|11-30-11 Education Issues in the News|
Daily Record -NJ lame-duck Legislature considers eliminating school budget elections,requiring county purchasing programs
NJ Spotlight - Fine Print: Anti-Bullying Incident Report Form…The war against school bullying gets a new ally -- a paper one
NJ Spotlight - Charter Schools Sue State, Claiming They've Been Shortchanged…Latest development only adds to the tensions between charters and the districts that host them
What it is: The state this week distributed to school districts the new form for reporting incidents of harassment, bullying and intimidation under the new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. The form is page 4 of the state's system for recording all incidents of violence, vandalism, and substance abuse in schools.
What it means: The form is the first of several steps the state is taking to address worries about the bureaucratic burdens imposed by the new law aimed to prevent bullying in and outside of schools. While lauding the law's intentions, administrators and educators have said the state up to now has provided little guidance on how to implement a law that requires strict timelines and procedures for investigating accusations of bullying, including those online and outside school.
What it demands: The form requires administrators in every school to report to the state and their own Boards of Education a checklist of details about any confirmed case of bullying, including the nature of the incident and how it was resolved, be it suspension, counseling and even restitution.
Details, details: The form lists the protected categories as they relate to bullying and harassment in the law, including gender, race, sexual orientation, "gender identity and expression" and "other distinguishing categories."
Mode and effect: Every incident is also broken down into how such bullying happened (physical, gesture, electronic, and so on.) and its effect, such as "substantially disrupted or interfered with orderly operation of a school or rights of students or others."
More to come: The state Department of Education plans to provide further guidance in the coming weeks, officials said. In addition, there will be online tutorials and an ongoing "frequently asked questions" summary. "We will continue to provide guidance to the districts," said Susan Martz, director of the state's Office of Student Support Services. "There's a lot more we will be doing on this." Still, there is only so much clarity that can be added to what is a very specific statute which lead sponsors in the legislature have said they have little inclination to soften.
What happens to the information: The data is to be reported to the public and the state twice a year, with its information going into a grade that the state Department of Education will annually bestow on each school. Going into that grade will also be data on training and other programs being offered by the district for staff and students.
Immediate reaction: Districts have been building their own reporting forms for internal use, a practice that state officials said can continue as long as the same basic information is included. But the added guidance is being welcomed, and critics have said they look forward to more. "Our members wish we had this all along," said Richard Bozza, director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
A group of Jersey City charter schools have sued the Christie administration to correct what they say has been a stark underfunding of their schools, throwing a twist into the ongoing debate over how New Jersey's charters are paid for.
The four charter schools -- Learning Community, Golden Door, Soaring Heights, and Ethical Community charter -- have petitioned acting education commissioner Chris Cerf to address what has been a longstanding disparity in the how Jersey City and several other districts' charter schools are funded.
In the petition, the schools contend that they are put at a unique disadvantage because of Jersey City's massive property tax abatements, which draw the school district additional state aid – called adjustment aid -- that is not shared with the charters.
As a result, the charters receive less than the 90 percent of the district's per-pupil costs, as mandated under the state's charter school law. Other charter schools similarly affected are in Asbury Park, Hoboken, and Red Bank.
The case also points up the continuing and unresolved disputes in how New Jersey charter schools are funded in general, one that not only irks charter schools but also the districts that foot most of the bill.
These disputes have dogged the Christie administration as it seeks to rewrite the state's charter school law and expand the experimental schools, especially in lower-performing, urban districts such as Jersey City. And now Cerf is being asked to make a ruling that could appease the charters but add still more tension to the situation.
The Jersey City issue is not new, as the city's charter schools have long argued for additional funding to address the disparity due to adjustment aid. And the administration this year did provide an additional $5.1 million for the Jersey City and other affected charters to offset some of the shortfall.
But representatives of the charters argued that the one-time appropriation does not address the fundamental flaw in the funding law that will leave them shortchanged each year.
"We're obviously hugely grateful for [the additional funds], but it comes from an appropriation and is hardly sustainable," said Shelley Skinner, a board member at Learning Community Charter School and longtime charter advocate who has pressed hardest for the funding.
"We're required to provide a thorough and efficient education like everyone else, but we don't have the resources," she said. "Parents didn't just waive their right to that when they enroll in a charter, and that is what the state is asking them to do."
The funding of charters has been particularly problematic in urban districts, where the traditional schools have received billions in additional aid under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings to provide what the state constitution calls a "thorough and efficient" education. But districts have not necessarily been required to pass a proportionate share of that additional aid to charter schools.
The existing School Funding Reform Act aimed to address that, but the adjustment aid continued to be left out of the calculation. For some districts, there is not much adjustment aid to start with, so the disparities are much smaller. Others like Jersey City are not as fortunate.
"With the new funding formula that eliminated the separate Abbott funding, we hoped this would go away," said Rick Pressler, a program director with the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. "But it simply took a new form with different district winners and losers with the adjustment aid."
Pressler said the issue could be addressed with a simple tweak in the law to include the adjustment aid in the charter school funding calculation. "It would literally require adding two words and a comma to the statute," he said.
But unable to win that concession, the Jersey City charters said they will rely on the legal process, starting with the petition to Cerf and likely determination by an administrative law judge.
Cerf this week said he could not comment on the case due to it being pending litigation.
Garden State Coalition of Schools