Education Panels Weigh Array of Bills But Big Issues Left For Another Day

John Mooney | December 14, 2015 | Education
Proposals on docket include raising compulsory age for school attendance and releasing numbers for PARCC exam opt-outs

New Jersey State House in Trenton
With the legislative session winding down, the Senate and Assembly education committees today will take up a smorgasbord of proposals that touch on some intriguing topics but will have little impact when it comes to the hot education issues in the state.

For instance, one of the more provocative proposals would appear to be a bill before the Senate’s education committee that would boost the compulsory age for attending school from 16 to 18 years. But it’s a proposal dating back to the administration of former Gov. Christie Whitman – and it’s not clear what it would even mean if it ever became law.

Another proposal before the Assembly panel – more timely and perhaps more likely to win passage — would require schools to release information on their participation rates on the PARCC tests, a keen issue for critics of the testing. But the state is expected to release those numbers next month anyway, so it is unclear how this would be different.

Regarding another issue that is getting increased attention, the Assembly committee is hearing a bill addressing the issue of chronic absenteeism in schools. This bill could be on track for approval, as it has already passed in the Senate.

Also on the docket for consideration are a bill calling for creation of alternative high schools specifically for students in recovery, and another that would call on school officials to address the health effects of heavy backpacks.

In the end, none of the pending proposals are addressing big issues such as teacher evaluation, testing and charter schools, three of the dominant topics of the past year.

Most prominent, a variety of proposals to replace the state’s two-decade-old charter school law have once again all languished, leaving it to another session.

These meetings of the Assembly and Senate committees are likely the last ones before the 2015 session officially ends when Gov. Chris Christie gives the next State of the State address on Jan. 11.

Compulsory age

The proposal to raise the compulsory age of public education from 16 to 18 is based on the well-meaning assumption that it would keep more students in high school. The existing law dates back to 1914.

Not only did former Gov. Whitman push for its passage, but it has even gained the approval of one chamber or another before eventually stalling.

Debate has centered on how it would affect schools forced to address the new age requirement, extending programs for keeping students in schools when it has already been a challenge to retain many of them even before age 16.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Nellie Pou, would include $100 fines for parents who failed to make sure their children are in school.

PARCC opt-out disclosure

Sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex), the education committee’s chairman, the bill would require schools to explicitly disclose the number of students sat out the new PARCC tests.

It’s a contentious point. The state has yet to disclose exactly how many students opted out of the tests in protest, and some critics have contended it is likely well into the tens of thousands of students, one of the highest totals in the country.

In a report last spring, the state only gave some broad percentages, ranging from 4 percent in elementary schools to 15 percent in high school.

State officials have said more precise numbers will come out early in 2016 when the school-by-school scores are released, but this bill would require more timely reporting and require both the state and the individual districts to disclose the data.

Chronic absenteeism

This bill follows a report by the Advocates for Children of New Jersey that brought new attention to the number of schools with students who are missing 10 percent or more of classes through the school year.

In the report, one in every four districts were found to have schools with such high levels of absenteeism in 2013-14.

Sponsored by state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the bill would require the absenteeism rates to be published by the state. Schools with absenteeism over 10 percent would be required to form a “chronic absenteeism coalition” comprised of at least one parent and teacher “to regularly review and monitor school chronic absenteeism and develop a corrective action plan to improve absenteeism rates.”

The bill would also require the state education commissioner to annually report on the state of absenteeism in the schools.