Red Tape Report Released, Will Department of Education Start Cutting?

John Mooney | September 6, 2012 | Education
At 239 pages, the report has room to address everything from paper to professional development

The Christie administration finally released its report yesterday on ways to ease red tape and regulations that put New Jersey’s public school districts in a bind — from what kinds of paper districts must use to teacher professional development and licensing.

Covering more than 450 recommendations in all, much of the 239-page Education Transformation Task Force report ordered by Gov. Chris Christie more than a year ago addressed mundane issues such as paperwork and procedures.

Red tape reviews are common to nearly every administration. But this project went a step further in several regards, down to proposing language for new administrative code in several major areas and a schedule for seeing them passed.

“We have proposed code, ready to go — that’s how we can have this aggressive timeline,” said David Hespe, a former education commissioner who headed the task force and served as state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s chief of staff before stepping down this month.

One big policy shift, for example, would eliminate the state’s decade-old 100-hour requirement for professional development, replacing it with more flexible rules that allow districts to develop their own plans.

The report also had its share of politically contentious recommendations that don’t speak much to red tape but advance Christie’s education agenda, including passage of the recently stalled school voucher proposal known as the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

It also proposed ending seniority rights for teachers, a favorite idea of Christie’s that didn’t survive the state’s recently enacted tenure reform law. In a separate press conference yesterday, Christie said that remained one of his top legislative priorities. “I’m not done with that issue yet,” he said.

The report, presented to the State Board of Education yesterday with little advance word, drew a quick rebuke from some advocates for poor schoolchildren who maintain it would lessen safeguards for students.

For example, some of the measures would apply to hard-fought requirements concerning preschool, facilities and class sizes that came out of the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings.

The report also includes smaller items that will likely raise some questions, including one recommendation that would end the required dues for the state’s School Boards Association, a move that would potentially gut its funding.

Several state Board of Education members were quick to raise questions about a report they only received yesterday, pointing out that every regulation or statute has its constituency and reasoning.

“Each of these came about due to some incident,” said board member Dorothy Strickland. “There are all kinds of things there for a good reason.”

The paper requirement, in part, came out of the department’s concerns several years ago that certain districts were spending too much on glossy promotions.

By all accounts, the report was a gargantuan effort, with teams of educators and lawyers poring over more than 3,000 pages of the state’s voluminous laws and administrative code over the past six months.

Hespe and others conceded that while there will be reasons behind each rule or law, the larger problem is that the state has gone too far in over-regulating nearly every minute of the day.

“By putting it all together like this,” he said of the report, “It becomes evident to how distracting this has become for districts.”

And even among the skeptical, state board members said they want to start chipping away at the code sections that the board oversees, tentatively setting up a schedule that would see much of the recommendations reviewed, if not passed, over the next year.

“Let’s keep to a timeline and take votes on this,” said board member Andrew Mulvihill. “Otherwise, we’ll be talking about his for two years.”