Fine Print: Annual OLS Quizzing of Christie Administration on Schools

John Mooney | April 20, 2016 | Education
Legislative staff probes charter funding and mysterious 2012 task force

Former state Education Commissioner David Hespe
What it is: The nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services annually completes a fiscal analysis of each state department’s budget, including a Q&A with the administration over issues it chooses. The OLS releases that back and forth to coincide with each department’s budget hearing before the Legislature. As state Education Commissioner David Hespe comes before the Assembly budget committee today, this is the written exchange with the state Department of Education this spring over a wide variety of topics, from how extra funds have gone to charter schools to why a 2012 task force on school-spending fraud has yet to issue a single report.

What it means: The exercise each year is certainly provocative, with the OLS asking probing questions that have been forwarded to them by individual legislators and staff. Sometimes the department is candid, other times less so, but the exercise at least puts the responses in writing. Still, whether it leads to much change is open to question, with today’s hearing proving to be the next test.

School funding task force, circa 2012: It was big news at the time, a task force created by Gov. Chris Christie to explore how taxpayers’ money is spent by schools. There had been a few scandals circulating at the time, including one over the mismanagement of school lunch money in Elizabeth. But the OLS asked whatever become of it, forcing the administration to acknowledge that while the group met and its advice was heard, no report was ever issued.

The official answer: “The task force has met numerous times subsequent to the creation of the task force and examined the issues as required by the Governor’s Executive Order. There is currently no timetable for the release of either an interim or a final report.”

Charter funding questioned: The OLS for the past two years has closely examined how the administration has provided extra assistance to charter schools through — and sometimes outside — the state’s school-funding laws. This year, the OLS asks how and why the administration has not defined what is an extra $33 million in public funds.

PARCC, redux: No school discussion would be complete without questions about PARCC, and while not part of the budget, the OLS asked if the administration was concerned about reports that in other states, students taking the new online assessments suffered due to the transition to new technology. “Given the results observed in other states that used the PARCC assessments, does the department have any reason to believe that New Jersey students did not, on average, perform more poorly on the PARCC assessments as a result?”

Department response: The administration responded that the virtually all students took the tests online last year, better than 98 percent, so such technology gaps have “virtually been eliminated.”

Tenure cases: The department put out its latest update of new cases that have been brought under the state’s teacher tenure-reform law of three years ago, which streamlined the process and adjudication of tenure charges. The department said that 68 cases had been filed this school year, “in line with prior years.” But it expected as many as 200 cases next year, when the law’s full effects are felt with the new evaluation system in place for two consecutive years.

Other topics: The report extends into a myriad of other topics as well, from questioned disparities over funding of new renaissance schools in Camden to the progress with lead-abatement in Newark schools’ water.