Senate Panel Lends Support to ‘Innovation Fund’ for NJ Schools

John Mooney | November 15, 2013 | Education
$5 million program would provide grants to encourage innovative approaches to education

A proposal to revive the Christie administration’s plans for a state “Innovation Fund” for schools won a boost from a Senate committee yesterday, but not without questions about whether it was the best way to spend the money — a relatively small sum.

The Senate Education Committee was back to business yesterday with a half-dozen bills on its agenda, including the proposal for a $5 million Innovation Fund to provide grants for certain experimental programs in schools.

Sponsored by state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chairman, the bill is similar to a program that was proposed by Gov. Chris Christie in his state budget last spring but eventually removed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature.

Ruiz said she saw the new program as an opportunity to help launch programs including extended class schedules, technology innovations, and other improvements that otherwise would not see funding.

She said it could be a New Jersey version of the federal Race to the Top competition, which has provided financial incentives for a range of new school reforms across the country, many involving new testing and teacher quality measures.

“I see this could be a mini-Race to the Top at the state level,” Ruiz said. “It’s really to hear from inside the classroom, to hear from what we are echoing all the time that teachers know how to do it best and often come up with creative ways.

“How do we support that and scale that up, I know that’s where my heart lies,” Ruiz said.

But while Ruiz repeatedly called her bill just a start and “a first draft,” there were concerns raised by some that the money might be better spent elsewhere.

While the Christie administration boasts it has provided the highest state aid levels in history, it has nonetheless failed to fully fund the state’s current school-finance law by as much as $5 billion since 2010, according to critics.

And the federal Race to the Top program has hardly won universal praise in New Jersey or elsewhere, with some decrying the teacher-evaluation and testing changes it has brought.

Several organizers with Save of Schools NJ, the grassroots advocacy group, testified yesterday that schools are struggling just to maintain their programs, thanks to funding cuts and budget caps.

Lisa Winter of Basking Ridge, an organizer for the group, said her local schools cut enrichment programs and all world language instruction in elementary schools. She cited other districts charging fees for participation in sports and even for taking Advanced Placement classes.

“Schools are having a hard time funding the basics right now,” said Winter. “How about funding the basics before we go onto these innovations?”

Added Susan Caldwell, a SOS organizer from Spring Lake: “If there is $5 million available, it should be put to more important uses.”

Nonetheless, the bill appears to have the backing of key groups, including the state’s dominant teachers’ union, the New Jersey Education Association, which testified briefly on its behalf.

The committee eventually voted overwhelming to advance the bill, with only state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) abstaining.

The bill also appears to have gone through a couple of iterations already, with new amendments added yesterday that would address one or another concern.

For example, the bill includes two explicit exceptions: that the money could not be used for performance bonuses or merit pay for teachers, and that the money also could not go to programs that provided entirely online or virtual instruction. The latter exception was revised in the latest version, from the original proposal that would have barred grants for programs that employ any online instruction at all.

The Senate bill does not appear to have an Assembly companion bill as of yet, according to state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex), the Assembly education committee’s chairman. And Diegnan said he did not see it being fast-tracked in the coming lame-duck session of the Legislature.

Diegnan said his committee does not meet again until just before Thanksgiving and then likely once again in December. He said one of his priorities is to hold a hearing on the costs of private special-education schools, a hot topic after revelations of exorbitant spending at some of the schools.