Higher-Performing Schools May Escape Tangle of State-Monitoring Red Tape

John Mooney | December 4, 2014 | Education
Proposed waivers would give districts break from mandated periodic reviews if they maintain specific standards

Department of Education Building
They’re the bane of many school districts: the all-too-frequent visits and queries that are part of the state’s school-monitoring system — and the mounds of paperwork that goes with them.

Even the name of the monitoring system — the Quality Single Accountability Continuum, known as QSAC – sounds painful.

Now, for a few select districts, the demands of QSAC may be eased, or at least become a little less frequent.

The Christie administration yesterday announced at the monthly meeting of the State Board of Education that it would set up a waiver process for districts to skip a cycle in the tri-yearly process if they can show they have regularly and consistently met the highest standards of the evaluations.

Districts would, in effect, get an extension of their approval if they can show they consistently had met 24 specific metrics, ranging from student achievement benchmarks to fiscal audit standards – and even whether the district has met all ethics-disclosure requirements.

Acting state Education Commissioner David Hespe said it was a move designed to both ease the burden on districts, while also freeing up the state’s staff to focus on districts that need the most attention.

“It represents an overall commitment by the state board and the department to do things better to help our districts,” Hespe said.

A key caveat is that, for each district, the waiver process would only apply for one cycle of QSAC. Without changes in the actual state statute, each school district would revert back to the existing process.

How many of the state’s 570 districts would qualify for the waiver is a guess, but three-quarters of the state’s districts are at least certified under QSAC; state officials said that potentially scores of them would currently meet the criteria.

A total of 204 school districts will be up for their three-year review in the coming year, and Hespe said as many as half could be affected by the proposed waiver process.

The move has long been talked about by officials in high-performing districts who question, if not resent, having to deal with the state’s red tape when they have clearly and consistently exceeded the standards.

A task force looking at easing bureaucratic requirements on schools in 2012 — headed by now-commissioner Hespe — also recommended such streamlining.

A bill in the Legislature is also aiming to revamp the QSAC process as it applies in cases where the state has intervened or taken over local district operations.

But the move announced yesterday was about the highest-performing districts. It drew immediate praise from several of the school advocacy groups representing those districts.

“Student achievement has to be at the heart of all educational policy,” said Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“The new streamlined monitoring process announced by Commissioner Hespe is consistent with that belief,” Feinsod added. “It will substantially ease the administrative burden placed on districts that meet state standards, while allowing the state to focus its resources where assistance is needed.”

The head of the state’s superintendents association echoed that sentiment.

““The compact QSAC process … will provide the necessary evidence of continuing high performance and allow districts to place their resources in improving their educational status, rather than undertaking unnecessary and cumbersome paperwork,” said Richard Bozza, director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “Kudos to NJDOE!”

And the head of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which represents mostly suburban districts, also cited the relief waiver process would bring.

“Since his efforts leading the Education Transformation Task Force, Dave Hespe has shared the GSCS focus that time on task for quality education can be more well spent at the district level when schools have proved they can meet high performance metrics,” said Lynne Strickland, the coalition’s director. “This regulatory initiative by the DOE will be very welcome by local schools, and will free up needed staff time for not only schools but for Department personnel work as well.”