NJDOE News

ASSEMBLY BUDGET COMMITTEE
April 10, 2003
Commissioner William L. Librera

  • Good morning Chairman Greenwald and members of the committee. It is a pleasure to be here with you this morning to discuss the Department of Education’s budget for fiscal year 2004.

  • State aid for local school districts is the single largest item in the state budget. In recognition of the very high priority given to education by Governor McGreevey since the first day he took office, we are including in the FY 2004 budget more than $8 billion in aid to the state’s schools. State aid for local school districts represents one-third of the state’s budget. This point must be emphasized -- in finding solutions to the $5 billion budget deficit for a second year in a row in what remains the severest budget crisis our state has ever faced -- the Governor has once again refused to cut a single cent to the districts, holding the line on our children’s education.

  • Unlike last year when state aid was held even, this budget proposes an increase of nearly $200 million in 2004. Governor McGreevey has made tough choices in this budget by proposing hard cuts in other areas so that we can continue to invest in New Jersey’s public school children. This budget is a reconfirmation of that commitment.

  • The proposed budget now before the Legislature will provide school districts with a nearly $200 million increase in state education aid -- $97 million toward debt payments for new school construction and $100 million in direct aid to communities for public education. Additionally, school districts will not have to budget a contribution to PERS. This represents a $40 million savings. Indirect state aid, pensions and FICA contributions increase by $204 million.

  • 454 school districts will receive an increase in state aid. State aid has been held constant for the wealthiest 119 school districts. Abbott districts will receive $50 million of the $100 million increase in state aid. No school district in our state will receive fewer dollars in formula aid next year than it did this past year.

  • While this is admittedly a modest increase, it is significant given the current fiscal situation, and it reflects the administration’s continued unwavering commitment to education.

  • In addition, this budget also provides more than $1.2 billion to all the districts in the state for teacher’s retirement benefits and the employer’s share of Social Security payments. This amount represents an increase in local aid of $204 million above FY 2003 and shields local property taxpayers from shouldering these costs.

  • While Governor McGreevey is sensitive to the fact that some communities may see property taxes rise, he believes that local communities must make the same hard choices that the state has made. This state budget reduces spending on state government by 4.4 percent. The previous budget reduced these same costs by 2.5 percent. Therefore, we think that schools and towns must tighten their belts and define local priorities carefully in local budgets until we can all benefit from a turnaround in our national economy.

  • To ensure that the Department of Education is functioning most effectively, we have completely reorganized our operations to be of more assistance to local districts and to better balance our role of oversight with our role of providing support to the districts. By making the department a more valuable resource, we have increased our assistance to local districts in stretching dollars. Our focus is on improving teaching and learning and on providing the technical assistance to districts to help them improve both aspects of the education process.

  • Our three regional service centers bring the Trenton decision-makers closer to the districts, which will enable our county superintendents to provide direct answers to their districts’ questions. There are experts in these offices in the areas of Core Curriculum Content Standards, special education, programs for limited English proficient students, certification, professional development, and grants, among many others.

  • In the first year of our administration, we have created a record of solid accomplishments in many aspects of education. I would like to briefly highlight a few of our major accomplishments.

  • A year ago, we consolidated all functions of the Abbott implementation mandates into one division under Assistant Commissioner Gordon MacInnes. In order to assess the status of the reform process that began five years ago, we have required all Abbott districts to submit to the department by July 15, 2003 a three-year operational plan.

  • The plan will include an assessment of the first four years of Abbott implementation, so that useful work will be preserved. The goal was to simplify the budgeting process for the 2003-04 school year while incorporating the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB. Program staff, fiscal staff, and Local Support Teams from the department will continue to assist schools and districts in planning and developing their three-year operational plans and annual school-based budgets.

  • Last year we petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court for a one-year "time-out" on implementation of Whole School Reform programs and a waiver to hold state aid the same as last year in the Abbott districts, as was the case in all of the other districts. This year, we have petitioned the New Jersey Supreme Court to grant flexibility in the mandates of the original decisions. Abbott districts have reached parity with the I and J districts, but they are still encumbered by old restrictions that limit their ability to make the most efficient use of their parity dollars. We believe it is in the best interest of the state and the districts to cut them loose from some of these restrictions and let them revise their reform practices in accordance with their three-year plans. We have closed the funding gap, now the priority is to close the achievement gap.

  • One of our central initiatives is the early literacy program. Research is clear that children who read at or above grade level by the third grade are going to have much greater success in the rest of their school years than those who cannot read by grade three. We have made significant progress over the last year by linking intensive Abbott early literacy programs with Reading First and all other department literacy efforts, such as the reading coach program. The coordination of these programs is yielding increased Abbott preschool enrollment. It also enables us to ask the NJ Supreme Court to allow the Abbott districts to focus their resources on early literacy and mastery of the Core Curriculum Content Standards.

  • The Abbott preschool program is showing great promise for helping children to have early success in school. This program can be of critical importance to a child, especially one who is from an environment that puts him or her at risk of failure. Our preschool programs integrate educational, social, and family programs so that the child and the family can help develop the skills and self-esteem that children need in order to be successful in school and life beyond school.

  • In 2001-02 a total of close to 30,000 children were enrolled in the Abbott Preschool programs. Over 9,000 of these were in district-run classrooms and the rest in child care provider and Head Start classrooms. The actual enrollment as of January 2003 is 36,465 with over 11,000 in district-run classrooms. This is an increase of 22 percent. For 2003-04, we project an increase of 15.5 percent to 42,135, which represents over 80 percent of the universe of Abbott-eligible three- and four-year-olds. The percentage of children served in child care or Head Start centers has remained constant over the three years at approximately 70 percent.

  • The FY 2004 Budget provides $142.4 million in our department and $114.5 million in Human Services to continue the expansion of Abbott preschool programs. Increased funding of $39 million over the projected fiscal 2003 actual spending amount will accommodate an increase from the 2002 enrollment.

  • In support of the reading coach literacy initiative, we have proposed an appropriation of $9 million as the second installment of a four-year, $40 million commitment by Governor McGreevey to the program. Last summer, the department trained 30 reading coaches who have been working with teachers and students in 80 schools. We will expand this corps of coaches for the next school year. State literacy resources will be supplemented by approximately $20 million in aid for the new federal Reading First program which has the same goal as the state programs. We already have evidence that early literacy programs are succeeding in high poverty areas.

  • There are other department literacy initiatives that provide reinforcement for our belief that early literacy is the key to success in school and beyond. We have strengthened our language arts literacy standards to be much more specific in the early grades to assure that students are learning all of the necessary skills. In addition, there are over 60,000 students and 1500 teachers participating in the Governor’s Book Club to encourage students to read for fun.

  • For some time now, "accountability" has been the watchword. You have demanded that we be more accountable, and the general public agrees. We have responded with programs such as the report card and the comparative spending guide. The NCLB significantly increases the stakes by tying federal dollars to accountability measures. To meet these increasing responsibilities, the department has relied for too long on multiple reports and cumbersome processes. In order to help the state meet these requirements – and more – New Jersey must join other states by developing a comprehensive system to track student achievement, mobility, and other critical information. I, therefore, urge that you approve our $1.5 million request to initiate a student-level database called NJ SMART to be tested this fall. I should also note that we anticipate that federal funds will be available for this project as well.

  • In addition, federal mandates and revenues are very important in assisting the state with leveraging resources for improving teaching and learning. Based upon current federal figures, the FY 2004 budget includes a $52.2 million – or 11.7 percent -- increase in grants from the No Child Left Behind Act that is in effect. Programs with significant increases include Title I grants of $33.1 million – an increase of 12.9 percent -- and special education grants of $40.0 million, or an increase of 16.4 percent. The Improving Teacher Quality program will total $66.8 million for the state.

  • To assist with the development and implementation of the new testing requirements, the state will receive $9.2 million, a slight increase over the amount received in FY 2003. The testing requirements are an important measure of accountability for the increased federal support.

  • The state will be in compliance this year with the assessment mandates imposed by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. We have contracted with the Education Testing Service for NJ ASK 3 and NJ ASK 4 to be administered in May of this year. In succeeding years, we will add the other required tests in accordance with the federal time schedule. We also have received permission from the federal government to create the new fourth-grade test by incorporating enough of the items from the old Elementary School Proficiency Assessment to make the old and the new tests comparable. This will save the state the time and expense of having to administer the ESPA again this year along with a new fourth-grade test.

  • Also in accordance with the federal requirements, statewide testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8 must be in place by 2005-06 and requires expansion of the Alternate Proficiency Assessment (APA) for students with disabilities, consistent with the expansion of statewide testing. We must also factor in costs to produce Braille, large-print, and translated versions of the assessments.

  • We currently have launched another pilot project funded by a targeted grant of $750,000 to create performance-based tests to use in conjunction with our standardized assessments. This is being done in partnership with CREATE, the Coalition for Responsible Educational Assessment, Testing, and Evaluation, and the Business Coalition for Educational Excellence which are investing an additional $500,000 in supplemental funds and in-kind support.

  • Another important factor that will be incorporated into the new assessment program will be the revised Core Curriculum Content Standards. The standards are undergoing their first mandated five-year review. The State Board of Education has adopted the revised standards in language arts literacy, mathematics, and science and will soon adopt the revisions to the other areas of the standards. The new assessments will be aligned with the new provisions, and the existing eighth- and eleventh-grade tests have already been realigned to meet the revised standards in the areas that have been adopted.

  • Another priority of this administration is to make quality professional development opportunities available to teachers. Because teachers are the front line of educational delivery, we must provide resources to enhance the districts’ efforts. This budget includes $2 million for teacher mentoring aid. Mentoring has been shown through research to be a very successful strategy in developing and keeping good teachers in the classroom. According to national statistics, approximately 40 percent of teachers leave teaching within the first five years. This attrition rate is unacceptably high and we are working to reduce it.

  • In our state efforts to assure that all classrooms are headed by highly qualified teachers, we have two initiatives totaling $850,000. Using the recommended $500,000, we will develop a summer institute to assist both new and experienced teachers to master new techniques and enhance their subject matter knowledge. Another way of encouraging teachers is to provide incentives to attain national accreditation. The national certification process is rigorous and demanding, requiring teachers to complete a series of assignments tailored to the developmental level of their students. To offset the costs to the teachers of applying for accreditation, the Governor has recommended $350,000 in grants.

  • The teacher shortage also is an issue that we take seriously, and we will continue to help districts through our Web site database NJHIRE. Two years ago, the state provided incentives for preschool teachers in the special needs districts. This year’s budget provides $619,000 to continue the commitment made to those teachers.

  • Within the department, we know that we must move our backlog of certification requests much faster. We are in the process of creating a technology-based system to speed up the processing of applications so that we can get new teachers into our classrooms as quickly as possible.

  • I have listened with Governor McGreevey to the teachers of this state in a series of teacher town hall meetings over the last year. The input is extremely valuable for helping us fine-tune our professional development initiatives and improve conditions for teachers in classrooms, so that they can be as effective as possible in raising student achievement. We have found some of the most effective educational support can come through professional networks that do not require expenditures of state funds.

  • One of the department’s recent initiatives is the Network of Schools, a Web-based service that will help districts share good ideas and effective practices in the areas of special education reform, overcoming achievement deficits and implementing small schools concepts.

  • In our professional development efforts, the bottom line is to raise student achievement. Teachers not only must feel supported, they must also be effective educators.

  • I have been a proponent of public school choice throughout my career in education. The Department of Education is committed to preserving a viable public school choice program in this state, but there are some changes that must be considered in the current law.

  • In the meantime, this budget has proposed that we appropriate $2.8 million in increased funding for the public school choice program for added expenses related to enrollment growth in choice schools. Our charter schools and school choice programs currently provide an option for over 13,000 students and their parents. Charter Schools received facilities money from the federal School Renovation program.

  • Another of our state initiatives is the creation of diverse and multiple paths to student achievement. Our program of creating career academies is one way to encourage the collaboration of the education and business communities.

  • We have been pleased that some corporations have helped the state create career academies under a leadership team at Prosperity New Jersey. These academies are collaborative efforts among high schools, colleges, and business partners. They are modeled after a variety of existing academies. The first corporation to announce its commitment to the new program was Pfizer with a contribution of $500,000 to help start an academy at Morristown High School and provide expertise in science and health to both teachers and students. In addition, we have launched an engineering program in Trenton with the participation of PSE&G and Mercer County Community College. The most recent career partnership is Cherry Hill Academy for Studies and Experiences sponsored by Commerce Bank in conjunction with Cherry Hill School District and Drexel University, Rutgers, and Camden County Community College to create a business program that will be available to more than 3,600 students in the two high schools.

  • This year the department was awarded a four-year grant for approximately $2 million from the U.S. Department of Education under the Partnerships in Character Education grant program, Title V, Part D of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002. New Jersey is one of only five states to receive an award.

  • As part of this grant, the department recently announced the establishment of the New Jersey Center for Character Education (NJCCE) to be housed at the Center for Applied Psychology in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, Rutgers University, Piscataway.

  • With Legislative support, New Jersey is already leading the nation in its commitment to provide support for the development of character education in public schools through the New Jersey Character Education Partnership initiative, which has provided $14 million in state aid funding to school districts over the past three years.

  • Providing safe schools has become a topic of much greater intensity in light of several dramatic events in the last few years. Within schools, safety is often jeopardized by individuals who do not know how to control anger and who do not feel positive about their education and classmates. There has been a break-down in many of the values that used to make our communities and schools safe. There is a $4.8 million dollar appropriation in the budget to continue to fund Character Education programs.

  • One of the biggest problems we confronted upon taking office last year was to move the projects under the school construction program to completion. In order to coordinate the activities of the many agencies involved in the approval process, Governor McGreevey created the New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation, a subsidiary of the Economic Development Authority. The school construction program gives all school districts an increased percentage of state support for eligible project costs.

  • From the inception of the program through December of 2002, 145 of the 239 districts that would have received no state funding under the prior law have submitted one or more school construction projects and been approved to receive almost $550 million in state support from debt service aid or grants. This represents 45 percent of the total $1.2 billion in approvals.

  • As the Governor has said repeatedly, this was not the budget he wanted to submit, but we are confident that this budget will enable districts to weather the year with some belt tightening, creative solutions, innovative programs, and cooperative agreements. We will do whatever we can to provide districts with the resources of our department and generate funding sources for programs outside of the department. Even in this tight budget climate, the state and the school districts have created new programs, launched new initiatives, passed referenda, renovated buildings, and generally moved ahead this past year.

  • My staff and I look forward to working with the Legislature on some mutual concerns. Now I will be happy to answer any questions you have.