Legislature Takes Last Look at Education Bills Before Summer

John Mooney | June 27, 2013 | Education
Dyslexia legislation and amendments to Urban Hope Act coming up for vote today, on cusp of legislative recess

Just as schools are closing for summer, the Legislature today is likely taking its last shot before recess at several prominent education bills — both long fought and relatively recent. Here’s a look at several notable examples, as well as a couple of controversial bills that won’t be making appearances — at least for now.

Dyslexia Gets Its Legislative Due

A package of six bills and resolutions that would give dyslexia new standing as a learning disability is expected to gain final passage in the Senate, having already won bipartisan support in committee and seeing little opposition since.

Most of the legislation has already passed the Assembly, in some cases unanimously.

Sponsored by state Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May), the proposals would require schools to train staff specifically on strategies to address the reading disorder and follow procedures to identify the disorder earlier.

The legislation would define and list dyslexia as a specific disability under the law and in the administrative code, giving parents a tool when dealing with school districts they contend have not always been receptive.

Another bill to be voted on in the Senate would require schools to screen students for dyslexia by first grade. The measure has yet to come up for full vote in the Assembly.

If the legislation is approved by both houses, it would be the culmination of years of campaigning by parents and families of dyslexic children, as well as grassroots groups like Decoding Dyslexia-NJ.

“We are very hopeful,” said Liz Barnes, a founding member of the group. “This will finally set in motion the change necessary in how districts work with dyslexia.”

Gov. Chris Christie and his administration have yet to say whether they support the measures, but advocates say the governor has generally been supportive of their cause when asked about it in public events.

Amending the Urban Hope Act

State Sen. Donald Norcross (D-Camden) has filed amendments to his controversial Urban Hope Act that he said should clarify some of the questions about the law.

Enacted last year with a public signing by Christie in Camden, the law opens the way for a new breed of charters called “Renaissance Schools” that operate with the approval of the local district but with fewer financial constraints than conventional charters.

The law creates pilot projects in just three cities — Camden, Trenton and Newark. The first pilot comprises five schools in Camden and is being led by the senator’s brother, George Norcross, the South Jersey Democratic leader.

The first Camden school, run by the KIPP charter school network, is slated to be built and open by September 2014.

But the project as a whole has been challenged in court by community activists and the Newark-based Education Law Center as not following the law’s requirements. The latest amendments aim to address that issue by loosening some of the enrollment and siting rules.

The bill has seen some political challenges in the Statehouse, too, with Sen. Norcross amending his amendments this week to pull back some other changes that would have given the projects some extra power for public borrowing to finance new construction.

As the bill moved through the Senate budget committee earlier this week, several prominent Democrats abstained from backing the bill, including state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the committee’s chair.

But Norcross said afterward that he is confident the bill would pass today, suggesting that the abstentions may have been due more to miscommunication than to reservations.

“We have cleared up 99 percent of the issues that the Education Law Center raised, and I think we will move forward,” Norcross said Monday.

Notable No-Shows

Today’s Assembly and Senate sessions are the last ones scheduled until fall, and while there is a chance for another session to be held on major legislation, the expectation is this will be the last chance for a while for some lesser bills.

Two education-related measures that their sponsors had hoped would see action have instead been postponed, if not killed altogether.

One that drew a lot of attention earlier this week would have removed the restrictions on school districts to place students with disabilities in religious or other sectarian schools.

Sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), the Senate’s majority leader, the bill had drawn opposition from several groups, including the ACLU of New Jersey and the Statewide Parents Advocacy Network. Many of the concerns centered on public money going to religious schools, despite some safeguards built into the proposal.

The bill was nonetheless passed out of committee with several abstentions, including from state Sen.. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the chairman, but that will be as far as it gets for now.

As of last night, the bill was not posted for a vote today, and backers said they were now hoping for reconsideration in the fall.

Another piece of legislation that may not even get reconsideration is an Assembly resolution from two of the sponsors of the state’s new teacher tenure reform law to slow down some of the accountability measures in that legislation.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Misddlesex) proposed a nonbinding resolution to ask the Christie administration for an additional year for schools to have the evaluation systems fully in place, before the required changes have job consequences for teachers. The law requires all districts have the systems up and running by next fall.

A group of the state’s top education groups last week also joined the chorus, sending an open letter to the Christie administration and specifically to state Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf to delay full implementation of the evaluation requirements.

Cerf has continually rebuffed the calls, and the Senate has not seemed amenable, either. Apparently, the Assembly’s Democratic leadership isn’t going to pursue the matter. The resolution was not only absent from the voting board today but also unlikely to be taken up in the future, said one sponsor.

“It’s pretty much moot at this point,” said Jasey this week. “All I can say is it’s unfortunate the commissioner is being shortsighted and not taking this opportunity.”