Classrooms and Courtrooms: 2020 Flashpoints for Education in New Jersey?


Credit: Edwin J. Torres / Office of the Governor
Are Governor Phil Murphy, right, and Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney on a collision course over education issues?

Despite all their differences elsewhere, Gov. Phil Murphy and State Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney have broadly aligned – or at least in peace – on many of the great issues of New Brunswick public education. Jersey.

After a rocky start, Murphy and Sweeney have agreed over the past two years on a strategy to fully fund the state’s $ 9 billion school funding formula. They each embraced preschool expansion and supported more help for specific needs such as special education. And, at least lately, there haven’t been any major pushes between them on issues like student testing or charter schools.

The one big exception, of course, is how to fund the retirement and benefits of teachers and other public employees, a continuing point of contention for which no resolution seems in sight. Add in the New Jersey Education Association, the governor’s ally and Sweeney’s nemesis, and things can heat up quickly.

But in 2020, there are a few more political – and political – powder kegs in New Jersey’s public education agenda. They range from new challenges to funding the School for Peace to a multitude of questions for educators and policy makers.

These are some of the pressing issues we face in the New Year.

The Endangered Schools Funding Agreement?

The state plan for funding schools remains a dominant issue, and for good reason. State support for schools accounts for one third of overall state expenditure each year.

So it’s no small feat that Murphy and Sweeney have agreed on a long-term strategy to fully fund the 2007 Schools Finance Act, adding over $ 200 million this year and a sizable sum. probably available for the next one.

But a new rift has emerged between the two following a recent decision by Sweeney to smooth out some of the strategy’s rougher edges, namely for the dozens of districts whose aid has been cut. During the lame legislative session, the Senate Speaker last month offered aid for around 40 districts that have seen aid cuts under the plan, introducing a bill that would remove the current 2% cap from state on local property taxes in these districts. The measure was adopted in both chambers before the end of year break, and has even somewhat adhered to the NJEA.

It’s not a done deal, however. Three days later, Murphy’s office said it planned to veto the measure and said it could use it as leverage for a statewide millionaire tax at which Sweeney has long resisted.

Murphy’s office did not back down yesterday and hinted at previous remarks against Bill Sweeney. “We do not support the Senate Speaker’s plan to increase property taxes,” the governor’s communications director Mahen Gunaratna said.

What happens next is not clear. If the governor veto the measure, can Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin get the votes they need to override the veto? The final positive vote tally on the bills – 24 in the Senate and 41 in the Assembly – were both below the two-thirds required for a waiver.

Either way, what will he do about the couple’s broad agreement on a comprehensive school funding plan, starting with the next state budget? The first clues will likely come in Murphy’s State of the State address on January 14, followed by the state budget presentation itself in March.

Is regionalization the best (or just the last) hope?

Will 2020 be the year when efforts finally take off to regionalize and consolidate New Jersey’s more than 500 school districts?

Sweeney would like to think so, and he has banked much of his “Path to Progress” reform campaign on such a move in 2020. The Senate president told the New Jersey School Boards Association in November that he was optimistic; As a first step, he called on the mayors and school principals of Salem County to at least explore the idea of ​​a county-wide district as a means of achieving savings and efficiency gains.

“I have a school in Salem County that trains 13 kids a year,” Sweeney told delegates. “Thirteen.”

But Salem is the smallest and most rural county in the state – with less than 11,000 students and 33 schools in total – and Sweeney acknowledged that getting districts in the state to even just study the idea. of consolidation will be a major challenge. His proposal calls for a mix of mergers, whether county-wide or just between neighboring communities.

“Is there something wrong with just looking at it, if that makes sense?” Sweeney asked the NJSBA delegates, needing to convince many people in the room. “You have to see things differently today. We’re not efficient, and more importantly, we’re not doing what’s best for the kids.

Many districts were generally lukewarm on the idea, focusing instead on more immediate needs. Betsy Ginsburg heads the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an influential group of suburban districts, and said Sweeney’s promises to help cover the extraordinary costs of special education hold more promise.

“The special education recommendations are of interest to my members because of the huge spikes in the costs of special education,” she said. “It has real impact and a topic of real interest.”

Courtroom battles

Despite all the attention paid to the governor and the legislature, the courts have arguably been the most important branch of government in education in this state. Abbott v. Burke’s from the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s are parts A, B and C.

Well, the 2020s could soon make their mark too.

Abbott v. Burke, arguably among the nation’s most significant school equity cases, is back in the New Jersey Supreme Court on a case over state-blocked school-building efforts.

The Education Law Center, the advocacy group representing students from the 31 mostly urban districts at the center of the case, filed the lawsuit in November and is expected to start arguing in the new year that the state no ‘Has failed to live up to its promises under Abbott’s previous decisions to provide school buildings and adequate facilities to needy districts. The next step is for the state to file its response by the end of this month. If the court sides with the plaintiffs, the financial investment required will likely reach billions of dollars.

Additionally, State Superior Court Judge Mary Jacobson in Trenton hears what may be her own landmark case regarding the infamous New Jersey classroom segregation, which in some ways is one of the worst in the country.

Settlement talks collapsed last spring, and Jacobson heard the first arguments in October for summary judgments. The pleadings are expected in early 2020.

What else?

There are many other topics on the education agenda in New Jersey in 2020.

Will the Murphy administration finally put in place or at least underway a new testing program for students? For a governor who said he would replace the state’s previous testing regime upon taking office, his administration took its time on it.

Charter schools were also left in limbo, with their preeminence in cities like Newark and Camden well established, but their growth stalled elsewhere and political support waning.

And of course, there is a giant question to be answered in November: who will be president and what does that mean for education in the state and nationally?

While K-12 education has not been the subject of much national conversation so far under President Trump, with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos focusing more on higher education issues , a second Trump term would certainly embolden a Trump administration on pet favorites like charter schools and vouchers, the latter of which allow students to attend public or private schools outside of their neighborhoods.

Even if pushed by Trump, the good guys are a step that isn’t likely to go very far in New Jersey these days. But one thing has become certain as the New Year approaches: There is not much to do in the field of education, whether at the national or state level.


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