On June 15, various Assembly committees met to advance several PreK-12 education bills, including measures to provide universal free school lunch over the course of five years, and to establish various procedures and standards for privatizing school district services. In addition, the Senate held a voting session on June 20 and voted to repeal the state residency requirement for school employees and other proposals aimed at alleviating staffing shortages. A full rundown of State House activity over the last week follows below.

Assembly Agriculture and Food Security Committee   

Universal Free School Lunch A-5573 would establish a five-year phase-in period for ramping up to a universal free school lunch program, under which all schools with lunch programs would be required to provide free lunch to all enrolled students, regardless of income or federal eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals. Importantly, under the bill, the costs of these additional free lunches would be borne by the state.

Specifically, the bill would establish the following schedule for expanding eligibility for free school lunches. This schedule would build upon the expansion of eligibility from 185% to 199% of the federal poverty level that is already scheduled to go into effect in the 2023-2024 school year pursuant to a bill signed into law last year, the Working Class Families Anti-Hunger Act.

School YearIncome Eligibility Threshold for Free School Lunch (% of federal poverty level)
2028-2029 and thereafterAll students regardless of income

Additionally, the bill would require that:

  • School districts with school lunch or breakfast programs take steps to minimize or offset program costs, to the extent possible without compromising nutrition standards and other program requirements.
  • The New Jersey Department of Agriculture, in consultation with the New Jersey Department of Education, monitor, inspect and oversee school meal programs to ensure that meals continue to satisfy nutrition standards.
  • Require school districts to collect, and the Department of Agriculture to report to the governor and Legislature, certain data on the number of students that are eligible for free school lunch on different bases.

The New Jersey School Boards Association testified in support of the bill, expressing appreciation for sponsor Speaker Craig Coughlin’s work to combat student hunger while minimizing costs to school districts. The bill is scheduled for a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee on June 22. Its Senate counterpart, S-3956, was recently introduced, but has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

“Farm to School” Grant Program A-5459 would establish a $6.5 million grant program in the New Jersey Department of Agriculture to reimburse school districts for the costs of expanding local food procurement activities. Grants would be awarded on a competitive basis, with preference for low-income districts that will use grant funds to increase access to local foods for students eligible for free or reduced price meals; districts in a food desert area; districts proposing to procure local food products from small or mid-sized family farms or socially disadvantaged farmers; and districts that were recipients of a program grant award in one or more prior years. The NJSBA supports the bill, which next heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

Assembly Labor Committee

Anti-Privatization Initiative A-5430 would establish various procedures and standards regarding the privatization of public services contracts, including those entered into by local boards of education.

Among other provisions, the bill would:

  • Allow union representatives of public employees to review privatization proposals prior to the solicitation of bids.
  • Require private contractors to pay wages and benefits to their employees that are equal to or exceed wages and benefits paid to their public sector counterparts.
  • Require contractors to hire public employees who are displaced from their employment due to the privatization of services.

The NJSBA opposes the legislation and publicly testified against it. The Association argued that this bill will impose costly and burdensome requirements on school districts seeking to get the most efficient use of their finite resources. NJSBA further argued that a 2020 law (P.L.2020, c.79) already establishes various requirements boards of education must follow before entering into subcontracting agreements, while including several protections for district employees, thus making this legislation unnecessary.

The bill next heads to the Assembly State and Local Government Committee for further consideration. Its Senate counterpart, S-1350, was approved by the Senate Labor Committee and referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in May.

Non-CDL Drivers for Small School Buses A-4835, which is intended to alleviate the school bus driver shortage, would create a new “Type S School Bus Certificate” to be issued by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission. The certificate would authorize a person to operate a Type S school bus to transport children to and from school without obtaining a commercial driver’s license, passenger endorsement, or school bus endorsement. A Type S bus is a school transportation vehicle that has a gross vehicle weight rating of 3,000 pounds or more, and which was originally designed by the manufacturer with a maximum seating capacity of nine passengers or less, excluding the driver.

The bill would establish the following eligibility requirements for the Type S School Bus Certificate:

  • Be at least 21 years old.
  • Has held a valid basic driver’s license for a minimum of three years.
  • Has passed a physical and eye examination.
  • Has completed and passed a knowledge examination pursuant to existing law.
  • Has completed the training program established on appropriate procedures for interacting with students with special needs.
  • Has completed any other conditions as determined by the NJMVC in collaboration with the commissioner of education.

The bill would also subject Type S bus drivers to various provisions of law applicable to other school bus drivers, such as criminal history record check requirements and various offenses that disqualify someone from serving as a bus driver.

Other provisions of law that would be amended to include Type S bus drivers include:

  • Consequences of knowingly operating a bus transporting students while the driver’s driving privileges have been suspended or revoked.
  • Consequences of leaving a pupil on the bus at the end of the driver’s route.
  • Consequences of certain motor vehicle violations.

The bill would also establish a new 10-hour training course that all bus drivers – CDL holders and holders of the Type S certificate – would be required to complete if their endorsement/certificate is suspended for accumulating a certain number of motor vehicle penalty points or for being convicted of a certain number of motor vehicle moving violations.

A-4835 is the Legislature’s latest attempt at providing flexibility in the licensing of school bus drivers. A separate bill, A-3565/S-2152/S-1682, moved this past summer that would have allowed holders of a noncommercial driver’s license to drive a Type S school bus if they completed certain training requirements. There has been no action on that bill since it passed the Assembly on June 16. The NJSBA supported that bill at the time, and supports this legislation as well, recognizing that COVID-19 has exacerbated longstanding challenges posed to district operations by nationwide school bus driver shortages. A-4835 was approved by the Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee in May, and next heads to the Assembly floor for further consideration. Its Senate counterpart, S-3203, was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee on Oct. 27, 2022. NJSBA supports the bill.

Assembly Transportation and Independent Authorities Committee

Electric School Bus Funding S-3044/A-4716 would provide a supplemental fiscal year 2023 appropriation of $15 million to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to support year one of the three-year Electric School Bus Program. That program was established by legislation, P.L.2022, c.86, approved by the Legislature in June and signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy in August. The NJSBA supports the bill, which heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further consideration. For additional information on the Electric School Bus Program, see the Aug. 9, 2022, School Board Notes article.

Senate Budget And Appropriations Committee

On June 20, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved:

Exempting Certain Regional School Districts from State Aid Cuts S-3950 would exempt from state aid reductions under SFRA as amended by S-2 districts that meet the following conditions:

  • Regional school district consisting of at least five constituent school districts.
  • The district has mitigated the cost of regionalization, as determined by the New Jersey Department of Education.
  • The district’s per-pupil administrative costs are 15% less than the statewide average for regional school districts.
  • The district’s general fund tax levy has been increased by the maximum amount permitted by law in each of the last five school years.

The bill further provides that if a district is exempt from a state aid reduction per these criteria, the district must provide courtesy busing if the district was providing courtesy busing in the previous school year.

In a press release announcing the legislation, Senators Vin Gopal and Declan O’Scanlon and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin framed the bill as one to “encourage smaller school districts who are facing cuts due to declining enrollment to go towards regionalization and adding shared services,” citing Freehold Regional, which would be directly impacted by the legislation, as a “model school district.” When the bill’s Assembly counterpart, A-5575, was approved by the Assembly Education Committee earlier this month, the NJSBA testified, urging the Legislature to take a more holistic approach toward amending the SFRA moving forward, rather than doing it through piecemeal legislation. The Association used that opportunity to reiterate its support for pending legislation (S-354), already passed by the full Senate, that would establish a School Funding Formula Evaluation Task Force. It also urged the Legislature to consider empowering school districts to address state aid reductions through tax levy growth cap flexibility. S-3950 next heads to the Senate floor for further consideration

Senate Voting Session

On June 20, the Senate approved:

Residency Requirement Repeal  S-904 would eliminate the state residency requirement for public school employees and employees of approved private schools for students with disabilities for a period of three years.  This requirement was established by law in 2011 and currently applies to all public officers and employees, with certain limited exceptions. Following the three-year period, the NJDOE would be required to submit a report evaluating the elimination of the residency requirement with specific regard to its effectiveness, any unintended consequences, and any recommendations for legislation. Under the bill, a school district seeking to fill an open position must make a good faith effort to hire a person who maintains a principal residence in New Jersey for the open position. NJSBA supports the bill, which is intended to increase the pool of potential job applicants and help address staffing shortages districts are experiencing. The bill now heads to the Assembly for further consideration.

Alternative Teaching Pathway S-1553/A-4525 would establish the “alternative certificate of eligibility.” A teacher candidate would be eligible for the alternative certificate of eligibility if the candidate meets all CE eligibility requirements except the basic skills requirement. Holders of the alternative CE would be eligible to receive their standard certification upon completion of four years of continuous employment using their alternative certificate, and provided that they complete all applicable requirements to earn their standard certificate. The bill prohibits the imposition of additional qualifications toward the acquisition of tenure on holders of an alternative CE and provides that employment accrued under an alternative CE must be applied toward eligibility for tenure in the same manner as employment accrued under a traditional CE. NJSBA supports the bill. The bill first passed the Senate in June 2022; it was subsequently amended in the Assembly and passed in May. It now heads to the governor’s desk.

Educator Scholarship Program A-3681/S-2661 would establish the New Jersey Educator Scholarship Program. The program would award a total of 200 scholarships annually (50 for eligible recipients in each freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior years of college) to college students who, within five years of graduating and completing an educator preparation program, accept full-time employment as a teacher in a New Jersey public school for at least three full school years. The three years of employment may be nonconsecutive and may be divided between multiple public school districts in New Jersey. The bill specifies that the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, in consultation with the New Jersey Department of Education, may establish additional eligibility requirements and minimum qualifications for participation in the program, including limiting scholarships to students pursuing degrees in content areas facing a shortage of teachers. If a scholarship recipient does not complete three full years of employment as a teacher in a New Jersey public school within five years of graduating and completing their educator preparation program, they must repay the amount of the scholarship, prorated against the duration of their employment. Under the program:

  • Scholarships can only cover up to 18 credits of tuition not covered by other scholarships. Scholarships would also be capped at the average in-state tuition amount charged by four-year public institutions of higher education.
  • Scholarship recipients may fulfill their public school employment requirements at charter or renaissance schools.
  • The legislation would be required to annually appropriate $4 million for the program beginning in fiscal year 2024. The bill also includes a $3 million supplemental appropriation for fiscal year 2023, bringing total fiscal year 2023 funding to $4 million.

The NJSBA supports the bill. Since it was amended in the Senate following its passage by the Assembly in February, the bill will have to be referred back to the Assembly to concur with the Senate’s amendments.

April Election Second Question Certification Deadline A-5175/S-3593/S-3519 would make changes to various general election deadlines. A previous version of the bill would have moved up the deadline for boards of education that hold an election in April to certify second questions with the county clerk. Specifically, the bill would have changed that deadline from 18 days before the April election to 60 days before the election.

Recognizing the conflict this change would pose with school districts’ budget timelines – specifically that it would essentially deprive April election districts of the ability to put up second questions by establishing a certification deadline before school districts receive their state aid notices – the NJSBA successfully advocated for amendments to remove this provision from the bill. The amended version of the bill would also eliminate the December special election date and move the September special election date up from the last Tuesday to the third Tuesday.  A-5175 passed the full Assembly in May and was amended by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee earlier this month. The bill now must head back to the Assembly for concurrence with the Senate amendments.

Suicide Prevention Training S-528/A-2815 would require additional school district personnel to complete a training program on suicide prevention. Under current law, public school teaching staff members receive instruction in suicide prevention as part of their professional development requirements. This bill provides that a school district employee who is not subject to the current requirement, and an employee of a contracted service provider who has regular contact with students would be required to complete a one-time training program in suicide prevention, awareness and response identified by the NJDOE. The bill also specifies certain circumstances under which a person required by this bill to complete the training would have a duty to warn and protect. The NJSBA supports the measure. In a previous session, the NJSBA obtained amendments to ensure that the required training would be provided free of charge. The bill first passed the Senate in October, was amended in the Assembly and passed in March, and now heads to the governor’s desk.

Social Media Impact Study S-715/A-1992 would establish a “Commission on the Effects of Social Media Usage on Adolescents” to study the extent of social media usage in and out of public schools, and to determine the effects that use has on students’ health and academic performance. A previous version of the bill, passed by the Senate in October 2022, would have assigned the commission a broader purpose of studying the effects smartphone and social media usage has on students; in March, the bill was amended by the Assembly Education Committee to remove the reference to smartphone usage. The NJSBA supports the bill and would be one of several education organizations that would have a representative on the commission. The bill first passed the Senate in October, then was amended and passed in the Assembly in March. The bill now sits on the governor’s desk.

Sustainable New Jersey Fund S-2857 would establish the “Sustainable New Jersey Fund” in the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. Under the bill, the DCA would be required to annually distribute money in the fund to a public institution of higher education that has an existing contractual relationship with a qualified nonprofit organization that offers certifications and grants to municipalities and public schools across New Jersey in support of efforts to realize environmental, economic and social sustainability. The public institution of higher education would then be required to distribute the funds to the nonprofit to support the provision of such certifications and grants. NJSBA supports the bill, which next heads to the Assembly for further consideration. Its Assembly counterpart, A-4167, passed the Assembly Community Development and Affairs committee earlier this month and is scheduled for a vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee June 22.

School Safety and Security Task Force S-3079 would establish a School Safety and Security Task Force “to study and develop recommendations to improve school safety and security, and to ensure a safe learning environment for students and employees.” Under the Senate version of the bill, the Task Force would consist of 15 members, including representatives of various government agencies, education advocacy groups (including NJSBA), and members of the public with expertise in school security (the bill’s Assembly counterpart, A-4977, includes two additional members not required by the Senate bill: the chief school administrator of a nonpublic school and a representative of the New Jersey College and University Public Safety Association). The task force would be charged with developing recommendations regarding several school security issues, including but not limited to hardening the school perimeter and building entryways; strategies to ensure the needs of students with disabilities are reflected in all areas of emergency planning and response measures; and standards for architectural design for new construction. NJSBA supports the bill, which next heads to the Assembly for further consideration. A-4977 passed the Assembly Education Committee in March and also awaits further action by the full Assembly.

To view the full text of any of the bills summarized above, please visit the New Jersey Legislature’s website.