Final Year of Christie Administration Could See Big Education Battles

Now entering Christie’s last year in office, the 2016-2017 school year is sure to be no exception, with the governor looking to cement his legacy, especially when it comes to core issues like funding and charters, while schools themselves grapple with their own challenges.

But education will have stiff competition for campaign attention in the coming year, as the state’s fiscal crunch shows no signs of letting up and problems with public-employee benefits and The Transportation Trust Fund continue unabated.

The new school year started off early with a bang, with Friday’s announcement that state Education Commissioner David Hespe would be stepping down. It has been long rumored; Hespe’s 30-month tenure at the department were as tumultuous as any.

His successor, chief academic officer Kimberley Harrington, comes from inside the department and will be the first former public schoolteacher to hold the position in more than a decade.

But that is just one change expected to be coming in the next eight months, as New Jersey schools and the policies that dictate them continue to go through seismic shifts.

Here are a few of the big topics — and questions — sure to be part of the new school year:

What, if anything, is going to happen to school funding?

Let’s start with this one, given how the state funds public education determines so much for schools. But it is maybe the least certain of all, with so many moving parts.

Christie has put forward a proposal that would essentially blow up the state’s current funding formula with a one-size-fits-all approach that would provide every district the same amount of per-pupil in aid.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, a likely gubernatorial candidate, has a more modest plan that would leave the formula in place but seek to make it more equitable.

Neither proposal has moved much since the spring, and the political prospects will likely dim as the state moves closer to the 2017 election and the campaigning that will precede it.

Nonetheless, Christie still holds the most powerful gubernatorial seat in the country, and he has plenty of chances — including in his next and final state budget — to keep it on the front burner.

And as school districts see their finances only getting tighter under the pressures of current funding and the state’s property tax caps, there is real question to how long the current situation can last.

How much will the gubernatorial election help or hinder public schools?

The school funding question aside, education is sure to be a prime topic of debate among those who want to succeed Christie — potentially setting the agenda for years to come.

Sweeney has been quick to jump on the topic, not just with his school-funding plan but also a separate proposal to expand preschool statewide. A business-funded group, PreK Our Way, has already launched a public campaign to press legislators and candidates to get on board, and it has vowed significantly more to come.

Meanwhile, how sacrosanct will Christie’s signature issues be, given his historically low approval ratings? Will candidates run against his embrace of charter schools? Will PARCC testing see a reverse with a new governor? Will the governor’s aggressive control of some districts give way to more flexibility?

Will this be the year that state control ends in Newark and elsewhere?

State and local dignitaries gathered in Newark City Hall last month to announce a plan for moving that city’s schools out of state control after more than 20 years.

The plan came out of a working group appointed by Christie and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and at least for a day, there was relative harmony about the state ceding controls sooner than later.

But many hurdles remain, from whether the harmony can be sustained to the logistical and financial questions to what local control will look like. A prime question is the state of the district’s finances; even the state’s appointed superintendent Chris Cerf has warned against the continued loss of resources to charter schools.

Nonetheless, the state appears to have smoothed the runway for at least some significant movement, approving a waiver for Newark to meet academic performance benchmarks — maybe the toughest hurdle of all. Further, the key benchmark of governance controls and the ability to hire the superintendent could come as soon as next summer.

Other state-run districts are watching closely. Jersey City is already close to full local control, and Paterson hopes to make the next move. The newest of the state-run districts, Camden isn’t near a similar transition as yet, but will be embarking on a new universal enrollment system this year and will continue to adapt to the growth of hybrid charter model known as renaissance schools.

Is the PARCC storm over?

The advent of the PARCC testing was the story of 2015, with tens of thousands of students sitting out in protest and teachers and other educators raising questions about the merits of the new online testing. But last spring’s testing proved less eventful, as schools continued to adjust and the opt-out movement appeared to slow.

Two years into a four-year contract with the PARCC consortium, the state’s adoption of PARCC could still go either way.

Debates could pick up again this year as the Christie administration moves to increase the weight that PARCC results will have on teacher evaluations from 10 percent in the first two years to 30 percent next year.

This comes after the State Board of Education also moved to make passing PARCC’s 10th grade language arts test and its Algebra I test required for high school graduation, starting with the Class of 2021.

The state will also be setting its policies in the coming year to meet the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and student performance on PARCC testing will play a key role in determining the state’s interventions in districts.

At the same time, Hespe and the state Department of Education maintain that districts continue to adapt to the new testing, indicating that they will see benefits in quicker and more sophisticated data. Districts this year have already received scores from last spring, unheard of in prior testing, allowing them to adjust instruction for individual students from the very start of the year.

Will this be the end of the superintendent salary cap?

This November marks the official expiration of Christie’s controversial limits on superintendent pay to no more than $175,000 — his own salary — for the preponderance of districts.

The caps have led to an upheaval in superintendent ranks, with dozens leaving the state or retiring early and others seeing their pay being surpassed by their own subordinates.

But despite the criticisms, Christie has yet to show much aversion to the limits, and now comes the time where he can make changes, ending them altogether or adding an inflation index or other adjustment.

Or he can do nothing at all, leaving them in place for another seven years.

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