Education in New Jersey Year in Review

NJ Spotlight News | January 2, 2017 | Education
John Mooney from NJ Spotlight speaks about the most pressing issues facing education in New Jersey.

School funding, teacher tenure, charter schools, PARCC testing. In any year education issues top the state’s agenda. This past year not so much. Though still important, schools were eclipsed by pensions wars, transportation funding, the governor’s White House aspirations, but in 2017 schools could rocket back to the top of the agenda. No journalist is on top of education like education writer and founding editor of NJ Spotlight John Mooney.

Williams: Gov. Christie’s “Fairness Formula,” where does that stand?

Mooney: It stands in a couple places. For one, it’s somewhat dead on arrival with the Legislature and was really from the get-go. I mean, it was a plan that was really going to topple the existing school funding formula.

Williams: It would upend the Abbott districts completely and stop sending extra money to urban schools.

Mooney: It basically would level fund every district in terms of their per pupil aid, which would drop funding for urban districts significantly and raise it for others. It wasn’t going anywhere. It sounded good, a good sound bite, but it wasn’t going anywhere with the Legislature. Where it may have some headway and where next year will matter is he has done an appeal to the court under the Abbott v. Burke ruling. Who knows. Things are in flux with that court. It’s a new court with this governor and they may at least hear part of it, so it’s not dead altogether, but in terms of the Legislature, it’s not going anywhere.

Williams: State Senate President Steve Sweeney said that he would consider the Fairness Formula. What does that mean?

Mooney: He has his own plan in terms of creating a commission which would come up with its own changes to the existing formula.

Williams: So that adds another couple of years on the process if he changes it?

Mooney: Well, he said it could happen right away, but that also has stalled because Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has his own plan which was not terribly different from Sweeney’s but would get rid of a commission, have the Legislature do that work. That would take a couple years so it’s all definitely stagnated in terms of getting in and going anywhere, at least immediately.

Williams: What about the expansion of charter schools?

Mooney: Well, they’ve continued to slowly grow. There continues to be also some backlash in suburban communities, but you’ve seen them slowly grow in urban communities. In some cases, it’s mostly been the expansion of existing schools in terms of adding more buildings. There’s been some movement to even loosen some of the charter laws and regulations, the administration has been pushing that. That is now before the state Board of Education. That’s going to take a little time, so there hasn’t been a lot of action about that. Certainly the wars we had a year ago where there was talk about moratoriums and the like, I don’t see that happening anytime soon either.

Williams: Changes at the top of the state Board of Education. Its president, Mark Biedron, was, how do I say this, overtly not reappointed?

Mooney: Yes, that happened earlier in the month, actually the day before the meeting, word got out that Gov. Christie, as part of a rash of new appointments to the board, did not reappoint Mark who he had appointed six years ago and has risen in the ranks and became the president and pretty outspoken. Did not reappoint him. There was a lot of talk are they fighting, is it Mark’s positions that have irked the governor? It was never really resolved and then a week later the name that was put in instead of Mark’s was withdrawn. So is Mark going to get a second life? It’s a little unclear and Mark himself is not talking either so that’s a bit of a state of limbo.

Williams: The state Board of Education did make some considerable decisions this year, notable on the PARCC test as a requirement for graduation. How is that going to work?

Mooney: That was a very big one in terms of now it’s going to start, I think it’s the current eighth grade, when they graduate the class of 2021 will be required to have passed the 10th grade language arts test and the algebra I test under PARCC. That had been hotly contested and likely to end up in court, but that’s significant. Certainly for that class it’s going to be very significant.

Williams: There’s also been significant push back against PARCC from the teachers’ union, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and the parents. We’re one of only seven states that even uses it. Could PARCC go away?

Mooney: It’s got two more years, it’s a four-year contract and I think a lot could happen. The state is sticking by it for the moment. PARCC is certainly holding its guns as well, but it might, I think a lot is going to happen in the next couple years. And also what’s certainly happening on the federal level, we’re not quite sure if the feds are going to be requiring these types of things any more. So I think that has been in flux as well.

Williams: State Education Commissioner David Hespe, who notably imposed state appointed school superintendents in some of the more troubled districts, he’s now leaving.

Mooney: Yeah, he left after about 30 months. He had been there and a real stalwart and followed the Christie path. I think he was the first of what we’re going to see a bunch of commissioners stepping aside in the final year of this administration you’d see that. They slowly get out while they can so he was one of the early ones to do so and replaced by one of his deputies, Kimberly Harrington — actually one of the first, I think the first in a decade, public school educator in New Jersey to hold that position as commissioner — and I think that’s significant.

Williams: What do we expect from her?

Mooney: There’s a bit of a caretaker role in the next year. There’s only so much that can happen.

Williams: It’s kind of a lame duck position.

Mooney: There’s only so much that can happen, but I think she’s going to want to leave her mark on some things. She was very active on rewriting the Common Core standards to be more New Jersey standards. I think she’s certainly very interested in some of the teacher quality issues, that’s her background. She’s a very smart woman. I expect her to try and leave her imprint on a couple of things.

Williams: Predictions for next year. What should we be watching?

Mooney: School funding is going to be a big fight. Even without the Legislature saying yes, I think the governor’s going to try and push this, so we’re going to certainly see some back and forth about that. Charter schools is always a fight, whether it’s in the state board or the Legislature, it’s certainly going to be an issue. PARCC testing has calmed down a little bit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to perk up again. It doesn’t take much to get people talking about schools in this state.