On Thursday, Oct. 22, the Assembly Education Committee held a hearing to receive testimony from invited guests on issues related to racial inclusivity and social justice in the state’s education system and the innovative curriculum needed to address these issues. Readers can watch an archived video of the hearing on the Legislature’s website here

The committee also considered the following bills, several of which are related to the topic of the hearing: 

Amistad Commission A-3601/S-1028 amends the statute that created the Amistad Commission to provide that the commission is located in but not of the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE), rather than within the Department of State.  The bill requires the commission to appoint an executive director who is qualified to perform the duties of the office.   

The Amistad Commission was created by law in 2002 to coordinate educational and other programs on slavery in America and African-American history.  Under the original statute, the Amistad Commission was established in the executive branch and located within the Department of State.  In June 2011, Gov. Chris Christie issued a reorganization plan that transferred the Amistad Commission from the Department of State to the NJDOE to improve efficiency.  

The bill would require all boards of education to include instruction that infuses into all courses about the United States, the centuries of accomplishments by African Americans in the building and development of America. The instruction must enable students to know and understand the nation’s heritage of slavery and freedom and the contributions of African Americans to all areas of American society throughout history.  Courses must also emphasize the personal responsibility of each citizen to fight racism and hatred and to uphold the national ideals of freedom and justice.  The bill directs the NJDOE to work with the Amistad Commission to ensure that the assessment tools for New Jersey schools are inclusive of the curricular requirements established under the bill.  

NJSBA supports the bill. 

Social Justice Instruction A-4545 requires school districts to include instruction on racial discrimination and social justice for middle school students. The legislation would require school districts to provide instruction on such issues in an appropriate place in the curriculum of middle school students as part of the districts’ implementation of the New Jersey Learning Standards in Social Studies. Under the bill, the commissioner of education, in consultation with the Amistad Commission, will provide school districts with age-appropriate sample learning activities and resources designed to enhance students’ overall understanding of issues surrounding racial discrimination and social justice. 

NJSBA supports the bill, which was amended to remove requirements to include instruction on certain events in United States history. 

Diversity and Inclusion Instruction A-4454 would require school districts to include instruction on diversity and inclusion as part of the implementation of New Jersey Student Learning Standards. Under the bill, instruction would: 

  • highlight and promote diversity, including economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance;  
  • examine the impact that unconscious bias and economic disparities have at both an individual level and on society as a whole; and 
  • encourage safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for all students regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, socioeconomic status, and religious beliefs. 

Under the bill, the commissioner of education will provide school districts with sample learning activities and resources designed to promote diversity and inclusion. NJSBA supports the legislation. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching Credential A-4596 directs the NJDOE to develop a credential for culturally responsive teaching. The bill defines culturally responsive teaching as pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning, and which uses research-based teaching strategies that make meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their cultures, languages, and experiences. 

The credential is to introduce teachers to culturally responsive teaching practices, characteristics, and methods that acknowledge, respond to, and embrace the cultural backgrounds of all students to help ensure full, equitable access to education. It would be made available to teachers beginning in the first full school year following the date of enactment.  

In developing the credential, NJDOE will consult with the Diverse and Learner-Ready Teachers Initiative, an effort of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which strives to revise, enact or remove state policies with the goal of diversifying the educator workforce and ensuring all educators are culturally responsive in practice.  

This bill was not voted on, but the committee still held discussion on it. NJSBA has not currently taken a position, but continues to monitor the bill. 

Reporting Discipline Data A-1184/A-4414 were merged in committee and would require each school district and charter school to provide the commissioner of education a biannual report concerning every student disciplinary action taken at each school operated by the school district or within a charter school. The bill defines “disciplinary action” as any instance where a student is either permanently or temporarily removed from the student’s regular educational placement for disciplinary purposes for a period of time greater than half an instructional day by a school district or charter school.  

BOE Student Representative A-3392 requires that at least one student representative be appointed to each board of education of a school district and board of trustees of any charter school that includes grades nine through 12. The student is to be selected by the student body. The representative shall attend all meetings, present to the board on matters of student concern and provide a monthly report to the student body. The student representative shall have no vote and will not be permitted in closed session. NJSBA supports the bill. 

School Audit Delay A-4603 extends the deadline for the completion of the annual audit of the 2019-2020 school fiscal year until Jan. 31, 2021 and its submission to the commissioner until Feb. 5, 2021. Similar legislation, S-3043, was released by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. See below for more details. 

Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee 

The committee also met on Thursday and advanced the following education-related bills: 

Cooperative Purchasing of COVID-19 Related Goods S-2698/A-4461 requires the state to enter into contracts and coordinate with certain cooperative purchasing systems to assist public schools (i.e., school districts, charter schools, and renaissance schools) and county colleges in the purchase of COVID-19 related goods and services. NJSBA supports the bill. The bill is part of the Association’s “Pandemic Advocacy Agenda” outlined in the NJSBA’s August report “Choosing the Best Road Back for Our Children.” 

Under the bill, the director of the Division of Purchase and Property in the state Department of the Treasury, in consultation with the New Jersey Commissioner of Education and the Secretary of Higher Education, would be required to award contracts for the procurement of COVID-19 related goods and services by public schools and county colleges. The bill also requires the director to coordinate with the lead agency of any state-approved cooperative purchasing system that includes a public school or county college to provide for the procurement of COVID-19 related goods and services. The bill permits the state to award contracts to more than one bidder.    

Additionally, the bill permits public schools and county colleges to purchase COVID-19 related goods and services, without advertising for bids, through any contract that is entered into by the Division of Purchase and Property, or made available through a state-approved cooperative purchasing system of which the school or college is a member. The bill also requires the NJDOE and the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education to coordinate the purchase of COVID-19 related goods and services by public schools and county colleges, respectively.  

Depression Screenings for Students S-2259/A-970 would require public schools to administer written screenings for depression in students in certain grades.  

This bill requires a board of education to ensure that students in grades seven through 12 annually receive a health screening for depression. The screening is to be proctored and conducted electronically via a computer within a school building, and is to utilize a screening tool that has been validated to screen depression in adolescents. The screenings are to be conducted in a manner that permits real time evaluation of the screening results and same day intervention by a licensed mental health professional as indicated by such screening. The Commissioner of Children and Families is to select one electronic screening tool to be used by all school districts. 

Under the substitute, the NJDOE and the Department of Children and Families (NJDCF) are to jointly establish standards on the procedures to be implemented to conduct screenings. The screenings are to be conducted in a manner that ensures the privacy of the student and the confidentiality of the results. The screenings are also required to be conducted in a manner that accommodates students with developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or low reading proficiency. 

A superintendent, or the superintendent’s designee, is to inform a parent or guardian of an abnormal depression screening result and advise the parent or guardian to seek the care of a health care professional to obtain further evaluation and diagnosis. 

Boards of education will be required to forward data collected from depression screenings to the NJDOE and the NJDCF. Screenings would be used to identify trends concerning teenage depression and to develop school and community based initiatives to address teenage depression. The NJDOE and the NJDCF are to annually publish findings and recommendations that are based on collected data as to additional resources that may be necessary to screen adolescents for depression and further evaluate adolescents who have exhibited abnormalities in their screenings. 

Prior to screening a student for depression, a school district is to obtain written consent from the student’s parent or guardian upon enrollment and at the start of each successive school year. 

NJSBA supports the intent of the bill, but has continually stated various concerns and requested amendments related to the screening process. Discussions pertaining to the bill are ongoing and will continue with the Legislature and the NJDOE as the bill moves forward. 

Remote Learning Pods S-2899 establishes the Safe Remote Learning Program to provide remote instructional facilities by school districts implementing virtual/remote instruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These facilities would be for students learning remotely who, for whatever reason, cannot do so at home. NJDOE would draft guidelines concerning the establishment and maintenance of the facilities. At a minimum, these guidelines would require each facility to be:   

  • Used for the delivery of remote instruction to students in accordance with health and safety standards set forth by NJDOE and the New Jersey Department of Health;    
  • Provided with equipment necessary for every student at the facility to participate in remote instruction activities; and   
  • Staffed by appropriately qualified persons during all hours of operation.  

Districts implementing a partial or full-time virtual/remote program would establish one or more remote instructional facilities by repurposing space within an existing school or acquiring space within a facility owned by a non-profit or college/university. If space is limited, preference would be given to: (1) students eligible for free/reduced meals; and (2) students whose parent, guardian, or other person having legal custody is considered an essential worker by NJDOE.  

The bill also requires the state to reimburse school districts for the full costs incurred in establishing and maintaining remote instruction facilities. To the extent permitted by federal law, the NJDOE would be required to use Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act or any other financial assistance provided by the federal government to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic for reimbursement. If insufficient federal funding is available to defray these costs, the state would be required to make up the difference.  

The committee amended the bill to include two requirements:  

  1. Written certification from the local health department that the site meets COVID-specific sanitary standards; and  
  2. In the event a non-school entity is providing a remote learning pod, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) be signed between the school district and said entity. The NJDOE will provide sample language for MOUs. 

NJSBA has not currently taken a position, but continues to monitor the bill. 

Chapter 44 Amendments S-3045 allows health insurers to provide certain health care benefit plans to local boards of education and eligible employers who do not participate in the School Employees Health Benefits Plan (SEHBP), and modifies employee contributions for the New Jersey Educators Health Plan (NJEHP) and its equivalent. This measure amends P.L.2020, c.44, the school employees’ health benefits reform legislation signed this past summer. Commonly referred to as “Chapter 44,” that law requires districts to offer new health benefits plans to employees and alters the amount that employees who select the new plans must contribute to their insurance coverage. This legislation clarifies that the salary on which an employee’s contribution is based is capped at $125,000. In other words, an employee with a salary greater than $125,000 and who selects the NJEHP, would pay the same amount towards his or her health benefits as an individual making $125,000. This amendment is consistent with the original intent of the legislation and is intended to alleviate confusion and ensure consistent application in the field as districts continue to implement the new law.   

The bill also addresses concerns among some private insurance carriers that they are not permitted to offer the NJEHP due to conflicts with existing NJ Department of Banking and Insurance (DOBI) regulations. S-3045 allows health insurance companies to provide health care benefit plans that are equivalent to the NJEHP, notwithstanding the provisions of any other law, rule, or regulation, including any regulation of DOBI, to the contrary. This provision also applies to the Garden State Health Plan, which must be established by July 2021.  

School Audit Delay S-3043 extends the deadline for the completion of the annual audit of the 2019-2020 school fiscal year until April 30, 2021 and its submission to the commissioner until May 5, 2021. According to the bill statement, this extension of five months is necessary as a result of the approximately five month period that schools were required to be closed as a result of COVID-19.