2015 brings fresh challenges to New Jersey’s position as a national leader in preschool-12 public education. The most urgent issues are familiar – fair school funding, rebuilding dilapidated school buildings – but they must be tackled in a changing political, budgetary and legal landscape.
Education Law Center, drawing on decades of advocacy for NJ school children, presents our “top five” issues for public education in 2015. In our view, these are the most pressing challenges requiring bold and urgent action by elected officials and attention from parents, students, educators, school board members, advocates, and those who want to help keep NJ public schools equitable and strong.
#1 Fair School Funding
NJ’s weighted student funding formula – codified as the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – stands as a national model of state public school finance. But the formula has not been fully funded since its first year in law (2008-09), and was cut in 2010-11 by Governor Chris Christie. The total level of underfunding of NJ school districts has risen to $6 billion. This hole can’t be filled in one budget year, but it is imperative that the Legislature act to put SFRA funding back on track in 2015.
Schools and students are reeling from the effects of SFRA underfunding, cutting budgets to the bone while absorbing additional costs from adoption of a new teacher evaluation system, the Common Core State Standards, and online PARCC tests. Any further erosion of crucial programs, staff and services puts student opportunity and success in greater jeopardy. Legislators must commit to increased funding in 2015-16, allocated through the SFRA formula and not in one-time, off-formula aid categories.
#2 Preschool Expansion
A highlight of the SFRA formula is the commitment to expand the high quality, full-day, Abbott preschool program to poor children all across the state. The SFRA envisioned a five-year phase-in of preschool expansion, but the Legislature did not provide the requisite funding by the 2014 deadline. Despite research demonstrating the long-term, positive impact of high quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, thousands of at-risk children still do not have access to this essential program.
The NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) has recently secured a federal grant to expand preschool, but only to a handful of districts. While federal preschool funds are much needed, the funding is limited to serving 4-year-olds and improving existing programs, not establishing new ones.
The Legislature must reset the clock on preschool expansion for all eligible children in the state, restarting the five-year phase-in with a commitment to appropriate, adequate funding over that timeframe. To begin the process, the NJDOE should update the data on the universe of 3- and 4-year-old children to be served and the overall cost of the expansion.
#3 Safe and Adequate School Facilities
Our State school construction program, despite some problems along the way, has established a solid track record of school renovation and new construction since 2003. Many dilapidated, unsafe, unhealthy and out-of-date school buildings in urban districts have been renovated or replaced. Hundreds of new classrooms, capital maintenance projects and additional improvements in other, “regular operating” districts have been supported by state grants.
The program, functioning under a law passed by the Legislature in 2000, is running out of the last round of funding authorized in 2008, leaving the Schools Development
Authority (SDA), the agency charged with operating the program, without funds to address the significant backlog of urgently needed projects across the state.
The Legislature must launch a new process of authorizing additional bonding authority for the SDA. The first step is to require the SDA to provide an up-to-date accounting of how the agency has spent the funds authorized by the Legislature in 2008. Then the SDA, in conjunction with the NJDOE, must prepare a list of projects that still need to be undertaken around the state, along with a priority ranking and schedule. This information can then form the basis for the Legislature’s action to replenish construction funding for the program.
#4 High School Graduation Policy
NJ has adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and with them, the online, standardized PARCC tests, which will be administered for the first time this spring. Many questions remain about the PARCC tests, including the readiness of district technology and the ability of teachers and students to achieve the CCSS, given limited exposure time to the new standards.
One issue, however, demands close attention. Last fall, the NJDOE released new policies for high school graduation that include using the new PARCC exams and several commercial college admission tests (e.g., SAT, ACT, Accuplacer, etc.) as graduation standards in order to obtain a diploma. Data from the State’s performance reports raise the prospect that a substantial number of students may not meet the proposed cut scores on these tests as determined by the NJDOE, especially at-risk students, English language learners (ELL) and students with disabilities. For these students to graduate, their schools will need to rely heavily on an expanded “appeals process,” although State education officials have provided little detail on how the process will work.
The NJDOE must provide the supports and equitable opportunities needed to sustain NJ’s high graduation rates. Detailed guidelines, criteria and timeframes for appeals need to be promptly issued. Students and their families and schools will need information and support, and the Department will need to process appeals in a timely manner. Students who have completed required high school coursework, but for any number of reasons have not achieved the cut scores on standardized tests, must be provided with a fair, timely and equitable pathway to a diploma.
#5 Educational Adequacy Report
The SFRA requires the Governor and the NJDOE to produce an Educational Adequacy Report (EAR) every three years. The EAR, based on an evaluation of the impact of the funding formula, must include recommendations to the Legislature on adjustments to the costs, weights and aid amounts in the formula. The second EAR (the first report was long delayed) is due in September 2015.
The Christie Administration has attempted, both through the state budget process and in the first EAR, to lower the funding levels for at-risk (poor) students and English language learners (ELL). The Legislature has steadfastly rejected these proposed changes and, through a concurrent resolution in 2012, rejected the funding proposals in the EAR.
It is critical for Commissioner David Hespe to promptly begin the process of examining the cost of education for all students, along with the additional programs, staff and services essential for at-risk students, ELLs and students with disabilities. This analysis should include the impact of the cost of new State education mandates, including the CCSS, the PARCC exams, the new teacher evaluation system, bullying prevention, and other recently enacted policies. This would also be an opportunity to revisit the controversial census-based method of funding special education. A timeline for completion of the report should be established, and public hearings should be held to obtain input from key stakeholders.
Legislators must also insist on the release of the EAR in a timely manner, with recommendations supported by a comprehensive evaluation of student need. The EAR is pivotal to the Garden State’s longstanding commitment to fair funding, educational equity and meaningful opportunity for all students.
2015 will, no doubt, be a challenging year to make progress on these and other important issues. ELC looks forward to working with parents, students, educators, elected officials, business leaders and taxpayers concerned with maintaining and strengthening NJ’s edge in preparing students for post-secondary education, the workforce and citizenship.
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