New Jersey lawmakers trying to get — and keep — teachers in schools

A view of a classroom from the back of the room with students raising their hands and a teacher in the background calling on someone.
Teacher and students in elementary school classroom Bills that would remove obstacles to teacher certification and establish student-teacher scholarships are getting widespread support among New Jersey lawmakers and education advocates. (Kali9 / Getty Images)

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More measures designed to fight the teacher shortage in New Jersey schools moved closer to becoming law after the Assembly Education Committee recently cleared five bills that focus on teacher recruitment and retention.

The bills were introduced during the last legislative session but did not make it across the finish line. The measures, moved last week, include removing obstacles to teacher certification, providing scholarships for student teachers and creating a task force to study how and when teachers are evaluated. The bills had widespread support among legislators and representatives of leading education stakeholder groups, who said solving the teacher shortage is a priority.

“Shortages in our educator workforce are damaging to our districts and to the children they serve. It is so important that we fill our educator training pipeline with qualified, motivated individuals who want to become teachers, and want to stay teachers,” Assemblywoman and education committee Chair Pamela Lampitt (D-Camden) said in a statement. “These bills will help school districts and newly certified teachers make meaningful connections, while alleviating some of the financial strain caused by student loans, enabling these educators to focus on their students and giving our youth the education they deserve.”

A survey by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association found that in August, just before the start of the current school year, only 16.3% of members had fully staffed their classrooms, said Jennie Lamon, assistant director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

“School staffing shortages continues to be one of the most significant challenges facing school districts, continues to be one of the most significant obstacles preventing districts from developing or expanding high quality school programs that meet the academic, social, emotional, mental-health needs of their students,” said Jesse Young, a legislative advocate for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

Establish teacher database, ‘Grow Your Own’ program, and more

Here is a look at the teacher shortage bills that moved forward last week:

A-1676 would require the Department of Education and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to create a database of teachers who are eligible to work, including their employment status, certificates, endorsements, and contact information.

The Department of Education would also be required to host three job fairs each year to connect school districts with novice teachers. The fairs would take place in the north, south and central parts of the state.

The bill does not have a Senate counterpart in the current legislative session.

A-1669 would remove the requirement for teacher candidates to take a basic skills test of reading, writing, and math to obtain a certification of eligibility. This would include removing the Praxis Core Academic Skills for Educators test, which critics believe is a poor measure of teacher qualifications.

“This is being viewed as dumbing down requirements for teachers and that could not be any further from the truth,” said Assemblywoman Dawn Fantasia (R-Sussex), who has been in public education for 18 years. “This bill will eliminate a majorly duplicative test. I know from my teaching certifications.”

An identical bill was introduced in the Senate and referred to the Senate Education Committee.

A-1619 would establish a “Grow Your Own” Teacher Loan Redemption program, which would encourage high school graduates from communities facing teacher shortages to return to their home districts to teach. The Higher Education Assistance Authority would offer loan redemption of up to $10,000 per year for up to five years.

“We’re very concerned not only about staffing shortages but also about the pipeline of educators going forward and this bill package will help address both those issues,” said Fran Pfeffer, associate director of governmental relations at the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union.

An identical bill was reported from the Senate Education Committee and referred to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in January.

A-3413 would establish a task force to revisit rules for how and when teachers and principals are evaluated in public schools. The 13-member body would offer recommendations for improvements and changes to the current tenure law. The collection of student growth objectives would be limited while the task force is studying the matter. Student growth objectives, known as SGOs, are long-term academic goals set by teachers in consultation with their supervisors; they’re used as part of the summative evaluation process for teachers.

The bill already passed the Senate. It’s a watered-down version of a bill from the last legislative session that would have extended the time between evaluations.

“This piece of legislation did a one-eighty, I would venture to say, in terms of where we were with the idea of teacher evaluation. I’m really appreciative of the great work we all did to get it to where it is in terms of trying to create a task force to do the evaluation and the real nitty-gritty work to provide the data back to us to determine what is the best next step,” Lampitt said.

A-2362 would establish the New Jersey Student Teacher Scholarship to reduce financial barriers to teacher certification. It would provide scholarships of up to $7,200 to eligible students for each semester of full-time clinical practice completed in a school in the state.

The bill garnered a lot of support from lawmakers and stakeholders, with two groups proposing amendments. Representatives from the New Jersey Speech Language and Hearing Association urged lawmakers to amend the bill to include speech language specialists who are doing student teaching. The College of New Jersey also asked for an amendment to remove the language “in the state” from the bill to include students who do their student teaching in neighboring states or internationally through a global teaching program.

An identical bill was introduced in the Senate and referred to the Senate Higher Education committee.

Hannah Gross covers education and child welfare for NJ Spotlight News via a partnership with Report for America. She covers the full spectrum of education and children’s services in New Jersey and looks especially through the lens of equity and opportunity. This story was first published on NJ Spotlight News, a content partner of Chalkbeat Newark.

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