flexibility to provide those services “in ways they deem appropriate.”

Other recommendations ranged from the sweeping to the mundane. Of the former, the task force questioned a regulation that requires every teacher have 100 hours of professional development every five years, a requirement that started in 2005 after considerable debate as to what is the best way to require continuous training of teachers.

Easier to change may be the requirement that a custodian be hired for every 17,500 square feet of building space. “It has come to establish a norm for districts that was not intended,” read the report.

In one area that is often a complaint of school districts, there was little said about special education. The only recommendations related to classroom aides and the certification of outside providers’ business administrators.

And then there is the infamous paper requirement — more accurately, prohibition. Districts are not to use “multigloss publications instead of less expensive alternatives” in public relations materials. The regulation becomes an issue every few years, when districts are reprimanded for their excessive public relations campaigns, but the task force called it “overly prescriptive.”

“The Department should not be in the business of determining what kinds of paper districts use,” the report read.

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