In addition to approving the new state budget, the Senate and General Assembly gave final passage to dozens of bills affecting New Jersey school districts and students. Below is a rundown of the education-related bills sent to the governor’s desk last week, and a number of others that are expected to land there before the Legislature recesses for the summer. NJSBA will continue to provide updates on whatever actions the governor takes on these measures.

On Governor’s Desk

Student Nutrition The following bills are aimed at addressing food insecurity, with the first two providing additional funds to school districts offering school meal programs:

  • A-5882/S-3943 requires the state to provide a 10-cent per meal supplement to the existing federal reimbursement to operators of federal summer food service programs and the Seamless Summer Option (SSO).
  • A-5883/S-3944 requires the state to provide a 10-cent per breakfast supplement to the existing federal reimbursement to a school district with schools that participate in the federal school breakfast program by providing “breakfast after the bell.”
  • A-5884/S-3945 establishes the “Office of the Food Insecurity Advocate.”

‘Securing Our Children’s Future’ Grants The following bills will appropriate resources to school districts for school security projects, water infrastructure improvement and career and technical education expansion projects, as authorized by the “Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act”:

  • A-5886/S-3959 awards project grants for school security projects. The grants will, in part, be used to offset the cost of alarms and silent security systems. These grants will also be used to fund other infrastructure improvements prescribed in state law after districts certify compliance with “Alyssa’s Law,” which requires all public schools to be equipped with a panic alarm for use in a school security emergency.
  • A-5887/S-3960 will provide grants for water infrastructure projects in school districts. Eligible projects include: 1) improvements to drinking water outlets with a detectable level of lead or other contaminants; and 2) whole system remediation.
  • A-5889/S-3962 provides project grants for career and technical education expansion in county vocational school districts.

Youth Services Program Grants A-4435/S-2717 requires the New Jersey Department of Children and Families to give priority to school districts with student mental health counseling centers in awarding grants under the School Based Youth Services Program.

Mental Health Partnerships A-4433/S-2715 creates a grant program to encourage school districts to partner with institutions of higher education to train school-based mental health services providers; expand the pipeline of high-quality, trained providers; and address the shortages of mental health professionals in schools.

Grade Retention A-5365/S-3872 permits parents or guardians to request that students repeat a grade during 2021-2022 school year. Parents of students in grades K-8 will have the opportunity to submit a written request to the principal, seeking that their child be held back a year. The request must be evaluated by the school counselor, IEP team or child study team, and the student’s teachers, to determine whether holding the child back a year will meet the academic and social-emotional needs of the student.

Student Surveys A-5597/S-3801 permits school districts to administer anonymous, voluntary surveys regarding students’ use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs – among other behaviors that could harm their health and well-being. Parents/guardians will be notified at least two weeks prior to administration of the survey.  Information obtained through the survey would be submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) and New Jersey Department of Health. The bill prohibits information from being used for marketing or other commercial purposes unrelated to student health.

Loan Redemption  S-969/A-2687 would establish a loan redemption program in the Higher Education Student Assistance Authority (HESAA) to allow teachers to redeem a portion of their loan amounts for service as a teacher in a high-need field in a “low-performing school.” If the bill receives final approval in its current form, up to $1 million could be appropriated to the program.

New Special Education Unit  A-5701/S-2160 would create a special education unit within the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) and require an annual report. The special education unit would consist of administrative law judges having expertise in special education law. Under the bill, all contested cases concerning special education law that are referred to the OAL would be assigned to and adjudicated by the administrative law judges in the special education unit.

Expedited Alt Route Certification S-3253/A-2619 would require the State Board of Education to authorize an alternate route to expedite the certification of job candidates to teach grades seven through 12 at an early college high school. The alternate route will consist of a three-tiered certificate program, similar to the alternate route provided for charter school teachers. This certification would be used only for employment at an early college high school, not in any other public school.

School Audit Delay  A-5834/S-3881 provides school districts with a two-month extension to file their required annual audits with the commissioner of education. Similar legislation was signed into law last December that applied to the 2019-2020 school year.

Upgrading Water and Ventilation Systems  S-3995/A-5944  establishes a School and Small Business Energy Efficiency Stimulus Program fund in the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. The purpose of the program is to ensure that school and small business heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are upgraded to safely prepare schools and small businesses for operating during the  pandemic, to improve the general health and safety of the school and small business environment, and to create jobs across the state. The program will also fund the upgrading of old, inefficient plumbing fixtures that waste water and energy. Funding for the program would come from the federal American Rescue Plan (ARP). The new state budget includes $180 million for the program.

Addressing School Nurse Shortage  A-4544/S-3150 permits a certified school nurse who is retired from the teachers’ pension system to return to work full time as a certified school nurse with a board of education without being reenrolled in the system. Such nurses would be permitted to return to work under a contract for one year, which may be renewed only for one additional year. The bill’s provisions mirror those concerning the employment of retired superintendents on an interim basis.

Concussion Protocol  Under S-225/A-679, student athletes who have sustained a concussion would be prohibited from returning to competition until they have returned to regular school activities and are symptom-free. The return of the student athlete or cheerleader would be in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) graduated, six-step “Return to Play Progression” recommendations. School districts’ policies will also need to be updated anytime the CDC updates the Return to Play Progression.

‘Limited’ Teacher Certification Pilot  S-2826/A-4594 directs the (NJDOE) to establish a five-year pilot program for the issuance of limited certificates of eligibility with advanced standing (CEAS) and limited certificates of eligibility (CE). The “limited CEAS” and “limited CE” would be available to people who may not meet one of the requirements for a CEAS or CE and are seeking employment in a school. Those who hold a limited CEAS or limited CE would only be eligible for employment at school districts approved by the NJDOE. Districts must demonstrate a sufficient capability to support new teachers while also showing that hiring a teacher with limited certification would fill a need.

Culturally Responsive Teaching A-5312/S-2834 would mandate that all candidates for teaching certification complete a course on culturally responsive teaching. The bill defines “culturally responsive teaching” as a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, using research-based teaching strategies that make meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages, and experiences. This requirement would go into effect with the 2021-2022 school year.

Impact Aid  S-3948/A-5896 establishes an additional category of school aid known as “military impact aid” and authorizes supplemental state aid to certain districts receiving federal impact aid. The Federal Impact Aid Program provides financial assistance to school districts that include within their boundaries parcels of land owned by the federal government or that are exempt from local taxation.  According to a statement from the bill’s sponsors, the legislation would “provide increased state aid for school districts whose property taxpayers have had to shoulder the burden caused by past cuts in federal payments to local districts for the education of the children of active-duty military personnel.” The new state budget stipulates that funding from the new “Stabilization Aid” category will first be directed to districts entitled to military impact aid under this bill.

‘Near’ Governor’s Desk

The following measures continue to advance through the legislative process and are scheduled for final approval by the Senate at its Wednesday, June 30 voting session:

School District Regionalization A-5537/S-3488 establishes a grant program for conducting regionalization feasibility studies in this voluntary regionalization program and provides financial incentives for districts losing state aid because of declining enrollment. Specifically, districts facing Adjustment Aid cuts would have eight years — stretched out from the current four years — if the districts involved choose to start a regionalization plan. Through 2028-2029, newly established K-12 regional districts would receive the greater of the state aid to which the newly established district would be entitled, or the sum of the aid of the consolidated districts including the eight-year Adjustment Aid phase-out. The bill establishes various additional incentives to explore regionalization and makes statutory changes intended to make the process easier.

Chapter 44 Amendments A-5825/S-3487 would make a series of adjustments to the 2020 law, commonly known as “Chapter 44,” that made significant changes to school employees’ health benefits coverage and payment obligations.

The bill includes the following provisions:

  • Requires boards of education and their unions to engage in negotiations to “substantially mitigate” any financial losses resulting from the implementation of Chapter 44. Under the bill, substantial mitigation may include changes to plan level offerings or contributions for the N.J. Educators Health Plan (NJEHP), or to both plan level offerings and contributions, which is not currently permissible under Chapter 44.
  • Directs any school district with an increase in net cost as a result of Chapter 44 to commence negotiations immediately. The bill explicitly provides that such negotiations may include salary increases, step guides, or other terms and conditions of employment;
  • Changes the effective date of the new Garden State Health Plan (GSHP), as established by Chapter 44, from July 1, 2021 to January 1, 2022;
  • Permits charter school and renaissance school employers to not implement Chapter 44 unless they have a collective negotiation agreement with any of their employees in effect on or after the law’s effective date;
  • Clarifies that the provisions concerning mandatory enrollment in the NJEHP do not apply to any employee who was hired before the effective date of Chapter 44 but did not enroll or was not eligible to enroll at that time;
  • Provides that for any period of time during which the school district, as an employer, does not have to pay a premium for a health benefits plan, an employee enrolled in such plan will not be required to make a contribution toward that premium (unless a collective bargaining agreement dictates otherwise).

Anti-Hazing Policies S-84/A-3149  requires institutions of higher education and public and nonpublic high schools and middle schools to adopt anti-hazing policies. The bill also expands activities encompassing criminal hazing and upgrades penalties for engaging in such activities.

Student Journalists’ Rights A-169/S-108  concerns the speech rights of student journalists at public schools and public institutions of higher education.  This bill requires school districts to adopt a policy giving student journalists greater rights over the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of school-sponsored media.

Unauthorized School Bus Drivers  S-3852/A-5817  This bill amends current law to hold a board of education or school bus contractor responsible if they approve or assign an individual, as a driver or substitute driver of a school bus, without first complying with the provisions of law concerning the training, certification, and criminal history record checks of school bus drivers.

Bus Contractor Blacklist  S-3849/A-5818  provides that a list be posted on the NJDOE’s website of people who, because of a variety of illegal acts, are not allowed to bid on pupil transportation contracts. This list would be distributed to each school district and board of education in the state by March 1 of each year. Under the bill, the NJDOE is required to blacklist any person who fails to comply with rules pertaining to the qualification of school bus drivers and school bus inspections. The commission of a criminal offense while attempting to obtain a public or private contract would be grounds for blacklisting. The commission of a criminal offense, including child abuse or sexual misconduct involving a child, would also be grounds to prevent a person from bidding on a pupil transportation contract.