Lawmakers Tie Up Legislative Loose Ends Pertaining to State’s Schools

Committees address array of education matters ranging from bolstering special-education services to addressing chronic absenteeism

education schoolhouse
A busy day at the State House yesterday brought a variety of education matters to the fore — from special education to school regionalization to one bill that would require every elementary school to provide daily recess.

Both the Senate and Assembly education committees met for one of the last meetings for each panel before the end of the year. A number of the bills reviewed were holdovers from previous sessions, and some of the committees’ actions were basically procedural moves to keep proposed legislation from expiring.

But the sessions allowed advocates and others to speak up on issues that don’t usually get the spotlight in what has been a busy few years for education policy in New Jersey, much of it dominated by topics like standardized testing and charter schools.

Here are some of the highlights among more than a dozen bills considered and advanced yesterday:

Special education

The Senate’s education committee took up a series of bills designed to strengthen services for more than 200,000 students classified with special needs.

One bill would encourage districts to use early intervention strategies known as “response to intervention” (RTI), where schools follow a procedure for evaluating and supporting students in hopes of avoiding having them classified for special education.

Another would require new teachers to get specific training amounting to six credit hours in how to interact with students on the autism spectrum, a rising population that some estimate amounts to one in every 50 students in New Jersey.

Regan Kaiden, a Collingswood parent and former teacher, applauded the greater attention to making all teachers aware of special-education needs.

“In today’s world, really everyone should be a special education teacher,” she said. “You won’t find a classroom today where there aren’t students with a variety of different needs, and we are doing them a disservice without teachers who are dually certified (in special education).”

Chronic absenteeism

A report released this fall said a significant number of schools have large percentages of students who are absent or at least 10 percent of the school year, missing the equivalent of almost a full month of classes.
A bill introduced this month by state Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) would require the state Department of Education to report data for every school on “chronic absenteeism” and suspensions, and to press schools to take steps to address high rates of absenteeism.

While there’s a general agreement the problem needs to be addressed, the hearing before the Senate education committee also underscored the sensitive nature of the issue and the privacy needs of specific families.

The proposed bill calls for a coalition in each district to track and analyze student absenteeism while coming up with strategies to address it. But the bill was also amended to prevent the disclosure of information about individual families from being disclosed to the larger group.

Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which issued the report, said the group was sensitive to the need to protect individual families in the process, although that shouldn’t prevent schools from looking at larger patterns.

“But if you have 10 percent of the school that is chronically absent, you need to think differently, you need to think holistically, and thinking it’s just student by student is not enough,” she said.

New task forces

The Senate committee unanimously backed creating a task force to look at the costs and benefits of school regionalization, one of the last bills from ongoing state Assemblywoman Donna Simon (R-Hunterdon).

It’s hardly a new topic, as the state has long grappled with the cost-effectiveness of the state’s 600-plus districts. The bill would create a 16-member panel that would study the benefits and drawbacks of regionalization.

Over on the Assembly side, the education committee backed the creation of a 21-member task force to explore how to extend kindergarten in every district to full-day programs. It is the second attempt at this bill; Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a similar measure last year.

About a quarter of the state’s districts have only half-day programs.

“Crazy we have to have a task force for this,” said state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), chair of the committee. “All studies show the earlier children go to school, the better they perform.”

Mandatory recess?

Maybe even more passionate a subject is addressed in a bill that would require elementary schools to provide daily recess of at least 20 minutes for all their students, up to fifth grade. Some language was added for exceptions in the case of students facing disciplinary matters.

“Many of you may wonder why we need this bill,” said state Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), the prime sponsor.

“Our elementary schools have gone like high schools for each subject, but in those periods, they don’t have recess and they don’t have time to run around and play games.

“I see recess as not just time to run around but to build social skills, to learn how to build teams, and learn things beyond just the exercise itself.”