A school funding reform plan that would create a commission to study New Jersey’s system of funding public schools, and issue recommendations, was approved in a vote by the full state Senate last week.

On Thursday, Sept. 15, the full Senate convened for a voting session and gave broad bipartisan approval to the school funding reform plan being championed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz. As described in last week’s edition of School Board Notes, SCR-119 establishes a “State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission” that would be charged with studying various issues related to school funding.

The six-member commission would be tasked with examining and making recommendations on such issues as: The impact of “adjustment aid” and state aid growth limits; the two-percent tax levy cap; the per-pupil administrative spending limit; the factors used to determine a district’s local share of its adequacy budget; and the ability of a district that is at or above adequacy to lower its school tax levy in the event it receives additional state aid pursuant to the commission’s recommendations.

Prior to taking a vote on SCR-119, the Senate adopted various amendments to the resolution, including:

  • Expressing the intent of the Legislature that a State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission be established every two years to study and make recommendations on issues related to school funding;
  • Requiring that the commission member who represents a New Jersey teachers’ employee organization will be appointed jointly by the Senate President and the Speaker of the General Assembly, and the member who represents a New Jersey education professional association will be appointed jointly by the Minority Leader of the Senate and the Minority Leader of the General Assembly. The total number of members on the commission will continue to be six, but would now be divided evenly between Democratic and Republican appointees;
  • Requiring the commission to also study the distribution of special education funding, and the effects of the change under the SFRA to a census-based funding method with special education costs supported in part on a wealth-equalized basis; and
  • Requiring the commission to issue its report no later than Feb. 1, 2017, rather than June 30 as was required under the resolution as introduced.

To facilitate the implementation of any recommendations made by the commission, its final report must be accompanied by proposed legislation that will bypass committee review and go directly to the floor of each house for an “up-or-down” vote. Public hearings will be held around the state while the commission conducts its study, as well as after it submits its final report and proposed legislation.

NJSBA supports SCR-119 in concept with the belief that the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) can work if it is implemented as originally designed. Most significantly, the study commission will attempt to address the current inequitable distribution of aid causing some districts to be “over-aided” while others receive less than the adequacy allocations required by the original law. NJSBA believes that it is in the best interests of all our member districts to receive the amounts of aid originally promised by the SFRA. The ultimate goal of the proposed “Funding Fairness Commission” created by the resolution will be to recommend a methodology that provides each district with the appropriate formula amount based on accurate measures of their enrollment and their local ability to pay.

The measure now heads to the General Assembly where its lower-house counterpart, ACR-208, has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.

The Senate also passed the following school-related bills:

S-2062 appropriates up to $20 million to the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection for remediation of lead contamination in drinking water in public buildings, including public schools. NJSBA supports the bill.

S-86 seeks to establish “Class Three” special law enforcement officers (SLEOs) to provide security in public and nonpublic schools and county colleges. The Senate voted to concur with the governor’s conditional veto recommendation to require Class Three SLEOs to complete school resource officer training. The NJSBA supports the bill with the governor’s recommended changes.

Assembly Voting Session The General Assembly also held a voting session last Thursday and passed the following two bills, both of which the NJSBA supports:

A-2220 authorizes local units of government, such as boards of education, to use electronic procurement technologies.

A-2353 establishes measures to deter steroid use among students; appropriates $45,000 to the education department for New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association testing of student-athletes for steroids and other performance enhancing substances.

Assembly Education Committee The Assembly Education Committee convened on Monday, Sept. 19 and took action on a host of bills impacting New Jersey’s school districts and students. The measure receiving the most attention concerns how student performance on standardized assessments is factored into the statewide teacher and principal evaluation system.

As released by the committee, A-4122 eliminates the use of standardized assessments as measure of student growth or progress in evaluations of teachers, principals, assistant principals, and vice-principals. Under New Jersey’s 2012 landmark tenure reform law, known as TEACHNJ, student progress on standardized assessments shall be used as a factor in such evaluations, although it may not be the predominant factor. Last month, the N.J. Department of Education announced changes to the evaluation weights for the 2016-2017 school year. More specifically, the NJDOE increased the weight of the median Student Growth Percentile (mSGP) from 10 percent to 30 percent for teachers and principals.

The NJSBA expressed concerns with the legislation in its current form. The NJSBA has long-supported the use of student achievement data and evidence of student progress in the evaluation of teachers. The NJSBA was also a strong supporter of the TEACHNJ Act. On Monday, Sept. 19, the Association urged the Legislature to exercise caution and restraint before scaling back one of the most significant components of the 2012 tenure reform effort – using student achievement to assess the effectiveness of those who are in charge of preparing our students for college and careers. The NJSBA did not specifically comment on whether the 30 percent weight for an mSGP is too high or too low. Rather, Association staff expressed concerns that the bill would eliminate entirely and permanently the ability to use performance and improvement on student assessments as one of multiple objective measures of student learning that would be considered in the educator evaluation process. Until all stakeholders have a firm grasp as to whether the current system is working as intended, all options regarding how we evaluate educators should remain on the table.

A-4122 was released from committee and may now go to the full General Assembly for a floor vote.

The committee also advanced the following bills:

A-597 establishes crimes of operating a school bus with suspended or revoked driving privileges and being involved in an accident causing bodily injury. The bill permanently prohibits passenger and school bus CDL endorsements for persons convicted of those crimes. NJSBA supports the bill.

A-1257 requires school buses that provide transportation for students using wheelchairs to be equipped with a four-point securement system for each student using a wheelchair on the school bus. Under the bill, students using wheelchairs are required to be secured using the four-point securement system at all times while the bus is in operation. NJSBA did not take a public stance on the measure.

A-2195 establishes a four-year “New Jersey Innovation Inspiration School Grant Pilot Program” in the NJDOE. The program will award grants to school districts to support non-traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) teaching methods for students in grades 4 through 12; support the participation of students in nonprofit STEM competitions; foster innovation and broaden interest in careers in STEM fields; and encourage collaboration among students, engineers, and professional mentors. Under the program the commissioner will award a total of six one-time, up-front grants of up to $150,000 each. NJSBA supports the legislation.

A-2481 requires public school students with concussions to be evaluated by licensed health care professionals before they may return to school. In the event that the health care professional provides notice that the student requires restrictions or limitations, the school district 504 team must immediately implement the restrictions or limitations and notify all teachers and staff who have contact with the student of such restrictions or limitations. The bill also provides that a student who sustains a concussion is prohibited from engaging in any physical activity at school such as recess or physical education, until a health care professional provides written clearance for the student to resume such participation. NJSBA supports the bill.

A-3799 broadens existing law to provide that students participating in intramural sports programs will be included in the student-athlete head injury safety program, and that the coaches of intramural sports programs must complete a safety training program. Pursuant to current law, the N.J. Department of Education developed a head injury safety training program on the recognition of the symptoms of head injuries and the appropriate amount of time to delay the return to competition of a student who suffers a head injury.   Currently, the program must be completed by school physicians, coaches, and athletic trainers involved in interscholastic sports programs and cheerleading programs, but not intramural coaches. NJSBA supports the measure.