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Back to School in NJ Means Big Changes in Testing and Funding …

… and a potentially controversial push for district consolidation waiting in the wings

Phil Murphy & Steve Sweeney
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy, left, and Senate President Steve Sweeney

As more than 1 million New Jersey schoolchildren return to the classroom this week, Gov. Phil Murphy and his administration will be going back to school themselves, so to speak, with some big debates already looming about their plans for public education.

Leading the way is what happens next with replacing the state’s PARCC exam, one of Murphy’s big campaign promises. The test is vanquished in name, if not format, and the administration is moving quickly to reduce its importance and impact, while facing some of the first pushback to date.

Working with the Democratic leadership — no given in these times — Murphy has also signed into law the first significant changes to the state’s school-funding formula since its inception a decade ago.

But who wins and who loses under the new formula is turning out to be a political blood sport. The question is whether the agreements will stand as the state’s financial squeeze only intensifies.

The governor is not the only one making big promises for public education; state Senate President Steve Sweeney this summer put forward a not-so-novel vision for consolidating school districts to both save money and align curricula.

But will this long-discussed, never enacted idea finally gain enough traction get off the ground?

In the spirit of the new school year and the optimism it brings, here’s a look at a few of the big questions and some possible answers.

Q: What happens to PARCC and what will it mean?

It was possibly Murphy’s boldest campaign promise for public education, and one he moved quickly to implement: no more PARCC.

More precisely, Murphy’s education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, announced this summer that the state would slim down and scale back the exams for this school year as it moves to the “next generation of testing.”

In the meantime, PARCC will no longer be called PARCC, and it won’t carry much weight.

The Murphy administration disclosed on the Friday before Labor Day that it would virtually eliminate the weight that PARCC scores have on teacher evaluations, slashing it to 5 percent — down from 30 percent last year.

But the end of this story has hardly been written. The state Board of Education still has final say on any testing changes, and while it is likely to go along, it has shown some pockets of resistance.

And two notable Democratic leaders in the Senate issued their own press release on Friday, saying they were “deeply disappointed” by the change in PARCC’s impact on teacher evaluations.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the chair of the Senate’s education committee and author of the state’s tenure reform law in 2012, which linked teacher evaluations to student performance, was joined by Sweeney in objecting to the watering down of her statute.

“As we approach the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year, we are deeply disappointed that the administration is walking away from New Jersey's students by reducing the PARCC assessment to count for only five percent of a teacher’s evaluation,” read the statement signed by both.

“These tests are about education, not politics.”

The next move on this issue comes when the state board meets again on September 12 to vote on the testing changes. Ruiz’s education committee meets the week after.

Q: Will the good will last on school funding?

Murphy and Sweeney’s deal on school funding in the fiscal 2019 budget counts as one of their few points of agreement in the governor’s first year of office. Still, it is a significant one.

Helping to avert a state government shutdown for the second year in a row, the eleventh-hour agreement brought an additional $340 million in state aid to New Jersey’s school districts overall, while also forcing some steep cuts for nearly 200 of them

The agreement called for similar increases — and cuts — in each of the next seven years, putting the state back on track for the school-funding formula first enacted in 2009 and virtually ignored ever since.

But there’s no way of knowing for certain how this will play out. Similar optimism greeted the first law under former Gov. Jon Corzine, and look how that turned out.

But districts facing cuts are already fighting back. Jersey City — with more than $100 million in aid at stake — is the latest to say it will appeal the changes in court. And the reductions will only intensify in coming years.

Sweeney has repeatedly said the changes are tough medicine, and he was able to gather the needed votes for passage in 2018. But the state’s fiscal crisis is hardly easing, especially as agreed-upon tax increases expire in the next several years, and Murphy’s fiscal 2020 budget this coming winter — and Sweeney’s reaction to it — will be a good indicator of how long their rapprochement will last.

Q: Will the umpteenth time be the charm for school consolidation?

The debate dates back more than a century, when the state first tried — and failed — to rein in the growth of local towns and schools in the 1890s. More recently, there have been similar efforts in the 1990s and the early 2000s.

That hasn’t fazed the Senate president, who this summer put forward a task force report that proposed cutting the number of school districts in half by aligning, regionalizing, and consolidating every district into a K-12 structure.

Sweeney promises consolidation will both save the state hundreds of millions in property taxes each year and bring sense and structure to what is now a hodgepodge of school governance and curriculum.

But there is a reason this hasn’t moved in the past, and the challenges remain. Local communities hold fast to their schools, and even consolidations over the past few decades that appeared to be slam-dunks have faced stiff debates about what exactly they would accomplish.

Still, this time may indeed be different, with the state’s financial crunch looming large and districts continuing to struggle, even with the funding changes. The first clue to the staying power of this proposal will be planned legislative hearings this fall.

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