New Jersey’s 215th Legislative session is underway and NJSBA is monitoring the bills that have been introduced since Jan. 14 when the legislators were sworn in and began their work.

One topic that was recently introduced to public discussion by Gov. Chris Christie is the idea of a longer school day and longer school year. In his State of the State address in January, the governor raised the possibility of extending both in order to boost student achievement.

The governor’s Fiscal Year 2014-2015 budget proposal recommends $5 million to support an Innovation Grant Fund in the New Jersey Department of Education. This fund will be used to provide competitive grants to districts and schools, mainly to support local efforts to develop different approaches to extend students’ learning time, including extending the school day or school year.

Assemblyman Gilbert Wilson (D-Legislative District 5) has introduced a bill, A-1806, that establishes a three-year pilot program to increase the length of the school day and school year in the pilot school districts. The goal of the pilot program is to study the effects of a longer school day and school year on student achievement, while enhancing the overall school learning environment and increasing student enrichment opportunities and educational offerings. The companion Senate bill is S-443, introduced by Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Legislative District 29), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill requires interested school districts to submit an application to the commissioner. The application would provide information on the number of hours that the school day would be increased and the number of days that the school year would be lengthened, and would be required to include documentation that participation in the pilot program be supported by a majority of school district staff and parents of students enrolled in the district.

The Commissioner would select up to 25 school districts for participation in the pilot program. In selecting the pilot school districts, the Commissioner shall consider factors related to the program’s potential impact on student achievement.

The commissioner would be required to submit a report to the governor and the Legislature no later than June 30 of the third school year following the establishment of the pilot program. The report would evaluate the effectiveness of the pilot program and include a recommendation on the advisability of the program’s continuation and extension to additional school districts.

Funding from Tax Credits

Under the bill, the director of the Division of Taxation in the Department of Treasury would establish a three-year program to provide tax credits to corporations which contributed funding to the Department of Education to fund the costs associated with the pilot program. The total tax credit of all participating corporations would be capped at $24 million in the first fiscal year, $48 million in the second fiscal year, and $72 million in the third fiscal year. If the sum of the amount of tax credits authorized in a fiscal year were to exceede the aggregate annual limits, tax credits would be allowed in the order in which contributions were made until the limit was reached.

NJSBA is concerned that additional salary and facility costs of an extended school day and school year program are likely to be high. The Association is also concerned that the tax credits may not cover those extra costs and that the tax credit proposal does not involve additional state funding. By removing the amount represented by the credits from the general state treasury coffers and earmarking it for this purpose, there may be less in the general account to provide state education aid to districts. More consideration would have to be given to these concerns in order to craft a smooth-running program.

New Jersey currently requires 180 days of school, a number which falls in the middle of the national range of 175-182 days, according to a 2011 report from the Education Commission of the States. Extended learning time has gained traction in recent years, with some studies linking more classroom time with gains in student achievement.

Sen. Teresa Ruiz supports the initiative. After the State of the State speech, she noted that the school calendars across the country are based on agrarian societies and that the school day and year need to be extended. She also mentioned that even though funding is a question, she thinks that the state can institute a plan to add hours and days to the school year.

Massachusetts and New York have implemented competitive grants to support extended learning in certain schools, and the federal government’s School Improvement Grant program requires schools to adopt reform models that include increased learning time. Many charter schools have implemented longer days and weekend and summer programs, too.

President Barack Obama has also proposed extended calendars as part of federal policy, and a number of states and cities have sought to at least encourage longer time in the classroom. Five states are now in a pilot to test out longer calendars in a sampling of districts.

The day before his State of the State address, Gov. Christie vetoed a bill that would have explored extending all-day kindergarten statewide. Currently, about a quarter of districts do not have full-day kindergarten. In his veto, Christie said that full-day programs should be encouraged but also left to the discretion of local districts. Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Legislative District 27), prime sponsor of the kindergarten bill, stated that early education needed to be looked at first and be made a priority over just having a longer day.

The phrase “left to the discretion of school districts” is one that is reassuring for school board members, who work to make the best decisions for their individual districts and communities.