2016 Education Recap: Policy Debates More Fizzle than Pop

Politics, personalities, and other weighty issues contribute to stalled agendas

trenton statehouse state house
For all the debates over the past few years about teacher tenure, charter schools, PARCC testing, and school funding, this week’s end to the 2016 legislative session proved pretty anti-climactic.

Topping the Legislature’s education bills this week: a proposal about special-education certification and another dealing with dual enrollments with community college.

All in all, school issues took a backseat to the pension wars and battles over transportation funding and, at the end, the outcry over publishing legal notices online rather than in newspapers.

That was partly due to the sheer weight of those issues, but personalities mattered as well. Gov. Chris Christie’s run for the White House dominated the news, reducing any chance of substantive policy change. And now that he is on his way out, the Democrat-led Legislature is starting to wait him out for their own initiatives as well.

Meanwhile, state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential chair of the Senate education committee and the Democrats’ chief champion of school issues, took time off to have a baby girl in September. She’ll be back in January, but her committee didn’t meet for three months.

School funding became a hot topic briefly midyear — and may come back with a vengeance in 2017 — given Christie’s and the Democratic leadership’s dueling plans for overhauling state aid to schools.

But the heat didn’t last long: Christie’s scheme was dead on arrival in the Legislature, and Democratic leaders in the Senate and Assembly couldn’t agree on an alternative approach.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has proposed creating a commission to recommend changes to the school-funding formula. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has said such decisions should be left to the Legislature itself. Neither is budging so far.

At the same time, Christie’s challenge to the state Supreme Court to try to push his funding proposal, which has yet to be decided upon or even discussed in detail. His Fairness Formula would level per-pupil aid to every district, which would send the state’s current funding system into near chaos.

Elsewhere, a rewriting of the state’s charter school law — now in its third decade — seemed perpetually mired down in the 2016 Legislature. Hearings have been held and protests lodged, but a new law appears no closer.

The State Board of Education, once a sleepy stepchild to the Legislature when it comes to major education policy, has been more of a player in the charter-school realm, considering administration proposals to change regulations for teacher licensing requirements and facilities funding.

But the state board has been going through its own political drama of late, with more developments this week. The news earlier this month was Christie’s decision to replace president Mark Biedron, six years after appointing him. It surprised many, given Biedron’s high profile on the board.

But this week, Christie’s office quietly withdrew the nomination of Biedron’s successor, leaving the president’s fate up in the air for now. No further explanation was offered, and Biedron would not comment last night.

That’s not to say that there was no significant action in education this year. The state board approved new high school graduation requirements, starting in 2021, which include passing the controversial PARCC tests in Algebra I and 10th grade language arts — a move that is already being challenged in court.

New curriculum standards were also adopted by the board to replace the Common Core State Standards, spurned a year ago by Christie in his run for the Republican nomination for president.

And after 30 months on the job, David Hespe stepped down as state education commissioner, replaced by Kimberley Harrington, the first former public school educator named to the post in more than a decade.