A bill that would require the commissioner of education to prepare a series of reports on student learning loss during the COVID-19 pandemic has resurfaced and appears to be on its way to final legislative approval. The proposal was approved by the full Senate last December and by an Assembly committee in January. It had been scheduled for a final floor vote in March but was pulled. On Dec. 9, the bill went back to committee to adjust the deadlines by which the reports must be issued.

Under  A-5126/S-3214, the commissioner of education would be tasked with preparing two reports on the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on public schooling. The first report would be a learning loss report that identifies and quantifies the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency on student academic outcomes. This report would be due by May 31, 2022.

The second report, due Sept. 30, 2022, would focus on the continuation of school services during the public health emergency. Information and data collected by the department would include but not be limited to:

  • The dates of any extended and intermittent pauses of academic instruction taken as a result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • A description of the instructional format provided by the school district, such as remote, hybrid, or in-person.
  • For any remote learning provided, data on the amount of class time students spent in synchronous and asynchronous learning formats.
  • Data on class sizes for each instructional format used by the district and the amount of any small group or one-on-one instruction delivered.
  • The percentage of students and teachers with access to reliable internet and technology at the beginning of the reporting period and at the time of reporting, and a description of the school district’s efforts to ensure all teachers and each student in a household have access to reliable internet and their own laptop, tablet, or device.
  • The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate for each year from 2017 through 2020, and the number of 2020 high school graduates who did not meet the graduation assessment requirement that was waived by Executive Order No. 117 of 2020, and who qualified for graduation through an alternate pathway.
  • Information on any standardized assessment administered to students.
  • The attendance rates and attendance policy applied by the school district.
  • Information on the continuity of special education services during this time period, including identification of any accommodations or services that were suspended, limited, or created due to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
  • A description of the professional development opportunities provided to school district teachers and staff.
  • The number of students who received free or reduced-price meals, and the number of students who received free or reduced-price meals over the same period in the prior year.
  • Information on the type and participation rates of any district-sponsored childcare programs.
  • Information on current and projected teacher shortages, detailing shortages by school, grade level, and subject area.
  • Types of social-emotional supports provided to students, teachers and staff and participation rates of these programs.

During committee deliberations on the bill, the NJSBA expressed support for its intent as it would set a framework for the assessment of student learning during the pandemic. The required study and report would be an important step toward developing a funded strategic plan to help address remediation. However, the NJSBA also recognizes the strain that the emergency has placed on staff and resources.  Therefore, the Association cautioned against the immediate imposition of additional responsibilities on staff that would take away from districts’ top priority – advancing student learning and achievement while protecting the health and safety of students and staff.  Working with its partners at other educational organizations, the NJSBA has successfully obtained a significant delay in final passage of the bill, which allowed school staff to focus on more immediate tasks.

The bill must now be approved by both houses of the Legislature before it can be sent to the governor.

The following bills affecting New Jersey school districts also received committee approval over the past week:

Assembly Education Committee

Mentoring Teachers of Color A-4595/S-2829  would establish a three-year “Male Teachers of Color Mentorship Pilot Program.” Under the program, the N.J. Commissioner of Education would select 10 male students of color from state public higher education institutions to work with 10 male teachers of color from participating schools. In that way, each student would be paired with a current teacher who would serve as the student’s mentor through the candidate’s last year of his educator preparation program and the first two years of the student’s teaching career. The teacher will receive a stipend of $5,000, funded by the state, for each year of participation in the program.

NJSBA supports the bill. During Senate deliberations on the bill, the Association successfully requested an amendment to the bill to remove a requirement that participating school districts commit to hiring each student participating in the program, upon each candidate’s graduation from an educator preparation program. Instead, such school districts must make a “good faith effort” to hire a student if he or she receives a favorable performance review but will not be obligated to offer employment.

Teacher Workforce Data  S-2835/A-5292 requires compilation of data and the issuance of annual reports on the New Jersey teacher workforce. Specifically, the bill would establish the following reporting requirements concerning the current and projected teacher workforce in the state:

  • School districts will annually submit to the New Jersey Commissioner of Education information for the current school year on teaching positions, (e.g., vacant positions, the number of new teaching positions, the number of positions that were eliminated and anticipated teacher retirements).
  • School districts will also annually submit to the commissioner information on public school teacher retention, including the number of and reasons why teachers left employment with the district during the prior school year. The information would show the characteristics of the teachers who left the district, including age, sex, race and tenure status.
  • The Executive Leadership Council of the New Jersey Education to Earnings Data System will issue a report on teacher workforce projections for the state for the following two years. After the issuance of this initial report, the council will issue an annual report on teacher workforce projections for the subsequent three to five years.
  • The Executive Leadership Council of the New Jersey Education to Earnings Data System will semiannually report to the Legislature on the progress of the annual teacher workforce projection report.

NJSBA supports the legislation.

Evaluating Teacher Prep Programs  A-5291/S-2830 requires each educator preparation program to annually report to the Department of Education on the first-time and overall test pass rates of candidates for an instructional certificate, for each test required for instructional certification. The bill also requires the department to annually compile the test pass rates of candidates for an instructional certificate into a comparative profile of all educator preparation programs. The pass rates will be included within the documentation required for the commissioner of education’s periodic review of educator preparation programs.

COVID Assistance Reporting A-5999 requires NJDOE to annually report to the governor and Legislature the amount of federal aid related to COVID relief it receives and distributes to districts as well as the purposes for which grant funds were used by these districts. Additionally, NJDOE would submit a final report regarding the expenditure of federal grant funds received to address the impact of COVID-19 on public education no later than six months following the complete exhaustion of funds by recipient school districts. NJSBA continues to monitor this bill.

Alternate Basic Skills Testing for CTEs  A-6000/S-4074 eliminates the requirement to pass a basic skills test to become a career and technical educator. As an alternative, a prospective CTE can demonstrate basic skills proficiency in a manner to be determined by the NJDOE. NJSBA supports the bill.

NJQSAC Postponement  A-6001 provides for postponement of New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum review for certain school districts for the 2021-2022 school year. The NJQSAC review of certain districts would be postponed, allowing school districts and the department of education to focus additional resources on addressing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The bill would postpone until the 2024-2025 school year the comprehensive review of districts that: (1) are required to undergo a comprehensive review in the 2021-2022 school year; and (2) were designated as a high performing district. The commissioner of education is required to permit a high-performing school district that is subject to postponement under the bill to undergo a comprehensive review in the 2021-2022 school year, upon request by the school district. If a district was not designated as a high performing district in the school district’s most recent comprehensive review, the NJQSAC process continues as scheduled, except that such a district may postpone its comprehensive review until the 2022-2023 school year if the district provides written notification to the commissioner of education that it is not able to complete the review due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.  A school district that postpones its comprehensive review pursuant to this exception would be required to undergo its next review as if the postponement had not occurred (i.e., three years after the school year in which the review was originally scheduled to take place). NJSBA supports the bill. Similar legislation was approved last December that applied to districts that were up for review in the 2020-2021 school year.

AAPI Instruction A-6100/S-4021 Requires school districts to provide instruction on history and contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as part of implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards in social studies.  The bill would also require a board of education to have policies and procedures in place pertaining to the selection of instructional materials that comply with the provisions of this bill. In adopting materials for use in the school district, a board of education would be required to adopt inclusive instructional materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of the AAPI community. If enacted, the bill will first apply to the 2022-2023 school year.

Senate Higher Education

FAFSA Pilot Program S-1229 Establishes a pilot program to provide guidance to students applying for federal financial aid. The commissioner of education shall establish a three-year pilot program to provide public school students with information on and assistance in the proper completion and submission of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The goal of the pilot program shall be to ensure that each student enrolled in grade 12 has the opportunity and instruction necessary to apply for federal financial aid. NJSBA supports the bill.

Assembly Judiciary Committee

School Security Drills A-5727 aims to ensure students’ well-being during school security drills by dictating certain measures that must be taken in advance of, during, or after conducting such a drill. According to the bill’s Senate sponsor, the legislation would ensure that lockdown drills take into consideration the impact these drills can have on the mental health of students, while continuing the safety preparations for students should an intruder appear at a school. This bill requires that a school district must ensure that a school security drill that occurs when students are present follow the following guidelines:

  • Includes clear messaging to students and staff at the conclusion of the drill that the event is a drill and that no current danger exists.
  • Does not expose students to content or imaging that is not developmentally or age appropriate.
  • Is paired with trauma-informed approaches to address any student inquiries or concerns that may arise as a result of a school security drill.
  • Does not include the use of fake blood, real or prop firearms, or the simulations of gun shots, explosions, or other sounds or visuals that may induce panic or a traumatic response from a student or employee.
  • Does not require a student to role play as a victim, but it may include first aid training in which students participate.
  • Is accessible to students with disabilities and mental health conditions and provides all necessary accommodations for these students.

The bill, as amended, would require districts to notify parents, by the end of the school day, whenever a security drill is conducted. As introduced, the bill would have required advance notice to parents, as well as staff. The bill also requires school districts to review and update their drill procedures using a process that coincides with the review of its school safety and security plan. During that process, input from emergency personnel, parents and guardians of students enrolled in the district, teachers and staff employed in the district, mental health professionals, and student government representatives would be collected.

As originally introduced, the NJSBA supported its overall intent, but expressed concern during deliberations of its Senate counterpart, S-3726, that certain provisions might reduce the efficacy of security drills. Such provisions included a requirement that all staff and parents be notified in advance of a drill, as well as a prohibition on the presence of emergency personnel during drills. The NJSBA worked with the sponsor and other education organizations to successfully obtain amendments that alleviated those concerns. NJSBA now supports the bill, as amended. Both the Assembly and Senate version may now be posted for floor votes.

Assembly Appropriations Committee

Health Care and Unfunded Mandates A-6217 provides that local public employee health care plans or programs are not unfunded mandates. It also gives the Legislature’s presiding officers the right to intervene as parties or appear as amicus curiae without Council on Local Mandates approval.

Under the State Constitution, any law that is determined to be an unfunded mandate upon boards of education, counties, or municipalities because it does not authorize resources other than the property tax to offset the additional direct expenditures required for its implementation ceases to be mandatory and expires. The Council on Local Mandates is charged with resolving any disputes regarding whether a law, rule, or regulation constitutes an unfunded mandate. Under the State Constitution, specific categories of laws, rules, and regulations are not considered unfunded mandates. Current law also allows any group or individual to file a written request for approval with the council to appear as amicus curiae in regard to a complaint.

This bill provides that any new law, rule, or regulation concerning any health care benefits plan or program and coverage under such plan or program provided by local public employers to their public employees and beneficiaries is not an unfunded mandate.

The NJSBA strongly opposes the bill. In testimony submitted to the committee, the NJSBA cited both cost and constitutional concerns with the legislation.

Should this legislation be approved, it has the potential to significantly increase costs for New Jersey’s local taxpayers. It would effectively grant the Legislature unfettered authority to enact laws that alter the health care plans public employers offer to their employees without any consideration of the cost impact resulting from such changes. It also would restrict the ability of local governing bodies, including boards of education, to challenge those laws as unfunded mandates before the Council on Local Mandates. That body is charged with enforcing provisions of the New Jersey Constitution that prohibit the state from enacting any laws that cannot be paid for through means besides property taxes. It is a critical tool available to local governing bodies that is essential to protecting New Jersey residents from tax increases that may result from actions taken by lawmakers.

In addition, the “state mandate, state pay” provision of the State Constitution places a strong and important limitation on the Legislature’s ability to enact laws that impose unfunded mandates on local governments. In summary, it prohibits the imposition of any law that is determined to be an unfunded mandate upon boards of education, counties, or municipalities if it does not authorize resources, other than the property tax, to offset the additional direct expenditures required for the implementation of the law. This provision of the State Constitution also contains a limited number of exceptions to the prohibition on the imposition of unfunded mandates.  However, the changes in statute contemplated by A-6217 are not consistent with the State Constitution. Therefore, aside from the cost and procedural implications, the bill raises significant constitutional concerns. The NJSBA argued that any additional exceptions to the prohibition on unfunded mandates should be determined by the voters of the state through an amendment to the State Constitution. Moreover, the NJSBA notes that decisions on whether any law is, in fact, an unfunded mandate should remain under the jurisdiction of the Council on Local Mandates.

The NJSBA was joined by the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, New Jersey Association of Counties and the New Jersey Association of School Business Officials in opposition to the bill.