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Gov. Christie Pitches $5 Million Fund to Pilot Longer School Day and Year

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Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is asking for $5 million to establish an "Education Innovation Fund" that would support New Jersey districts' efforts to extend the school day or school year. He proposed the fund in his fiscal 2015 education budget, released last week.

Christie, who heads up the Republican Governors Association and is widely seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2016, came out as an advocate for extended learning time in his in his "State of the State" speech in January, arguing that New Jersey students need a longer school day and year to improve student achievement and boost the state's competitiveness.

The Education Innovation Fund would be a Race to the Top-style program in which school districts submit proposals for extending the school day or year, and the state would distribute grants to the best ideas, the budget proposal explains. Ultimately, New Jersey would seek to scale up the most effective of these initiatives statewide.

State teachers' union officials aren't impressed by the proposed innovation fund.

"It's a pilot, we'll see where it all goes, but I don't think anyone's expecting that it's going to change the landscape that dramatically," said Steve Wollmer, a spokesman for the state teachers' union, the New Jersey Education Association. "Schools are struggling with current funding levels, and there's nothing in this budget to even begin addressing a longer day or a longer year." Christie's $9 billion budget request for direct school aid would represent an increase of just $36.8 million—or an average of $20 per student—over the current fiscal year.

However, advocates for extended learning time say $5 million is enough to get the ball rolling.

"It gives school districts the opportunity to be thoughtful and do some planning and design work, and can also build interest in the idea statewide," said Jennifer Davis, the president of the National Center for Time and Learning. "Five million dollars might not be as high as some had wanted, but our hope is a number of models will emerge, they'll learn from some of the success stories in the state and around the country, and the initiative will grow."

The pilot programs might focus on ways to expand learning time cost-effectively, such as using blended learning and working with community groups, or identifying additional sources of funding, such as federal grants, she added.

Davis said that New Jersey already has some experience with expanded learning time in Elizabeth, which expanded the school day for all K-8 schools in 2011, and with its charter schools, "so there are already innovations unfolding there that other districts can learn from."

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