A new federal education law gives the state and local districts more control over New Jersey schools. But some are already raising concerns about a spring deadline for a plan to be submitted.

At issue is that a four-year plan for implementing the Every Student Succeeds Act is due to be submitted in March by the Department of Education of the lame-duck administration of Gov. Chris Christie. That plan potentially could be at odds with the priorities of whatever candidate gets elected governor next year.

“We do resubmit every four years, and so we will be obligated to follow our plan for about four years,” Diana Pasculli, the DOE deputy chief external affairs officer, told the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools at a hearing Tuesday.

Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex, said “a governor on his way out the door” shouldn’t be submitting the plan and that he isn’t even sure who the education commissioner is currently. (Kimberley Harrington became the acting commissioner last month.) He noted the president will also be changing in January.

“Can we get an extension? I mean I really think this is important that our new governor and their team be part of this deliberation process,” Diegnan said. "I don’t think this team should be doing it.”

Assemblyman David Wolfe, R-Ocean, shared Diegnan's concerns.

"The senator brought up a very good point,” Wolfe said. “I mean, we’re going to have a political change of administration in the state, and also a federal change of administration. So are we really spinning our wheels now doing all this?”

There are two submission deadlines, in March and July 2017, said Charmaine Mercer, director of the Washington office of the Learning Policy Institute, though she said U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr. is considering whether to change the due dates. And the plans can be updated later, she said, unlike under the No Child Left Behind Act that’s been replaced.

“This one is that if states find for better or for worse reasons that they need to go back and revisit their plans, they can resubmit,” Mercer said.

The new federal education law, adopted last December, was touted throughout the hearing by all parties involved as a dramatic and beneficial change in education policy. It gives states more say, and potentially more flexibility, over assessing teachers and student assessments, among other issues.

“It is a gift to the state of New Jersey,” said Diane Genco, executive director of the Statewide Network for New Jersey’s Afterschool Communities. “We are not a cookie-cutter state. We are not a state that does what everybody else does around the country. We have very unique and different needs and issues.”

“It’s only a gift if it’s done well,” said David Aderhold, superintendent of the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district. “Because if we put the plan together wrong, and we miss aspects, it’s a nightmare for public education.”

ESSA determines how more than $20 billion in federal education funds are distributed. It includes requirements about how states must report information about schools, assess their performance and determine which schools need extra aid.

The NJDOE held listening sessions to get input on its plan last month in Morristown, Sewell, East Brunswick and Teaneck. Thirty-two people and groups testified.

The plan is supposed to be implemented beginning next school year.

One issue likely to be scrutinized is what to do about standardized assessments like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. ESSA no longer requires student progress on such tests to be used to evaluate teachers and seeks more generally to de-emphasize such exams.

“An assessment is required. We are required to annually assess our students on their progress towards our state learning standards,” Pasculli said. “And so at this time we do use PARCC in New Jersey, and so that will continue. But there are questions that are part of where we have some discretion that we are asking and speaking with folks about.”

Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, said ESSA requires one test, then allows states to go farther if they choose, while New Jersey requires three.

“It’s not like we can eliminate testing,” Rice said. “There’s just ... the way you’ve been handling testing is not the way to go. It’s just destroying the education system.”

Wildwood Schools Superintendent John Kummings said New Jersey’s testing program has grown to potentially six compulsory math and language arts assessments in high school, one of the highest test amounts in the country.

“Any opportunity to decrease the frequency and volume of mandated testing will result in more opportunities for learning as well as a reduction in cost at the school district and state levels,” Kummings said.

Newton Schools Superintendent G. Kennedy Greene said the state should restore the use of alternate graduation requirements other than PARCC. He said college entrance exams such as the SAT and ACT match the state standards in math and language arts more closely than PARCC.

“Four out of five our students show up voluntarily on a Saturday morning, take a multiple-hour test, which their parents pay for, and they do it willingly,” Greene said. “And yet we don’t see this as the low-hanging fruit that it is. It’s accepted. It’s normal. We do this. Why wouldn’t we consider that to be valid for high school graduation?”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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