TRENTON – Parents could request that their child repeat their current grade next school year but wouldn’t have the final say in the decision, under a revised grade-retention plan advancing in the Legislature.

The bill endorsed Wednesday by the Assembly Education Committee differs from one a Senate committee had OK’d in March in that a retention request would then be followed by a consultation with teachers, counselors or a child study team.

If there’s agreement that the retention is necessary, the school principal would be required to approve it. If there’s no consensus, the superintendent of schools would make the final decision – not the parents, as was the case in the earlier plan.

“Everybody recognizes this has been a very, very different kind of year with the pandemic. Many of the kids have been receiving their education virtually – and in some cases, not very well,” said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex. “… There’s been in many cases academic regression and also there’s been psychological and emotional damage.”

“Most cases, parents are the ones that know most about the situation at this point,” he said. “This bill really just sets up a process which is probably already established in the law, but it will make parents aware that they have a right to request retention.”

Caputo said he worked on the revisions to the bill with the Department of Education and hopes the legislation can be matched up with the Senate version and approved soon.

“In normal conditions, I would think that this might not be as necessary,” Caputo said. “But in these conditions that we have suffered under the pandemic, I think this brings parents closer to school leaders, gives more parental involvement and will give them an opportunity to express their concerns about the progress or lack of progress of their individual child.”

The bill applies for students in grades K through 8. Parents or guardians would have until June 30 to submit their written request, rather than June 1 as had been the Senate bill’s plan.

School superintendents could choose to accept grade-retention requests beyond June 30. That was important to Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, D-Camden, who cited concerns such as providing time for educators to communicate with families.

“Some parents may not even be aware of the lag that their students have until their final grades occur,” Lampitt said.

Education groups that had opposed the Senate bill representing administrators and school boards endorsed the Assembly approach. A few other groups – the Garden State Coalition of Schools and Save Our Schools NJ – were opposed.

The bill advanced unanimously, though Assemblyman Erik Simonsen, R-Cape May, expressed concern about the financial repercussions.

“The question is always going to be how are we paying for it,” Simonsen said. “It does cost money to retain students, although like I said it’s obviously a worthwhile bill.”

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Simonsen noted that districts are receiving federal COVID aid, a point repeated by Lampitt.

“There’s a lot of funding that are going to our schools,” Lampitt said. “… None of it is specifically directed towards continuing education or holding back the student or providing additional services, too. So, it’s giving the flexibility to our schools as they see what specifically they need for their school districts.”

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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