On Monday, Feb. 5, the Senate and Assembly Education committees took testimony from invited guests on virtual or remote instruction in grades kindergarten through 12. The hearing lasted approximately three and half hours during which stakeholders from across the education community weighed in on the issue. The New Jersey School Boards Association was among the groups that testified. Others included representatives of the following organizations:

  • New Jersey Education Association.
  • New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
  • New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
  • New Jersey Public Charters Schools Association.
  • New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
  • Teach Coalition NJ.
  • Proximity Learning.
  • Imagine Learning Services.
  • American Federation of Teachers.

Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Pamela Lampitt started the meeting with introductory remarks on the value of examining the use of virtual instruction in K-12 settings.

Following lengthy testimony that focused on, among other issues, school district use of contracted virtual instruction providers, Senate Education Committee Chairman Vin Gopal closed the session with reflections on potential next steps, stating, “Not every one of those companies are the same. So, I do think we need regulations. I do think we need to understand this industry.” He added, “(The) teaching shortage is a much broader topic … that aside, I do think we need to have some kind of framework for virtual learning here in the state of New Jersey. We can’t have somebody start a company out of their basement tomorrow and say they’re going to start bidding on virtual learning contracts here in New Jersey, and how that’s going to be held to a similar standard to a larger company that’s been doing this for a while.”

Jonathan Pushman, NJSBA director of governmental relations, testified on behalf of the Association, stating:

“I would first like to say welcome and good luck to the newest members of these committees. We are at your service to help you navigate the many complexities of public education in New Jersey. It can be a daunting task, but thankfully you have some of the most thoughtful members of the Legislature as your chairs, as well as a whole community of helpful stakeholders, to provide assistance in any way we can.

 While I am not as qualified as some of the experts from the field who have come here today, I did want to provide the Association’s perspective on the potential benefits and pitfalls of virtual or remote instruction.

 I will start by saying we believe that in-person instruction, in general, is preferable to virtual instruction. Having a dedicated and qualified instructor on-site provides our students with the most beneficial educational experience and facilitates a dynamic and collaborative relationship between our educators – some of the best in the nation – with our students – who have proven time and time again that, overall, they are the gold standard compared to the rest of the nation.

With that being the case, we believe that if a school district is looking to hire an educator, they should certainly be making a good faith effort to find and hire someone that will perform their duties in-person.

The problem we all must acknowledge and address, however, is that we simply do not possess a sufficient pipeline of qualified educators in all subject areas and in all areas of this state. Districts across the state continue to struggle to find teachers, particularly in areas where there is a demonstrated shortage – a list that seems to grow longer by the day.

 And so when we lack educators, students suffer from diminished educational opportunities. When a student wants to take a high-level math course or learn a foreign language that may not be the most popular, districts are faced with a dilemma. They can either eliminate or avoid establishing a class, or they can get creative, and partner with an outside entity to provide instruction in a remote setting, so such a student can still benefit. It may not be the ideal option, but frankly, it is better than no option at all.

 So, we have to perform several delicate balancing acts as we consider how to utilize virtual instruction in New Jersey. These include striving to provide what most believe to be the most effective mode of instruction – in-person – with ensuring that we maximize educational opportunities available to our students.  We also have to ensure that we maintain strong standards for our educational professionals, while acknowledging and dealing with the reality that teachers are not falling out of trees, which necessitates granting districts adequate flexibility in their personnel decisions when they simply do not have anyone applying for an open position.

 Over the past couple months, we have been engaged in robust discussions on what the future holds for remote instruction in New Jersey and how we can ensure that it is utilized appropriately and effectively.

 And toward the end of last session, we had a bill in front of us that aimed to provide some controls and guardrails around remote instruction. We applaud the chairs for sparking the conversation and listening to all interested parties. For those who may not have been on the committee, there were some concerns voiced about the adverse impact that particular approach would have had on districts’ ability to maximize opportunities for students by placing some restrictions and onerous requirements on the utilization of remote learning. I will not go into detail about that legislation, as it is not the focus of this hearing, but I believe the response to that legislation demonstrates the passionate and diverse feelings the educational community has on this issue.

 While it is fair and appropriate to continue conversations on this issue and develop some parameters and standards on remote instruction, as we move forward with that discussion, we urge these committees to continue to view this issue through the many complicated lenses and balancing acts I referenced earlier. And to please put student needs first, above all other considerations. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with Chairs Gopal and Lampitt, the members of this committee and all stakeholders to address the concerns raised in the previous session, and to develop an appropriate path forward that provides those students with the high-quality educational experience they all deserve.”

An audio archive of the entire hearing can be accessed here.

November Election Bill Advances

On Feb. 1, the Assembly State and Local Government Committee approved A-2784, which would allow a school district that has moved its annual school election to November to submit to voters a separate proposal for additional funds beyond the district’s authorized tax levy cap to support a particular program or purpose for the budget year, or a separate proposal for additional funds for the subsequent budget year, or separate proposals for additional funds for each of those budget years.  Current law provides that a school district may submit to the voters at the annual school election a separate question or proposal for permission to raise additional funds for the budget year.  The bill stipulates that if a November district submits a separate question for additional funds for the subsequent budget year and the separate question is approved, the school district may not increase its tax levy for that subsequent budget year by the amount of any “banked” tax levy that the district may have at its disposal under the cap banking provisions of the law.

NJSBA supports the bill: You can read the Association’s position statement on the bill here.