NJ Spotlight

Lamont Repollet


A new governor's transition reports probably should be taken with a grain of salt, more about broad approaches than detailed policy blueprints for the administration to come.

But when it comes to education, Gov. Phil Murphy's release of his transition committee's report on Friday did signal some early directions - and changes of direction - about what could be one of the high-profile issues of his tenure.

For example, the 11-page report played up Murphy's campaign promise to fully fund the state's school finance law, but also tempered expectations that this would happen overnight.

The report emphasized career and vocational education, especially around so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, a big issue during the campaign and one that appears to remain a priority of both Murphy and his incoming commissioner, Lamont Repollet.

But the end of PARCC testing? It's still a pledge from the new governor, but the report was more about the impact the scores would have on students and teachers.

Same with Murphy's campaign soundbite for universal preschool, now one tempered in the report to a vague recommendation of additional funding, "as soon as funds are available."

The report leaves out entirely some pressing issues. There is no mention of district consolidations, school desegregation, and school construction funding, to name a few. What that means is to be seen, but certainly not a jolt of early momentum.

What any of it means is uncertain, actually, with transition committee reports notoriously shelved in many instances once the governing begins. But this one was led by some heavy hitters, including the presidents of the state's two largest teacher unions, and there are clearly some takeaways for the months and years ahead.

School funding first

It is arguably Murphy's most immediate task when it comes to schools: how he will meet his promise for fully financing the School Funding Reform Act. It was a constant in his campaign speeches, and one of the first questions in the state budget he will present in March.

The transition report does not back off the promise, but it's more about how he'll get there.

"The state has underfunded the formula by over $9 billion, and nearly three-quarters of students have not received their promised state aid," the report reads. "The Murphy administration and the Legislature should reduce the school-funding deficit in an equitable and constitutional manner."

But it could take some time getting to that goal. The report recommends a two-step process; in the first year the state will lay out the full implications of full-funding - presumably both increases and decreases. The second year year will be more a deep dive into the formula itself, including hot-button topics like special education and so-called adjustment aid for overfunded districts.

"To ensure public understanding and support for a plan to fully fund the SFRA funding formula, the public needs to fully understand its long-term implications," the report's first recommendation reads. "Such an understanding begins by preparing a detailed report on the proposed funding for each district.

"The formula should be used to inform the governor's fiscal year 2019 budget recommendations, even if financial constraints require that full funding may not be achieved immediately," it continues.

Yet it will not be until the fiscal 2020 budget, when it recommends Murphy propose changes, if any, to the formula itself.

"After analyzing the school-funding formula, the administration can then develop a long-term funding strategy," the report's second recommendation reads.

The recommendations this weekend drew some praise for taking a deliberative and transparent path toward the budget and state aid, including laying out how each district will fare over the long-term.

"A lot of people don't understand what full funding of the formula even means, and the administration needs to make that clear," said Lynne Strickland, a longtime education advocate and lobbyist, now as managing partner of Schoolhouse Strategies, a consulting group.

"We have gone from campaigning to running a government, and in this time, it will be important to get good analysis before policymakers and the public," she said.

Lessened expectations

Murphy was full of promises during his campaign that even his strongest supporters acknowledge will take some sizable effort to fulfill.

One of the issues with the highest stakes - and highest hopes - is his call for universal preschool, a bold promise in a state where fewer than 65 districts - or roughly one in nine - now offer full-day programs to three and four-year-olds.

The report was equivocal, however. It played up the program as a priority, but without high expectations right off and even stepping back from public funding for all of it.

"The governor should provide a modest increase in early childhood education funding in the FY 2019 budget," the recommendation read. "This could in part be funded by philanthropic contributions or social impact bonds."

The latter point worried some advocates, including one on the transition committee.

"While the first recommendation is to fully fund the SFRA, the report later proposes a 'modest increase' for preschool in FY 2019 and then suggests philanthropic support or social impact bonds as a potential way to fund preschool expansion," said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

"I think this is a dangerous departure from public policy," she said. "Preschool expansion is in the SFRA, and as such should be funded with state funding. I thought we were long past the days of distinguishing preschool from K-12. It is one educational system and should be funded as such."

The promised end to PARCC was always one of the more controversial in the campaign, as Murphy never laid out what he would replace it with. The transition report fills in some blanks but puts more focus on the stakes behind the testing than the testing itself.

It offered two specific recommendations: the tests should be "decoupled" from high school graduation, and also should carry less weight in teacher evaluation. Nonetheless, it does include some follow-up to take a broader look at PARCC testing.

"The State should create a task force to evaluate PARCC - its development, implementation, reliability, and fairness - and make recommendations for its successor," the recommendation reads.

What's in, what's not

There's a limit on what is included in these reports, and the education report is no exception.

The omissions are notable, especially on school consolidations and regionalization as a means of both saving money and addressing the state's deep racial segregation. Murphy as a candidate said that was a priority. There was no sign of it in the transition report.

But the report also brings up issues that had not been much discussed in the campaign, and now have been moved to the forefront - such as teacher recruitment and diversity.

"Studies show that students learn better when their teachers reflect the classroom's diversity. New Jersey should improve outreach efforts to high schoolers and college students and encourage them to consider teaching in their community as careers," read one recommendation.

Read another: "This administration should immediately review where (teacher) shortages exist, and introduce programs to address those gaps. These should include incentives like loan forgiveness or stipends. It should also include programs that train current teachers to fill the state's needs."

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