As an election poll worker who served 79 years ensuring that citizens had the right to participate in free and fair elections, the late Laura Wooten devoted her life to democracy.  

Wooten, who died in 2019 at the age of 98, held the record as the longest, continuously serving poll worker in the United States, according to a profile published by Princeton University shortly after her death. She was acknowledged by Gov. Phil Murphy as a “moral voice of the state,” according to the profile by Princeton, where she worked for 27 years, checking student ID cards in the dining hall. 

On Jan. 28, the state Senate passed S-854/S-237, known as “Laura Wooten’s Law.” The bill would require middle school students to learn how their government works, and the important role citizens play in maintaining a free and representative government. 

The bill now heads to the state Assembly Education Committee for further consideration. The NJSBA has not taken a stand on the bill. In testimony early in 2020, other education groups expressed concern that the bill could be an unfunded mandate. 

In light of the violence on Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol Building, bill sponsor Sen. Shirley Turner says her legislation is especially timely. 

“Government leaders have been sounding the alarm about the civics crisis in this country for years, and we need to take action now. The crisis reached a breaking point after the November election, which culminated in a violent insurrection at our U.S. Capitol,” said Sen. Turner (D-15). “Safeguarding our democracy is now more urgent than ever, and one of the best ways we can do that is by teaching our future generations about the importance of civic skills, engagement, participation and the value of a democratic process.” 

The bill directs the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE) to require at least one course specifically in civics or United States government as part of the social studies credit requirement for middle school graduation. Beginning in the 2022-2023 school year, each board of education would be required to provide a course about the values and principles underlying the American system of constitutional democracy, the function and limitations of government, and the role of a citizen in a democratic society. 

The course would be taken by all pupils in an appropriate middle school grade. The bill also directs the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University to prepare curriculum guidelines and provide professional development for high school social studies teachers in fulfilling the requirement of integrating civics, economics, and the history of New Jersey into the United States history course. 

Reciprocity for Out-of-State Teaching Certificates S-2831 would require NJDOE to establish a five-year Alternate Route Interstate Reciprocity Pilot Program.  

In order to qualify, a candidate must have:  

  • The equivalent of a certificate of eligibility, provisional certificate or emergency certificate from another state in a subject or grade level also offered in New Jersey;   
  • Passed a subject-matter test to receive the out-of-state endorsement or passed the appropriate New Jersey subject-matter test;   
  • Passed a performance assessment approved by the state where the certificate was issued, or the candidate must pass a New Jersey–approved performance assessment; and   
  • One–year minimum of documented effective teaching experience.  

Candidates who have not completed an approved educator preparation program can enroll in a state-approved educator preparation program and complete any remaining college credits or coursework prior to the issuance of a standard instructional certificate.  

At the end of two years, the bill would require NJDOE to produce a progress report. At the conclusion of the five years of the pilot program, NJDOE would provide a final analysis of the program, including recommendations on whether the program should continue. NJSBA supports this bill.  

Easing Substitute Teacher Requirements S-2832 would allow college students who have accumulated at least 30 college credits (sophomores and beyond) and are at least 20 years old to serve as substitute teachers up until June 30, 2023. The current standard is 60 credits (juniors and beyond). Under the bill, NJDOE would provide a final report by no later than June 30, 2024 as to whether the 30-credit standard should be allowed to continue. Additionally, the bill would increase the coverage provided by substitute teachers by extending the amount of time those individuals may teach in the same classroom during public health emergencies. 

NJSBA was able to have language inserted clarifying school districts may establish additional criteria for substitute teachers within their district. NJSBA has not currently taken a position, but continues to monitor the bill. 

School Discipline Task Force S-1018 would establish an 11-member task force to examine, evaluate, and make recommendations regarding discipline policies and practices in New Jersey public schools, including any racial disparities in the implementation and effectiveness of the policies. Once organized, the task force would be required to issue a final report of its findings and recommendations to the governor and Legislature within 12 months. The NJSBA supports the bill and would be one of several education organizations with a representative on the task force.  The bill now heads to the General Assembly, which has yet to take up the measure. 

Reporting Discipline Data S-1020 would require the School Report Card to include a demographic breakdown of students who receive disciplinary actions. It also would require the New Jersey commissioner of education to establish a statewide database concerning various disciplinary actions, such as in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, referrals to law enforcement, and arrests.  The bill’s Assembly counterpart, A-1184/A-4414, has received committee approval. If cleared by both houses and signed by the governor, the measure would go into effect at the beginning of the first school year following enactment. 

Suicide Prevention/Student ID Cards S-550 would require that student identification cards for grades 7-12 have the telephone number for a suicide prevention hotline printed on the back of the card. NJSBA continues to monitor the bill. S-550 now moves to the General Assembly, which has already given committee approval to a companion bill, A-1616. 

Photo credit for picture of Laura Wooten: Princeton University, Office of Communications, Jamie Saxon.