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12-10-15 Education and Related Issues in the News

NJ Spotlight - Goodbye, ‘No Child Left Behind.’ Hello, ‘Every Student Succeeds Act’…Does a new name for the federal education policy mean significant changes for what NJ is doing or where it’s headed?

John Mooney | December 10, 2015

The U.S. Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved the rewrite of the famous -- some would say, infamous – federal No Child Left Behind Act that, true to its name, brought tight accountability to districts and schools for the past 14 years.

But will it make all that much difference to New Jersey?

The new Every Student Succeeds Act, all but assured to be signed by President Barack Obama, would scale back some of the most stringent federal requirements and labels on schools, from the notorious “highly qualified” tags for teachers to novel formulas that determined whether all schools made “adequate yearly progress’’ (in the end, most didn’t).

But for all the hype about the new bill, which came together quickly last month after more than a year of negotiation, it’s uncertain how much change it will mean for New Jersey’s education policy -- already seeing some significant shifts on its own.

The following are four key areas where the new law, once signed, will -- and will not -- make a big difference.

Testing and standards

ESSA -- the acronym to replace NCLB -- will still require states to adopt high-quality standards for “college and career readiness” and administer tests to match the standards in grades 3 to 8, plus a year in high school, in language arts and math.

At the same time, it will loosen the rules as to what exactly those standards and tests are, leaving it to states to develop both on their own.

New Jersey may be well along that path already.

Signing up for the Common Core State Standards and the aligned PARCC testing in Grades 3-11, the Christie administration last year launched the new PARCC testing in language arts and math, plus an incremental test in science.

But Gov. Chris Christie last summer pulled back from the Common Core, setting in motion a rewrite of the standards. And while he has said PARCC remains in place, state officials have conceded some changes could be on the way.

A state task force is currently reviewing the state’s assessments, including those required for high-school graduation. Recommendations are expected in the next month.

“There certainly will be some substantial recommendations,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe of the upcoming report.

But Hespe, who chairs the task force, wouldn’t say much more before the report’s release: “I think there will be some important changes,” he commented, “but I’ll let the report speak for itself.”

The stakes of testing and what happens next

The most significant change may be how testing results are used.

Under the NCLB, the test scores dictated any number of interventions by the state and calls for improvements by the districts, from the lowest to the highest performers who all faced criticism and corrective actions for not reaching “adequate yearly progress” standards.

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The new bill would scale back those prescriptions considerably.

For one, only the lowest performers will be cited at all, with the proposed law calling for interventions to the bottom 5 percent of schools on either overall results or student-achievement gaps.

The new law would allow the state to set the parameters of what would happen next. Under NCLB, there were a variety of prescriptions for low performers, including closing schools altogether or converting them to charters.

“This is where I see the most profound changes,” Hespe said in an interview yesterday. “All of that has been rolled back and delegated to the states.”

That could mean changes to the way New Jersey’s uses Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) in each county, Hespe said, or even specific interventions in its state-operated districts that were all written into its federally approved plans.

Still, the commissioner said he did not expect any immediate shifts from the administration’s path, which has already attained some degree of flexibility using the federal waiver from NCLB, a waiver that continues for another year.

“We’re comfortable with what we put forward in the waiver,” he said. “But having some flexibility in how we do things in the future, that is always welcomed.”

What about those most in need?

The biggest question in rolling back accountability is what protections will remain for those most in need. After all, No Child Left Behind, for all its flaws, was credited with bringing attention to students who previously were overlooked by state and federal law, namely those with special needs or disadvantaged by poverty.

The new law would continue to require the release of student-performance measures for all categories of children, including those with special needs. But except for the lowest performing, the interventions would be limited.

New Jersey’s U.S. Sens. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez, both Democrats who voted for the bill, said earlier this week that the help afforded special-needs students remained a significant concern.

“That is something I will keep an eagle eye on,” Booker said in a press call before the vote.

Others said the protections remained scant in the new bill.

“The new law, like the old law, does nothing to press New Jersey and other states to provide adequate school funding or expand essential programs for at-risk children, such high-quality preschool,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center.

“It's still up to us to demand the Legislature address the chronic underfunding across the state, so students have the teachers, support staff, and programs they need to succeed in school. On advancing equity for our most vulnerable students, the new law is ‘same as it ever was.’”

It comes down to the regulations

Despite the broad principles embodied in the bill about scaling back federal influence and power, the true impact will be in the more arcane regulations and guidelines written by the U.S. Department of Education for states to follow -- not to mention the resources put in place to enforce those regulations.

For example, one stipulation in the new law prohibits the U.S Secretary of Education from expanding federal powers over schools, a clear nod to those who have said Washington is overreaching in its powers.

“But how are they going to interpret what is pretty vague language,” said Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University specializing in education policy. “Nobody likes talking about regulations, but that is where a lot of the impact is.”

McGuinn said much of that could come quickly, too, as President Obama has only one more year to establish his legacy. For a president who has pushed for an unprecedented federal influence in schools, he may not give it up too easily.

Hespe, too, said that the department will largely rely on the federal government in providing direction for the next steps, commenting that it was not clear how long current policies would remain in place.

“We will need to get guidance from the USDOE on a lot of this,” he said.


Star Ledger - How will No Child Left Behind rewrite affect N.J. schools?

By Adam Clark | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter on December 09, 2015 at 5:42 PM, updated December 09, 2015 at 11:19 PM

New Jersey could more easily make changes to student testing, academic standards and teacher evaluations under a proposed new federal education law that passed the U.S. Senate on Wednesday. 

But that doesn't mean that it will, the top state education official said. 

In a shift away from stringent federal regulations on schools and student testing, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday passed an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law. 

Already passed by the House, the new Every Student Succeeds Act also has the support of national teachers unions, and President Barack Obama has said he will sign the bipartisan legislation.

The proposed law give states control over setting goals for schools and deciding what to do if schools don't meet them. But its effect in New Jersey may be more subtle than in other states — parents might not see any tangible differences — and changes aren't likely to take hold immediately.  

"I think we are solidly in the mainstream of the conversation nationally on education reform," state Education Commissioner David Hespe said. "I don't really see any major changes." 

Though the new law won't automatically change the average day inside New Jersey classrooms, it does open new avenues for the state's leaders, said Jeff Passe, dean of the School of Education at the College of New Jersey.

"The question then is were they saying that they couldn't do X, Y or Z because of (No Child Left Behind) or were they using it as an excuse because they didn't really want to do it anyhow?" he said.


No Child Left Behind was a signature education initiative of the George W. Bush administration, but it was maligned by many teachers and administrators for its emphasis on testing and increasingly lofty goals for student performance — all students were supposed to get a passing score on their standardized tests by 2014.

Some opponents of the new bill have said they worry it doesn't put enough pressure on schools to identify and improve struggling schools. Others have said they still think it allows the federal government too much influence over schools. 

Here is a look at some of the key components of the Every Student Succeeds Act and what the proposed law could mean for New Jersey schools:

Testing: Schools would still have to test students every year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school. They would also have to report the performance of various student subgroups, including minority or special education students. 

However, New Jersey would have more flexibility to decide what scores students should aim to meet and what to do if schools miss those targets. Schools would be judged on at least one other factor beyond test scores, such as student engagement or other indicators of a school's climate. 

The ESSA lessens the pressure on New Jersey to have more rigorous, complex exams, said William Firestone, a professor of education at Rutgers University. But Hespe said he considers assessments "long-term" initiatives and doesn't foresee changes to standardized testing initially. 

The state is in the second year of a four-year contract with Pearson, the test vendor for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exams. 

"It's not something that is going to apply immediately because these assessments take so long to develop and you just don't want to change them rapidly," Hespe said. 

Intervention: This may be where New Jersey schools, specifically those in the state's urban areas, see the biggest difference. 

Under No Child Left Behind, the state's lowest performing schools were placed into improvement programs prescribed by the federal government. Federal School Improvement Grants for low-performing schools required personnel changes, such as installing a new principal.

The proposed new law lets a state work with its bottom 5 percent of schools and design its own plans for improvement. New Jersey will examine what it's doing now to help those schools and talk to educators about what it can do better, Hespe said.

"I think this law appears to give us a little more flexibility to get us to where we want," Hespe said. 

Firestone said schools can likely expect new policies but there's no telling whether they will be more effective. 

Standards: The bill says states should still have challenging academic standards — what skills students should learn and when they should learn them — but it forbids the federal government from recommending or using incentives to get states to adopt a particular set. 

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has already declared that the Common Core standards were "simply not working," and a panel of educators has conducted a review of those math and English standards.

That report is due at January's state Board of Education meeting, but state officials previously said they did not expect wholesale changes. 

Hespe said he is glad to see the that ESSA includes a commitment to high standards. 

Teacher evaluation: As with standards, the bill would prohibit the federal government from telling states how teachers should be evaluated. 

New Jersey currently uses student test scores as a factor in teacher evaluations, one of the strings attached to its No Child Left Behind waiver, which had spared New Jersey from certain provisions of the law. 

But that policy was also influenced by Christie's views on teachers, and Hespe said he doesn't foresee major changes to teacher evaluations. 

"The good news is that in New Jersey we have a very strong law on this," Hespe said. 

Yet the bill would provide leeway for change, and Passe and Firestone said the state's stance on teacher evaluation could evolve, especially if the national conversation shifts.

"If you get another governor who is interested in teacher evaluation, you will have a push in teacher evaluation," Firestone said. "If you get another governor who is not interested in teacher evaluation, you won't get that kind of push." 

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


NJ Spotlight - Sweeney Seeks Constitutional Amendment to Fund State Pensions

John Reitmeyer | December 10, 2015

Christie, others deride ballot question, arguing that if passed it will lead to higher taxes, drastic cuts to other programs

A transportation fund that’s on course to run out of money by the middle of next year has been New Jersey lawmakers’ primary concern in recent months, but earlier this week a key Democratic legislative leader reignited the debate over the state’s biggest fiscal challenge, the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney introduced a resolution on Monday that would ask voters to amend New Jersey’s constitution to prohibit the state from skipping out on the full amount it should be putting aside for employee retirements on an annual basis. The state pension payments would also have to be made on a quarterly basis over each fiscal year, which is something that underfunded private-sector pension plans are required to do.

Sweeney’s constitutional amendment is designed to restore the long-term health of a state pension system that right now is at least $40 billion in debt. And the constitutional amendment -- which would not need Gov. Chris Christie’s approval to be placed on the ballot -- would also be put before voters in 2016, just as they will be going to the polls to choose the nation’s next president.

“New Jersey taxpayers cannot wait any longer for fiscal responsibility,” said Sweeney (D-Gloucester), while announcing his pension-funding referendum proposal.

Sweeney’s proposal is the most aggressive response to date from Democratic lawmakers in the wake of a landmark ruling issued by the state Supreme Court earlier this year. That decision said only voters can force the state to fund the pension system at the full amounts calculated by actuaries each year, because the size of those payments has now grown well above limits on debt and other long-term obligations that are set in the state constitution.

The pension-funding proposal also echoes the wishes of public-employee labor unions, a reversal from a few years ago when Sweeney and other Democratic leaders worked with Christie, a second-term Republican, to force workers to contribute more toward their pension and health benefits. And it’s another sign that Sweeney is working hard to shore up support from the well-funded unions in advance of a widely expected run for governor in 2017.

But despite savings in the billions that are projected by Democratic analysts from the shift to a quarterly payment schedule, big questions remain about how the state will come up with nearly $3 billion more in the short term than what’s currently in the budget for the pension system. And that’s led Christie and others to say the ballot question, if passed, will ultimately lead to higher taxes or drastic cuts elsewhere.

“Which taxpayers are you going to rip off in order to pay homage to the public-sector worker-union bosses who own you,” Christie asked of Sweeney during a discussion of the proposal during the governor’s monthly radio show on Tuesday.

Nobody, however, disagrees with the notion that the current state of the pension system is a huge problem.

Accountants have predicted that some of the individual funds that make up the broader $73 billion pension system are in danger of going broke within a decade unless changes are made. That problem was created by a series of skipped or only partial state pension payments by Christie and other governors from both parties over the past two decades.

Lawmakers thought they had addressed the funding problem -- and Christie proclaimed the pension system had been “saved” -- when they enacted a reform law in 2011 that called for the increased employee contributions as well as a series of escalating state payments over a seven-year term. But when New Jersey’s economy stalled in the years that followed, and Christie reversed on his commitment to follow the seven-year ramp-up of state-pension contributions. And the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in June that the state constitution, which requires a balanced budget, permitted him to do so.

Sweeney said it’s now in taxpayers’ best interest to vote for his plan. It would begin the ramp-up to full payment with a $3 billion contribution during the 2018 fiscal year before ultimately getting to over $5 billion by the 2022 fiscal year. Meanwhile, New Jersey has suffered several credit-rating downgrades in recent years as the pension payments laid out in the 2011 law have been shorted by Christie’s administration.

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“This amendment will ensure that the state follows through on the agreement requiring the payment schedule that would have fixed the pension crisis by 2018,” he said.

And as expected, Sweeney’s proposal won immediate support from union leaders.

“By skipping and delaying payments year after year, the state has increased the cost of fixing the problem, and passed those costs on to our children,” said Wendell Steinhauer, president of the New Jersey Education Association. “This constitutional amendment will finally put the state on the road to fiscal responsibility.”

“Changing the constitution is not a step we support lightly,” said Charles Wowkanech, president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO. “But we believe this action is the only way to force the state to abide by the law and fully fund pensions.”

Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto, meanwhile, said at this point he supports the concept of Sweeney’s proposal, but is also planning to hold more talks with other Assembly Democrats to go over it in more detail.

“I’ve always strongly advocated for the state to meet its promised obligation and make its required pension payments, as the public employees have been doing year after year,” said Prieto (D-Hudson).

But a big question that’s left unanswered in Sweeney’s proposal is how exactly the state will come up with the money to make the bigger pension payments that the constitutional amendment would require. The $33.8 billion budget for the state’s current fiscal year includes a $1.3 billion pension contribution that’s scheduled to be made before the fiscal year ends on June 30, 2016.

Under Sweeney’s plan, using the latest actuarial calculations, the payment would jump to $3 billion by the 2018 fiscal year, and to more than $5 billion by the 2022 fiscal year. It’s unclear right now if the modest annual economic growth the state has been experiencing in recent years and revenue from a higher tax on income over $1 million that many expect to be enacted once Christie leaves office will provide enough money to fund those larger payments called for in Sweeney’s plan.

Christie, during a speech before New Jersey business leaders on Tuesday, excoriated the plan, saying it would inevitably lead to major tax hikes.

“Where are you getting the $3 billion? Where are you getting it?,” Christie asked. “It’s totally about playing politics.”

He also accused Sweeney of caring more about the unions than New Jersey taxpayers solely for political reasons. And during his monthly radio show on New Jersey 101.5 FM, Christie said the state doesn’t collect enough money during the earlier months of the fiscal year to make the quarterly pension payments the referendum would require possible.

But those quarterly payments, which could be covered by short-term borrowing until budget surpluses are built up, are projected by Democratic analysts to save $8.5 billion over three decades through investment gains, assuming a nearly 8 percent compounded rate of return.

Sweeney, in a statement issued in response to Christie’s speech before the business leaders, said his proposal was issued directly in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The suggestion this is a knee -jerk reaction to pander to any special interest couldn’t be further from reality,” Sweeney said.

Earlier this year, Christie proposed his own pension-reform plan, and it also featured a constitutional amendment to force the state to pay down its pension debt. But Christie’s proposal, based on recommendations made by a nonpartisan commission of benefits experts, also recommended freezing the current pension system and moving employees into a new, more affordable retirement plan with some features of a 401(k).

And Christie’s proposal also called for forcing employees at all levels of government in New Jersey to accept less generous healthcare options, and then redirecting the savings to pay down the current pension system’s debt under a schedule that would be approved by voters.

In a presentation made last month during the New Jersey League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City, Tom Healey, the leader of Christie’s nonpartisan benefits commission, demonstrated how the state is on a course to see the cost of employee health and pension benefits rise to nearly 1/3 of all state spending if no changes to those benefits are made.

Healey, a financial analyst and former assistant U.S. secretary of the Treasury for domestic finances under President Ronald Reagan, told NJ Spotlight yesterday that Sweeney’s proposal could result in a “crowding out” of funding for other priorities like education and infrastructure.

“The commission agrees that constitutional reform is necessary to solve the problem permanently, but has always believed that benefits have to be reformed to be affordable before the state makes an irrevocable obligation to pay for them,” Healey said. “(Sweeney’s) proposed amendment fixes the amount due, but doesn’t do anything to ensure the state can afford the resulting payments.”