With or Without Legislature, Christie Has Options for Pressing School Reforms

John Mooney | May 7, 2012 | Education
State law presents obstacles on some changes, but Christie also going regulatory route

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Gov. Chris Christie
Gov. Chris Christie is back to calling out the state legislature for not moving on his agenda, from income tax cuts to changes in teacher tenure rights. Last week, he started his now familiar deadline by countdown, now at 55 days until the summer break.

But on his education agenda at least, the governor is also finding he can move on some key issues without the legislature’s full consent, creating tensions along the way but with, so far, no one stopping him.

An example came last week when Christie announced a new plan for high school testing that would effectively do away with the current High School Proficient Assessment and replace it with yearly exams in language arts and math, as well as possibly other subjects.

When asked whether it would need approval of the legislature, Christie said Monday that most could be done through state code and the State Board of Education, of which he will have appointed its majority by the end of his term.

“I think most of it we can do regulatory,” Christie said on Monday. “If it needs some clean up, we can talk to [the legislature] about it, but nothing that will be a foundation of the policy.”

However, overlooked was the fact that the state’s current high school testing is indeed written into state law, providing some wiggle room for the administration but still a benchmark that will need to be addressed.

The law requires a high school test in 11th grade, as is now administered in the HSPA. Another provision also requires a similar test in 8th grade.

The high school law reads:

“In the school year which begins in September 1993, and annually thereafter, the State graduation proficiency test shall be administered to all 11th grade pupils and to any 11th or 12th grade pupil who has previously failed to demonstrate mastery of State graduation proficiency standards on said test. The mastery of proficiencies required to fulfill local graduation standards shall be determined as appropriate under local board of education assessment plans.”

It does not preclude other testing -– and the state now tests from 3rd to 7th grades as well –- but abolishing the HSPA outright would surely need the state legislature’s agreement.

The administration has some time to gain that support, with new testing not expected to come into place for another three years and the HSPA to remain in effect for all current high school students.

Legislators have not indicated that they will resist the changes, but some disagreements with the Democratic controlled legislature have surfaced of late as the administration moves on other education policies perceived as inconsistent with the lawmakers’ intent.

The tensions were on display when Christie’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, went before the Assembly’s budget committee to defend the governor’s education budget for next year.

Much of the discussion centered on state aid to districts, always a contentious topic, but some of the most pointed questions came around Cerf’s reorganization of his department that includes the creation of seven regional achievement centers, taking some of the functions of the department’s existing county offices.

The reorganization was approved by the state Board of Education last year, as is its responsibility over department operations. But in the Statehouse, the point of contention is those county offices and the executive county superintendents who head them are a creation of legislation in 2007 that sought to bring more efficiency to school districts, including a push for consolidation. The county offices were to lead those consolidation efforts.

But after some initial study, those efforts have all but stalled, Cerf conceded. Now just 10 of the 21 county superintendent positions are filled, with no nominations on the table to address the vacancies.

State Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) pointed out that the legislature held a special session to address school funding, including the new organizational structure.

“The work of the legislature means something, a deliberative body of 120 individuals who are trying to reach conclusions, education being an issue that is very important,” Burzichelli said.

“There was a legislative process that concluded we should have these executive county superintendents in place for a reason,” he said. “We think we have set a course, and find the course has been abandoned.”

Cerf said it was not abandoned entirely, and that a more efficient system of public education remained a goal.

“You offer a very powerful reminder that we need to reengage on that,” Cerf responded to Burzichelli.

The state Board of Education is becoming a more prominent platform for other policy changes.

Christie has sought to rewrite the state’s charter school law to provide even more flexibility to the alternative schools, as well as new procedures for the state to oversee them. But as that legislation has barely moved, the administration has found some opportunity in administrative code to carry forward at least some of its goals.

Last week, it proposed a sweeping change to the state’s procedures for approving and reviewing charter schools, including some options for the state to stop short of closing them outright if they are not performing.

In addition, the new proposed code would lower a chief barrier for online charter schools, a concept that was not envisioned when the state’s existing charter law was enacted.

The changes would allow for charter schools to serve communities that are necessarily contiguous, a nod to online schools that could enroll students virtually anywhere.

Whether or not the changes go through, the Christie administration has nonetheless approved four new online charter schools, at least two planning to open this fall.