On January 16, several dozen education advocacy organizations mobilized at the NJ State Board of Education (SBOE) meeting, demanding that the Board change its recently adopted procedures for public input. The protest comes as the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) is proposing a host of regulatory changes in areas ranging from special education to charter schools and school closings. The advocates leveled sharp criticism at the SBOE for making it more difficult for parents, educators and other citizens to voice their opinions and concerns.
Last year, the SBOE voted to change longstanding policy on public testimony at Board meetings. Instead of a set start time of 3 p.m., public comment is now taken whenever the regular meeting ends. This makes it impossible for parents and advocates to know when the public testimony portion of the meeting will occur, a significant factor since many must travel long distances to the meetings, which are held in Trenton. Advocates also expressed frustration that they may find themselves spending a considerable amount of time waiting to be heard.
Additionally, the SBOE often votes on matters during business meetings before hearing the public on those topics, and only two or three of the 13 members of the Board listen to public testimony. This is on top of the fact that time and topic limits are imposed on speakers, and open topic sessions are held only four times a year.
Advocates stressed that the SBOE’s disregard for public input is even more problematic since the NJDOE is now fast-tracking numerous, significant changes in program and operation for SBOE approval. In February, for example, the SBOE will entertain regulatory changes in nine different areas, with topics ranging from standards and assessments to special education and fiscal accountability.
Many of the speakers, including those who coordinated efforts as part of an Our Children/Our Schools campaign, also addressed specific educational issues related to the September 2012 final report of the Governor’s Education Transformation Task Force. The Task Force report recommends eliminating hundreds of state education regulations, and NJ Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf is pressing forward with a wide-ranging “deregulation” plan. Many of the Commissioner’s proposals are being challenged by stakeholders as they come before the SBOE.
Representatives from Save Our Schools NJ, a grassroots organization of 10,000 members, addressed proposed regulations for charter school approval and operation, which will increase Commissioner Cerf’s power to approve and close charter schools without public input, and for the newly established Regional Achievement Centers (RACs).
Members of the Jersey City-based NJ Vocal Minority also challenged the operation of the RACs, which have already intervened in district schools. Representatives from Education Law Center (ELC) and Citizens for Public Education voiced strenuous opposition to recommendations in the Task Force Report that would eliminate or diminish numerous special education regulations.
Many of the proposed changes will “dilute the ability of students and families to participate equally in the special education process, negatively impact due process rights and negatively impact the ability of students with disabilities to access quality education,” said Ruth Lowenkron, ELC Senior Attorney, in her testimony, adding that “some of the proposed changes violate state and federal statutes and the state and federal constitutions.”
Dr. Michael A. Rossi, Superintendent of Madison Public Schools, questioned the NJDOE’s simultaneous introduction of multiple initiatives, including new teacher and principal evaluation systems and a new curriculum framework (Common Core) aligned with new assessments. He also lamented the fact that “it is almost impossible to get any assistance” from NJDOE.
“I realize some areas need an immediate overhaul but the current approach has the potential to wreak havoc on great school systems, of which there are many in NJ,” Dr. Rossi said.
Stan Karp, Director of ELC’s Secondary Reform Project, noted that the NJDOE has put forward proposals that it has no authority to implement, including potential closures of district schools, turning district schools into charter schools or creating special districts under the Commissioner’s control. Karp urged the SBOE to “slow down the rush to divisive, disruptive reform” and to “focus on initiatives that are consistent with existing law, that meet high standards of public confidence and transparency, and that improve educational opportunities for all New Jersey’s children.”
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