LAW AND POLICY
Public education is a field that is governed by many layers of law. Regulation begins at the federal level when the U. S. Congress makes laws affecting various areas of education such as special education and remedial programs. In addition to congressional acts passed, federal agencies create rules and regulations that implement federal law and affect all school districts. Only Congress can change federal statutes, although they can be declared invalid by court decisions.
Similarly, proposals affecting education are constantly enacted as state statutes by the
N. J. Legislature. If bills are signed into law by the Governor, they become part of the body of education law entitled New Jersey Statutes Annotated (N.J.S.A.) Title 18A. For example, included in Title 18A are the school funding law, the Charter School Program Act and the Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act. Additionally, statutes enacted in other areas, such as public health, employment and elections, may also apply to school districts. Only the Legislature can alter state statutes, although they may be declared invalid by the courts.
Details about procedures and applications often are necessary for state education statutes to be implemented. They are developed by the Department of Education working in concert with the Commissioner and State Board of Education via the administrative code process. Once a law has been enacted, the process begins with a code proposal, if necessary. The Commissioner or State Board begin discussion of the proposed code, also referred to as rules or regulations, and the public is invited to give input. The code proposal is revised and ultimately adopted by the Commissioner or State Board, at which time it is added to the New Jersey Administrative Code (N.J.A.C.) Title 6 or 6A. For instance, the state board adopted code for standards and assessment for charter schools. Rules and regulations adopted by a state agency have the force of law unless changed by the agency or invalidated by court action or a change in statute.
School districts must also abide by the holdings of decisional law, which include court and state/federal agency administrative decisions. Unless overturned on appeal or altered by subsequent decisions, the holdings of courts and agencies have the force of law. There are three primary sources of decisional law affecting education. First are the decisions of the Commissioner of Education, who decides controversies and disputes arising under the school laws through an administrative hearing process. Second are those issued by the School Ethics Commission, which issues decisions with respect to alleged violations of the School Ethics Act. The decision of the State Board of Examiners is the third source; It issues decisions suspending or revoking certificates of teachers.
Determinations of the Commissioner are deemed final agency actions and are appealable to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court. Decisions of the State Board of Examiners to suspend or revoke teaching certificates and decisions of the School Ethics Commission finding violation of the School Ethics Act are appealable to the Commissioner.
State and Local Policy
Not only are districts regulated by statute, code and decisional law, but they also must follow state and local policy. Local board of education members are the school district's policy makers. In fact, while the state establishes the broader framework within which school districts must operate, local boards of education set many of the policies and procedures that most directly affect students and staff. Districts have manuals that contain written policies adopted by vote of the board. Parents should be familiar with these policies; Requests can be made to see the policies at the school district's administration building. Parents can affect local policy by attending board meetings and participating in the process. Proposed policies are open for public input. For instance, parents often write to the Commissioner about the fall cut-off date set for a child's entrance to school in their district but that date is governed by local policy.
Local policies generally are considered valid as long as they do not conflict with provisions of federal or state statutes and regulations. Disputes that arise from local board decisions can be brought before the Commissioner of Education for a legal determination when they involve questions of education law. However, local board decisions cannot be voided by the Commissioner unless they are found to be in violation of state law. The Commissioner's judgment cannot be substituted for that of the local board.
Role of NJ Department of Education
One major function of DOE is to create state-level policy initiatives that shape the education system to fit the Governor's vision for education and the State Board's strategic plan. For the last decade, the department has created initiatives that launched standards-based reform in New Jersey. the initiatives include development, adoption, and periodic updating of the Core Curriculum Content Standards; development and administration of state tests in grades 3 to 8 and 11; charter schools; the school funding system; expanded early childhood education; and transformation of secondary education, among others.
The department also administers federal and state entitlement and discretionary grant programs that make available millions of dollars to local school districts, community-based organizations, institutions of higher education and other agencies. The grant programs support critical education initiatives such as school improvement; educational technology; charter schools; community service; school-to-work; adult education; and many others. Additionally, the department posts on the Web current information about grant opportunities available from other sources, including the federal government and public and private foundations.
One of the most important roles of the department is in the administration of aid in accordance with state funding law. In the beginning of each year, the department's finance division issues the state aid report showing the amount each district is entitled to in various state aid categories. The local district factors its state aid figures into the local school budget that citizens vote on in April. Whatever amount of the local budget that state aid does not cover must be provided by the community's taxpayers and is referred to as the local share. The best way to learn about how the funding law affects the local budgeting process is to attend board sessions in the fall of the year when board members and administrators are determining the priorities of the local budget and developing the budget questions that will appear on the ballot.
Parents often ask about resolving disagreements that arise under the various laws and policies that affect school districts. Many problems and disagreements can be resolved by contacting the school principal or district superintendent of schools. If efforts at the local level are not successful, the county office of education may be able to assist. If an issue stems from alleged violations of state school law or disagreement over its interpretation or application under particular circumstances, and the aggrieved party wants to have the opportunity to present argument and evidence at an administrative hearing, a petition of appeal can be filed with the Commissioner of Education as long as the matter does not primarily involve special education issues. A petition is filed through the Office of Controversies and Disputes using the process found in the administrative code.
If a person alleges conduct in violation of the School Ethics Act, a complaint can be filed with the School Ethics Commission, as provided in the School Ethics code. If a complaint is about a local district's placement of a special education student, it may be addressed to the Office of Special Education. If a complaint alleges wrongdoing by school district officials or irregularities in district operations, it may be addressed to the appropriate Executive County Superintendent or to DOE’s Office of Fiscal Accountibility and Compliance.
Certain types of disagreements that do not arise under state education law must be pursued through other state agencies, the courts or at the federal level. If you are not sure how to address a problem that cannot be resolved at the local school district level, the county office of education might be able to provide guidance in some instances. The DOE offices listed above cannot offer legal advice, but they are able to provide information about the school laws within their areas of operation and about their respective processes for filing complaints or appeals. Phone numbers for departmental offices are available in the department overview.
Parental involvement in education is essential for progress in any attempt to reform the education system. Parents are encouraged to attend local board meetings, vote in school board elections, volunteer at school, participate in the PTA, serve on school management teams or district committees and councils, and, above all, be active advocates for their children.