Full Ahead, Ease Back: Doing the Common Core Dance in Committee

John Mooney | June 20, 2014 | Education
Senate panel hears two sides testify on task force to assess new standards, testing before results can be applied to schools, students, teachers

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
New Jersey’s slow dance with the Common Core State Standards and new state testing continued yesterday, with dozens of people testifying for and against a bill that would slow the consequences of that testing.

Little was resolved in the hours-long testimony before the state Senate education committee, with the committee’s chair only saying that she continued to pursue multiple paths to try to ease tensions over the new standards and tests.

While the committee did not vote on the bill yesterday, it also did not rule out further action next week before the full Senate — including in deliberations over the state budget — in what could be the final sessions before summer.

The bill already passed the Assembly with an overwhelming and bipartisan vote, 72-4.

‘’I am not sure of the future of the bill,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee chairman and a prominent voice in the Legislature on education policy. “I do believe this is not something that should be handled in statute, but should be done in regulation.”

Still, even without the committee’s vote, the full Senate could take up the measure and move it to the governor’s desk.

Ruiz stressed she wanted the issue settled — at least for now — by the time the Legislature breaks for summer.

“I want this resolved by the end of the budget,” she said in an interview, which means by the end of the month.

But Gov. Chris Christie’s office didn’t hedge much about using the administration’s timetable for implementing the new testing next year and using it to help evaluate teachers and schools.

“We’ll review the bill when it reaches the governor’s desk, as we would any other bill,” said spokesman Kevin Roberts in an email. “But nothing has changed for us, when it comes to implementation and giving districts additional resources to do so effectively.”

He was referring to the additional $10 per student that districts were bestowed in next year’s state aid distribution, half of the total increase for every district.

Nonetheless, a key player could prove to be state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who could move the bill to a full floor vote without committee approval or also shift it to another committee for review.

Efforts to reach Sweeney for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.

Still, it proved a busy day for the Senate education committee, as it hosted a rare appearance from officials of the state Department of Education. Also on hand, advocates and opponents of the bill, which would create a task force to review implementation of Common Core and the new testing and delay their use in evaluating schools and teachers until the review was a complete.

Bari Erlichson, the state assistant commissioner who has been the main cheerleader for the new standards and testing, spoke at length about the extensive review and trials of the new standards and testing already completed, and warned of the perils of slowing down now.

She cited other states, including New York, that has weighed delaying full implementation and risks the loss of federal funds. New Jersey, like many other states, has tied the implementation of the new standards and testing to a federal waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, which had come with its own requirements for all schools to meet “adequate yearly progress” and other benchmarks.

“Of course, it is not knowable what the U.S. Department of Education’s response would be to a change of course in New Jersey,” Erlichson said.

“But if we are interested in keeping our waiver in the long term, we would have to seek their approval for change as proposed in the bill before this committee.”

However, others cited a half-dozen states that have won federal reprieves in the timetables, and a few that have abandoned the Common Core and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing altogether. The latest came this week in Louisiana, where Gov. Bobby Jindal proposed his state leave the standards and testing consortia.