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4-24-15 Education Budget FY '16 - Standout Issues

Star Ledger -7 things to know about the N.J. Assembly education budget hearing

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com The Star-Ledger
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on April 23, 2015 at 1:30 PM

TRENTON New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe spent two hours before the Assembly Budget Committee Wednesday for its annual hearing on education funding.

Committee members asked Hespe about a range of topics from the state's funding formula to whether virtual learning can be used to replace snow days. Here's 7 things you should know about the Assembly budget hearing on education.

1. Another year, another $1 billion shortfall: The state still isn't fully funding the New Jersey's School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

SFRA establishes a per pupil amount necessary to support the core curriculum program for every student and adds extra funding for at-risk students.

Hespe told the Assembly the state just doesn't have enough money to follow the formula enacted in 2008 and funding falls more than $1 billion short in the proposed 2015-16 budget.

"Freezing the formula is the best way to deal with the fact that the state budget just can't can't support funding the SFRA at the levels it was initially passed to run at," Hespe said.

2. But education funding as a percentage of the state budget is up: Hepse stressed that education funding is a priority in the budget proposal.

Funding for education is now about 38 percent of New Jersey's budget, up from about 33 percent at the beginning of Gov. Chris Christie's tenure, Hespe said.

3. PARCC scheduling may be different next year for high school students: Hespe said the Department of Education will "totally relook" at how the tests were delivered to 10th and 11th graders.

The state reported last week that nearly 15 percent of high school juniors refused to take the exams, and Hespe attributed that partially to the fact that some of those students also take SAT, ACTs and Advanced Placement tests during the spring.

4. Hespe defended Newark Public School's Educators Without Placement Pool: Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin grilled Hespe about the group of teachers who aren't assigned to classrooms because the district is unhappy with their performance.

Hespe said high quality classroom instruction is the district's top priority and those teachers are instead working as aides or doing other work. The pool still has about 250-300 teachers, costing the district between $15 and $20 million, but the district aims to reduce its size, he said.

Pintor Marin (D-Essex) said the state-controlled district can't sustain spending that much for educators who aren't teaching classes.

5. Gary Schaer wants better protections for parochial schools: Schaer, the committee chairman, questioned Hespe about a proposed reduction in funding for school nurses and technology at non-public schools.

Schaer stressed that students at those schools are also New Jersey children and said the state should invest in their safety.

After the hearing, Schaer (D-Passaic) announced he's introduced the "Secure Schools for All Children Act," which would establish a state aid program to provide security services, equipment, or technology to help ensure a safe and secure school environment for students attending nonpublic schools.

6. At least one assemblyman wants more school consolidations: John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) challenged Hespe about school consolidation plans across the state that he said were supposed to be reviewed by the Department of Education in 2010 and presented to voters in this communities.

Hespe, who was appointed commissioner last year, said he does not know what happened to those plans. Hespe said he believes consolidation has to start at the grass roots level and not be dictated by the state.

Burzichelli suggested consolidations could create cost savings.

7. Online class won't be replacing snow days yet: Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) asked Hespe if virtual learning on snow days could count toward the state's required 180 school days.

Hespe said virtual learning has value as a bridge in learning opportunities during extended weather cancellations but he doesn't see it as a substitute to the regular school day at this point.

Adam Clark may be reached at adam_clark@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on twitter at @realAdamClark. Find NJ.com on Facebook.