State’s Top Democrats Take Stock of Education Reforms in the Offing

John Mooney | October 22, 2014 | Education
Sweeney, Prieto say they mostly support Common Core and related testing, but predict big adjustments ahead for NJ schools

Department of Education Building
With New Jersey deep into incorporating the Common Core State Standards and about to debut new online tests for its public schools, the state’s Legislature has been caught in the position of having little say at this point — but still talking and hearing plenty about it.

At an education conference yesterday, the state’s two top Democratic legislative leaders took the opportunity to say their piece on the school reforms — and on where the state is heading next.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, both speaking on a panel about the politics of the Common Core, said they were largely supportive of the Christie administration’s path so far.

But they were also clearly keeping open their options as debate continues to swirl around the standards and especially their much-argued testing, known as the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Sweeney, arguably the second-most-powerful politician in the state at the moment and said to have an eye on the governor’s seat in 2017, said the deal struck with Gov. Chris Christie this summer, minimizing the use of the new testing in teacher evaluations for at least a year, was a positive step.

“It was a move to find compromise,” the Gloucester County Democrat said during the event held at Middlesex County College in Edison. ‘We saw all the issues, and while everyone wants to win, how about we get it right? That’s where I’m coming from.”

Still, Sweeney said questions remain about how ready the schools are, or even whether the state as a whole is fully prepared for the changes: “The concept of Common Core is great, but it’s the implementation that’s really the issue and how we make it work.”

Prieto, a Hudson County Democrat, also said the state’s adoption of the new standards and tests remains a “work in progress,” even if there appears to be relative calm at the moment as the state enters this pivotal year.

He said New Jersey’s schools will face some major adjustments, and didn’t discount the millions of dollars in costs that are likely to be incurred in training and technology.

He mentioned that he took some sample questions from the new PARCC tests, including the one for fourth-grade math.

“I saw the first question, and I really challenge some high school kids to answer that,” Prieto said. “It is going to be an interesting challenge, trying to get this accomplished.”

“It’s going to be a period that evolves, and for me, there are still a lot of questions.”

The event, called the Statewide Conference on the Common Core Standards Initiative, was hosted by the New Jersey School Choice and Education Reform Alliance, a relatively new coalition of business groups and pro-reform organizations, led by Excellent Education for Everyone. Known as E3, the group is maybe best known for having led the so-far-unsuccessful school-voucher push in the state.

Also at the conference was acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe, who spoke briefly spoke about the department’s progress in implementing the Common Core and PARCC, and former Gov. Thomas Kean, the keynote speaker, who said they state needs to make the transition to the new national standards.

A complete archived livestream of the event is here.

The Common Core and the related testing have been a hot topic of late, both in New Jersey and nationwide — more than 40 states have signed on to the Common Core standards, but two states recently pulled out of the coalition and three more are considering the dropping out, amid debates over the future impact of the new standards and testing.

New Jersey is among those states that are still fully committed, with strong support from Christie, but the administration has nonetheless has faced stiff headwinds of opposition, especially to the new testing tied to the standards. The PARCC assessments, to be given through computer platforms for the first time, start this coming spring.

The Legislature itself had little say when the state adopted the standards in 2010. It was the 13-member State Board of Education — appointed by the executive branch — that officially cast the vote to adopt the Common Core standards. Although the Legislature also signed off on federal applications that included the Common Core adoption, there had been little to no political debate.

But debate has picked up since then, and the Legislature has addressed a series of bills aimed at slowing down the implementation in one way or another.

It was one such bill – which passed the Assembly and was on its way in the state Senate last summer — that led to the deal with Christie lowering the bar for how much the PARCC tests will mean in the next two years.

The deal remains incomplete, however, as Christie in that compromise issued an executive order that called for formation of a state commission to examine the influence and effectiveness of both current testing and the new testing.

The commission — promised in July — has yet to be even appointed by Christie. And it faces its first deadline for a report in December, offering little time for the promised public input.

Sweeney yesterday said he could not say why that commission had yet to be named, let alone convened, although he noted that there is a lot on the state’s to-do list at the moment.

“We have a lot of things to get done, a lot of task forces, but the sooner this one gets done, the better,” Sweeney said. “There have been discussions with the front office.”

An email request for comment from Christie’s office was unsuccessful.

While Hespe spoke for the administration later, state Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) was the panel’s lone Republican legislator and also commended the direction being taken so far.

He was also cautious about what was to come – at one point calling the endeavor an “experiment” — but said the effort will be worth it.

“Will it take up more time, yes,” he said “But ultimately, we need to have a test that is consistent throughout the region and throughout the country in order to assess and know where we re most wisely using our education dollars.”

He was joined on the panel by Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, a Washington, DC, think-tank, and Amy Fratz, associate director at the New Jersey Education Association. NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney served as moderator of the panel.