Variety of Education Bills Set for Vote as Legislative Session Wanes

John Mooney | January 11, 2016 | Education
Testing-firm disclosures, art-class grades, volunteer credits, and rules for restraint of disabled students on legislators’ agenda

New Jersey State House in Trenton
The final votes of a legislative session always bring a cornucopia of proposals — some with a chance of becoming law, others more symbolic.

Today’s legislative session, the last before Gov. Chris Christie’s State of the State address tomorrow, will have no shortage of interesting bills pertaining to New Jersey’s public schools and their students.

Some education-related legislation has already passed in the waning days of the session, such as the bill that cleared the Senate last week requiring all K-5 schools to provide at least 20 minutes of recess every day. That bill awaits Christie’s signature.

Here’s a short list of the more intriguing proposals among a long list of education bills coming up for a vote – and likely approval – today.

Testing companies: While plenty of bills lately have addressed the issue of student testing, calling for restricting or even ending use of the standardized tests, one bill takes a different tack – it calls for disclosure of all corporate and other outside entities involved in state testing.

The bill has some big backers – it’s supported by the education committee chairs in both the Assembly and the Senate. It is largely a reaction to disclosures last year that Pearson Education, the company that developed and administers the controversial PARCC tests, was scanning social media sites for New Jersey students improperly sharing questions and answers from the tests.

The bill would require the state to annually list any vendors, consultants or other outside organizations “for any work associated with the administration, evaluation, monitoring of social media for security breaches, grading, or ongoing development of State assessments.”

Arts classes and grade-point averages: Except for a few advanced classes, students taking arts courses in high school currently face a disadvantage in their grade-point average (GPA) because of extra weight given to honors and Advance Placement classes.

Arts supporters have long said that discourages students from taking arts classes or participating in activities like theater and music, fearing it will hurt their GPAs and class ranking.

A bill coming before the Senate today would require giving visual and performing arts classes of “the same level of academic rigor” the same weight in determining a student’s GPA as other courses with the same number of credits.

Community service: Schools have long encouraged community service by their students outside school hours, and a few over the years have even offered academic credit for volunteer work.

Proposed legislation would set up a structure for high schools to determine credits toward graduation for students who complete specific approved community service. The bill would not require districts to offer such credits, but would set up a basic structure to help districts decide how many hours would qualify and what programs would be approved.

Student restraint and isolation techniques: Legislation that hasn’t gotten a lot of attention would set guidelines for using restraints or isolation techniques with students with disabilities. Among the requirements would be approval by the child’s physician and notification of parents. The bill would also require schools – both public and private – to report the use of such techniques annually to the state Department of Education, and the publication of that data by the DOE.

A version of the bill has already passed in the Senate, helped by some bipartisan sponsors, including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).