On Thursday, Jan. 25, the first committee meetings of the 2024-2025 legislative session took place at the State House. Among those that met was the Senate Education Committee. With Sen. Vin Gopal (D-11) returning as chair, the committee advanced the following five bills:
Supplemental Transportation Aid for Certain Districts S-787 provides supplemental transportation aid to certain districts participating in the interdistrict public school choice program. For choice districts that are under a desegregation order by the New Jersey Supreme Court, this bill provides additional transportation aid to the choice district to facilitate the transport of students to the choice district. To be eligible to receive the supplemental state aid for transportation, the choice district is required to demonstrate to the commissioner that the bus routes utilize cost efficient methods. The choice district is to annually report to the Department of Education at the end of each school year the cost of providing transportation to students from a sending district that exceeds the amount of funds the choice district receives from the sending district pursuant to the bill. The department is required to reimburse the choice district for the additional costs reported. Approved by the Senate Education Committee, the bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
Eliminating Census-based Funding of Special Education Aid in SFRA S-1410 would amend the School Funding Reform Act to eliminate the census-based method of estimating special education costs and providing special education aid.
Under the current SFRA, the component of a district’s adequacy budget corresponding to special education costs – and the calculation of a district’s special education categorical aid – are calculated using a census-based method. That method resembles a per-pupil funding approach in that it is based on a per-pupil excess cost figure. However, instead of applying that per-pupil excess cost figure to a district’s actual special education enrollment, it applies the figure to the product of the district’s total enrollment and state average classification rate. In other words, the method provides funding on a “per-pupil” basis, but the number of students it funds is the number that the district “would have” if the district’s classification rate matched the state average classification rate – not the district’s actual special education enrollment. The NJDOE reviews and establishes the per-pupil excess costs and the state average classification rate every three years in its Educational Adequacy Report. Under the current EAR, applicable to fiscal year 2023-2025, the average classification rate is 15.9%, and the per-pupil excess cost is $19,524. The NJDOE calculates rates separately for general special education students and speech-only special education students.
S-1410 would amend SFRA to estimate special education costs and calculate special education categorical aid based on a district’s actual special education enrollment, rather than the census-method. Under the bill, the special education formulas would be based on the product of the district’s actual special education enrollment and the same per-pupil excess cost figure used in the current formula.
The NJSBA testified, outlining the potential benefits and challenges of moving toward a special education funding system based on a district’s actual special education enrollment, while noting the limits of providing the same per-pupil amount for each special education student. The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
Disability Determination Methods S-1812 establishes requirements concerning methods for determining whether a child has a specific learning disability under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Federal regulations implementing the IDEA provide that a state’s criteria for determining whether a student has a specific learning disability: (1) is not to require the use of a severe discrepancy between intellectual ability and achievement; (2) is to permit the use of a process based on the student’s response to scientific, research-based intervention; and (3) may permit the use of other alternative research-based procedures. S-1812 requires the state to include the third approach permitted under federal IDEA regulations and permits the use of other alternative research-based procedures for determining whether a student has a specific learning disability. In the fourth full school year following the date of enactment, the amended bill will prohibit the use of a severe discrepancy between a student’s intellectual ability and achievement in determining whether the student has a specific learning disability. NJSBA sought amendments to make S-1812 consistent with the federal regulations. The bill was referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
Grow Your Own Teacher Loan Redemption Program: S-2008 would establish the Grow Your Own Teacher Loan Redemption Program. The program would provide for the redemption of a portion of eligible student loan expenses for each year of full-time employment as a certified teacher in the school district from which the individual graduated high school or a district in which the individual has resided for more than five years. Program participants would be required to teach in the district for at least five years and would qualify for redemption of up to $10,000 of principal and interest of eligible student loan expenses for each full year of employment (total redemption amount not to exceed $50,000 for five years of employment). To qualify, the district must be experiencing a shortage of teachers as determined by the New Jersey Department of Education. The bill now heads to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee for further consideration.
Evaluation Review Task Force and Temporary SGO Relief S-2082 would establish the New Jersey Educator Evaluation Review Task Force to study and evaluate the educator evaluation system established pursuant to the TEACHNJ Act and implemented in New Jersey public schools.
The task force is to examine the educator evaluation process, gather data, evaluate the data and make recommendations concerning the annual evaluation process for teachers, principals, assistant principals and vice principals established pursuant to the TEACHNJ Act. The task force is to consist of 12 members who have a background in, or special knowledge of, the legal, policy and administrative aspects of educator evaluation in New Jersey. The members are to include:
- One member appointed by the president of the Senate.
- One member appointed by the speaker of the General Assembly.
- One member appointed by the governor.
- Three representatives of the New Jersey Education Association.
- Three representatives of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.
- One representative appointed by the New Jersey School Boards Association.
- One representative appointed by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
- One representative appointed by the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
The task force is to consider the law in the current context of the state’s schools, identify areas for improvement and make any recommendations regarding any appropriate changes or updates to the law or regulations implementing the law. The task force is to issue a final report of its findings and recommendations to the governor and the Legislature no later than Sept. 30, 2024. The department is to make the final report available to the public on its website.
Additionally, the bill clarifies that student growth data used for the purposes of educator evaluations is data collected in the most recent year in which an educator completed student growth objectives. Under the bill, teachers are not to collect new student growth observation data in the 2024-2025 school year, and are instead to use, for the purposes of educator evaluations, existing student growth objective data from the most recent year in which the educator completed student growth objectives. For any teacher in their first year of employment in a district, any teacher without a record of pre-existing student growth objectives, or any nontenured teacher, the teacher is to set student growth objectives and collect data pertaining to these objectives during the 2024-2025 school year. Beginning in the 2025-2026 school year, school districts are to implement guidelines for the collection of student growth objective data consistent with any law, rule, or regulation enacted as a result of the findings of the task force.
NJSBA supported the current version of the bill, which is a significant departure from legislation as introduced. Last session, NJSBA, alongside several other education stakeholder groups, expressed strong opposition to the legislation, A-5877/S-4234, when there was a push to move it during lame duck. That bill would have established a revised summative evaluation schedule for tenured teachers, principals, assistant principals and vice principals – effectively eliminating annual evaluations for certain teachers based on past performance. The NJSBA testified in opposition to the bill, citing the importance of the annual summative evaluation process to the quality and support of the teacher workforce. This new legislation will instead allow for more deliberation among all interested stakeholders before determining if there is a need to make any statutory or regulatory changes to the current educator evaluation system. The bill may now be posted for a Senate floor vote.
Some new faces have been added to the Senate Education Committee as the session gets underway. Gopal and Sen. Shirley Turner (D-15) remain chair and vice-chair, respectively. The other Democratic member is Sen. Angela McKnight (D-31), who moved up from the Assembly after being elected to the Senate in November. Republican Sen. Kristen Corrado (R-40), who joined the committee toward the latter portion of last session, returns. Joining her on the Republican side is newly elected Sen. Owen Henry (R-12), who was once a member of the Old Bridge Board of Education in Middlesex County.