With the state lawmakers focusing on the state budget, all other legislative action has been on hold since mid-March while the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees concentrate on the governor’s proposed budget. New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe appeared before the Assembly committee on April 22 and the Senate committee on April 28 to discuss the proposed $12.8 billion in education spending for the 2015-2016 school year. Highlights of the proposed budget can be found here.

As noted by the commissioner, this total represents 38 percent of the state budget. However, as various committee members commented, this is more than $1 billion less than what is required by the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).

Pending Court Decision Upon questioning by Senate Budget Chair Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), it was estimated that approximately $800 million in school aid had not yet been dispersed for the current fiscal year. With the New Jersey Supreme Court set to begin to consider whether the state is obligated to make full pension payments under the Chapter 78 law, the senator inquired whether this balance is in jeopardy, should the state lose that case. The commissioner declined to address the hypothetical and simply noted the plan, as of now, was to disperse the $800 million through the remainder of the school year.

PARCC The commissioner was asked by both committees about the first round of PARCC testing; particularly about the participation rate. Although he only had preliminary numbers, Hespe said the non-participation rate ranged from about 3 percent in New Jersey elementary schools to just above 14 percent for eleventh graders. He also noted, with pride, that 98 percent of the PARCC tests were taken on computers.

Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) inquired what actions might be expected for districts that did not meet the required 95 percent participation rate. The commissioner responded that the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE)  would look into the potential causes of such low participation for the district and whether it was an isolated incident or has the potential of occurring again. If low participation looks to be a persistent problem for a district, the NJDOE would then look into what steps are being taken by the district to address the problem. They may also work with the district to develop a “corrective action plan” that could include steps such as more public informational meetings and face-to-face meetings with parents whose children refused to take the test. “Egregious situations” could result in the loss of either federal or state funds, or both. Later, at the Senate Budget Committee, Hespe clarified that NJDOE “will do what [they] always do” and work with districts to resolve their problems.

The commissioner was also asked by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), a Budget Committee member as well as chair of the Senate Education Committee, as to NJDOE’s willingness to continue holding the PARCC results to 10 percent of teachers’ evaluations. Hespe expressed a willingness to work with her on finding the proper balance as the tests are implemented, but also expressed concerns with also needing to fulfill obligations the state has made through the No Child Left Behind waiver process.

Adequacy Sen. Ruiz also inquired whether, as per a previous NJDOE commitment, districts would be informed of their target adequacy number. The commissioner said this information will be made available. He also noted NJDOE will be providing an Education Adequacy Report this fall, in compliance with SFRA requirements.

Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) raised the issue of districts receiving aid considered to be below the adequacy level and noted 173 districts are currently “under adequacy” by more than 10 percent. This, she noted, was largely a result of the SFRA formula not being run. Hespe responded that this issue may also be addressed through the Education Adequacy Report.

School Choice Sen. Ruiz raised concern with the way the state has been funding the school-choice program. The state has provided approximately $50 million in school-choice aid to receiving districts, but because funding levels have been frozen for the past two years, sending districts have still been funded for students who are not there. She feels if this dynamic were remedied, and sending districts paid receiving districts for individual students, more funds could be available at the state level for underfunded priorities such as expanding preschool programs.

Regionalization Assembly Budget vice chairman John Burzichelli (D-Gloucester) expressed dismay that, to the best of his knowledge, the  school consolidation studies required of the county superintendents by a 2010 law, had not been conducted. The Assemblyman expressed the view that consolidation could lead to cost savings. Hespe, who was appointed commissioner last year, said he does not know what happened to those plans. He also said he believes consolidation has to start at the grass-roots level and not be dictated by the state.

Non-Public Schools Assembly Budget chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) objected to reductions in non-public school aid for nursing and technology and a lack of state aid for non-public school security. These reductions mirror proposed cuts in the 2014-2015 budget that were eventually restored before final passage of the budget.

Online Education Assemblyman Singleton (D-Burlington) inquired into the commissioner’s thoughts on the use of online learning in the event of snow days or other unforeseen school closure. Earlier in the year, Pascack Valley Regional School District attempted to comply with the 180 school day requirement by conducting “virtual classrooms” on a snow day. NJDOE had ruled that the wording of the law requires students’ physical presence to count as a school day. As a consequence of this ruling, S-2476 and A-3937, which would permit virtual classrooms, were introduced.

The commissioner expressed reservations to the idea, though he did not completely oppose the use of virtual classrooms in an emergency. Still, he was quick to note, online learning pales in comparison to in-person instruction.

State law requires legislators to pass a state budget by June 30.