On May 19, the Assembly Education Committee, Higher Education Committee, Women and Children Committee, and Appropriations Committee convened at the State House and advanced the various measures affecting New Jersey school districts.

Assembly Education Committee

“Transparency in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Curriculum Act” A-3968 would establish several requirements related to the adoption of curricula implementing the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. It is the Assembly counterpart to S-2481, which the Senate Education Committee approved May 9. The bill would require:

  • Boards of education to annually offer a public comment opportunity on any curriculum proposed for the succeeding school year for the implementation of NJSLS-CHPE. Such an opportunity could occur at a public meeting of the board or of the appropriate committee of the board.
  • Boards of education to post information on their website regarding board-approved CHPE curriculum, and information regarding the process for parents to excuse a child from any part of instruction in health, family life education, or sex education that is in conflict with their conscience or sincerely held moral or religious beliefs pursuant to existing law.
  • The Department of Education to provide districts with optional support materials to assist in the development of local curricula aligned with the NJSLS.

The legislation was introduced in response to the ongoing public discourse regarding the 2020 NJSLS-CHPE, particularly certain standards regarding gender expression and sexual development. The New Jersey School Boards Association worked closely with the sponsor and other education organizations as the legislation was being drafted. The Association has testified in support of the bill and thanked the sponsors for their efforts to provide clarity regarding the 2020 NJSLS-CHPE and for lifting up the importance of community input into school districts’ development and implementation of curriculum. The NJSBA has long-standing policy promoting parental involvement in education and meaningful participation at all public board meetings.

Educator Recruitment Package The committee approved three bills designed to strengthen recruitment of high-quality educators, particularly to areas of greatest need:

  • Grow Your Own Teacher Loan Redemption Program: A-1840 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 Department of Education. The bill now heads to the Assembly Labor Committee.
  • Educator Scholarship Program: A-3681 would establish the New Jersey Educator Scholarship Program. The program would award 50 scholarships annually 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 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. The bill now heads to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
  • Advertising Campaign to Attract Teachers and Support Professionals: A-3586 would require NJDOE, in consultation with the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, to establish a multimedia advertising campaign to attract candidates to the teacher and education support professions. The campaign would emphasize recruitment from underrepresented racial groups and into high-demand fields. The bill now heads to the Assembly Labor Committee.

The Association supports all three bills.

Eliminating edTPA S-896/A-677 would prohibit the State Board of Education from requiring the completion of a commissioner of education approved performance-based assessment (i.e., edTPA) as a requirement for teacher certification. It would remove this requirement for both the obtainment of a certificate of eligibility with advanced standing or a certificate of eligibility. Educator preparation programs would have the option to require their teacher candidates to complete a performance-based assessment approved by an educator preparation program.

Under current State Board of Education regulations, to be eligible for a CE or CEAS, a candidate must pass a commissioner of education approved teacher performance-based assessment, which is currently the edTPA. The edTPA requires teacher candidates and provisional teachers to plan lessons, assess student work and submit a video recording of themselves teaching students. It has been cited by many in the New Jersey educational community as an unnecessary and redundant barrier to entering the teaching profession. Earlier this year, NJSBA was one of nine organizations that sent a letter to the Legislature and State Board of Education urging them to eliminate the edTPA as a requirement for securing a license.

In its testimony, the NJSBA highlighted that the proposed removal of the edTPA assessment from the requirements for teacher certification would not decrease teacher accountability because of the protocols in the TEACHNJ act and novice teacher supports available in local districts. NJSBA supports the bill. It passed the Senate on March 24 and now heads to the Assembly Oversight, Reform and Federal Relations Committee for further consideration.

Homeschooler Participation in Extracurriculars A-1041 would require boards of education to permit homeschooled students who reside in the district to participate in any school-sponsored extracurricular activity, including athletics, in accordance with the same criteria for students enrolled in the district. The bill specifies that the home-school student would be required to meet the eligibility and tryout criteria for participation in the activity, and would be required to comply with all policies, rules, and regulations of the governing organization of the extracurricular activity. The Association opposes the bill, citing the importance of local board of education discretion over participation of homeschooled students in extracurricular activities, as well as several operational concerns. The bill may now be posted for an Assembly floor vote.

Assembly Appropriations Committee

Electric School Bus Program A-1282 would establish a $45 million, three-year grant program in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Program to help determine the operational reliability and cost effectiveness of replacing diesel-powered school buses with electric school buses.

Under the program, NJDEP would select at least six districts and bus contractors in each year through a competitive grant process, with a focus on low-income communities, urban communities and communities that the NJDEP determines to have been burdened with environmental justice issues.  NJDEP may not award more than half of the grants to contractors. Grants would support the purchase, lease, or installation of electric school buses and electric school bus charging infrastructure.

The bill would require NJDEP to submit a report to the governor and the Legislature within six months following the conclusion of the program. The report would include, among other information, recommendations for how additional funding may be distributed to maximize the number of electric school buses operating in the state.

NJSBA supports the bill. It now heads to the Assembly floor for further consideration. Its Senate counterpart, S-759, was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee and awaits consideration by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

A-2368 designated as the “Working Class Families’ Anti-Hunger Act,” requires schools to provide free school breakfasts and lunches to students from working class, middle-income families. The bill is a part of 10-bill package spearheaded by Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin aimed at combating hunger and expanding programs for working-class families, seniors and disabled residents.

Currently, students from “low-income” households, defined as those with an annual income that is equal to or less than 185% of the federal poverty level, are entitled to a free breakfast or lunch. This bill would expand eligibility for a free meal by requiring public schools to serve breakfast and lunch, free of charge, to students from working class, middle-income families. The bill defines “middle-income family” as one with an annual household income amounting to not less than 186%, and not more than 199%, of the federal poverty level. To avoid an unfunded mandate, the state would provide funding to reimburse the costs associated with each district’s provision of free meals to middle-income students who are federally ineligible for such meals under the National School Lunch Program or federal School Breakfast Program. It is estimated that roughly 26,000 students would become newly eligible for free meals under this proposal at a cost of approximately $19 million. Each school district, and the Department of Agriculture, would be required, by the bill, to publicize to parents and students the fact that free meals are available to middle-income students under these school meal programs, pursuant to the bill’s provisions. The NJSBA supports the expansion of free meals to middle-income students, particularly since the state will pick up the costs of doing so.

However, the NJSBA has expressed concerns regarding the proposed requirement in the legislation that all schools offer breakfast and lunch to students, regardless of the percentage of students in the schools who are federally eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Under existing law, schools are only required to maintain school breakfast or lunch programs if the percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals in a school exceeds 20% or 5%, respectively. As referred to the committee, the bill would require any districts that do not already operate a school lunch program to do so within one year of the bill going into effect. The deadline for establishing a breakfast program for students in grades pre-K through sixth grade would be Sept. 1, 2023, and Sept. 1, 2024, for all other grade levels. The bill does not currently include funding to offset costs associated with establishing and maintaining new meal programs.

The committee amended the bill to maintain the current 5% threshold at which the requirement to provide school lunch is triggered. The amendments also adjusted the school breakfast mandate. Instead of requiring all schools to offer breakfast, the bill now will only extend the mandate to those schools in which more than 10% of its students are federally eligible for free- or reduced-price meals. While NJSBA appreciates that the amendments could mitigate the financial impact of the bill, due to the potentially significant financial and operational burden this new requirement would impose on school districts that do not currently offer breakfast, the NJSBA continues to seek amendments to maintain the existing threshold.

The bill now heads to the Assembly floor. Its Senate counterpart, S-1677, was reported out of the Senate Education Committee in March and is now awaiting consideration by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

Assembly Higher Education Committee

Teacher Recruitment Grant Program A-1287 would establish a $6 million teacher recruitment grant program in the NJDOE. The program would provide funding to organizations that recruit, train, and place new teachers in high-poverty school districts in New Jersey. NJSBA supports the bill. It now heads to the Assembly Labor Committee for further consideration.

Assembly Women and Children Committee

Mental Health Assistance Pilot Programs A-660 would establish a four-year pilot program in which up to 15 school districts selected by the NJDOE would establish a mental health assistance program in grades K-12. A district’s mental health assistance program would be designed to identify issues affecting student mental health and the possible impact of those issues on academic performance, and to provide intervention, support, and referral services in a confidential setting to help students who may be experiencing mental health difficulties. Participating districts would be required to appoint one or more student assistance counselors, or contract with third party mental health care providers, to facilitate the district’s program. At the conclusion of the program, participating districts would be required to submit a report to the NJDOE detailing the district’s views on the successes and benefits of the program. NJSBA supports the bill. It now heads to the Assembly Education Committee for further consideration.