Democrat Proposes $5 Million Fund to Foster Innovation in NJ Schools

John Mooney | November 13, 2013 | Education
State Senate bill revives Christie administration proposal rejected by Legislature this summer

Credit: (Governor's Office/Tim Larsen)
August 6 2012: Sen. Teresa Ruiz speaking after Gov. Chris Christie signed TEACHNJ Act.
Once rejected by the Legislature, the Christie administration’s attempt to set up a competitive grant program for school innovation is getting a second life in the lame-duck session – this time with the help of a prominent Democrat.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has filed a bill to be heard on Thursday that would create an Innovation Fund and appropriate $5 million in its first year to help schools trying new programs in scheduling, technology and other areas.

The proposal is a mirror image of the fund that Gov. Chris Christie included in his fiscal 2014 state budget, but which was cut out of the final spending plan by the Democrat-controlled Legislature.

Ruiz signed off on that cut as a member of the state Senate budget committee. She explained yesterday that she felt it was not ready for approval at that time.

“But I was very clear that it was something we need to revisit,” Ruiz said in an interview. “It was a great concept, but people had questions.”

Now, she said, such a fund – with guidelines — could help school districts fund certain programs that would not otherwise get funded. She has especially advocated extended school-day programs.

“For me, it’s a great way for districts to think outside the box,” Ruiz said.

There were a couple of key exceptions written into the bill filed last week, although there was no assurance they would remain in the final proposal.

One was that the money could not be used for performance bonuses or merit pay for teachers, a nod to the state’s powerful teachers unions.

The second was that it could not be used for online instructional programs. The unions have also been dead-set against charter school proposals for so-called virtual schools that would teach students entirely online.

The bill would also require that a state-level advisory committee be created to oversee the grants and that each school district receiving funds form a local “innovation grant committee” that includes a member of the local teachers union.

The grants would not be available to charter schools under the proposal.

The bill is expected to be heard on Thursday by the Senate Education Committee, which Ruiz chairs. It will be the committee’s first meeting since last week’s state elections in which Christie and virtually all legislative incumbents were reelected.

Even though the Legislature hasn’t changed much, Christie has said he might try to push through some pet projects during the lame-duck session, including the proposed Opportunity Scholarship Act, the state’s version of a school-voucher program.

Nonetheless, besides the new innovation fund, the Senate committee’s agenda is light for Thursday. Other bills listed for consideration include one calling for a task force to study all-day kindergarten and another to establish standards for teaching students the appropriate use of social media.