Hosted at an elementary school in one of the poorest cities in the state, Gov. Phil Murphy last week presented a plan that he said would help close the gaping digital divide for New Jersey public education in this COVID-19 pandemic world.
His plans only confirm just how gaping a divide it is.
Murphy traveled on Thursday to Irvington’s Madison Avenue School to announce a plan to target $54 million in existing federal aid to help buy the thousands of Chromebooks, laptops, Wi-Fi hotspots and other tools for schools and families in need if remote instruction is again to be a big part of the mix in the fall, as expected.
He said 4,800 students in Irvington alone — more than half the district — were left out of full use of remote instruction in the spring due to technology needs and in peril for the same for the fall.
“It is an untenable divide,” Murphy said Thursday. “It is not a cost we can ignore, we must address this now.”
It was an inevitable acknowledgment from the governor that whatever schools look like in September, computers for remote instruction have become the new paper-and-pencil of basic school supplies — and tens of thousands of New Jersey kids are without them.
DOE has more work to do
But despite the promise to fully close the gap, this looks to be only the start. The state Department of Education on Friday said that the full need is likely close to $115 million, and Murphy himself said as many as 230,000 students — a fifth of the state’s public school enrollment — were without the needed devices and connectivity this spring.
That’s even more than previously reported, when officials in May said about 90,000 families were without connectivity and 130,000 without adequate devices. But the state’s numbers have also always been loosely reported, and the department said it would release updated ones this week.
The DOE on Friday maintained that districts have already started to close the gap, and the additional public investment — along with an undefined public pledge drive for corporate philanthropic support — will go a long way toward closing it entirely. It cited a rough estimate of about $500 per student.
The plan would include three main components:
- $10 million in existing federal funds to districts to purchase and provide the technology;
- $44 million in other federal emergency funds provided by the state; and an
- unidentified sum in business and other philanthropic funds.
The federal money that districts could receive anyway would be available in a grant process through the state education department. In what is an unusual outreach, Murphy’s plan for philanthropic support would have the state’s Economic Development Authority open a formal process for private funds to be donated from organizations and corporations.
“Any help we can get from our business community will allow us to stretch our state funds even further and offset other costs face in reopening,” Murphy said.
The details were posted last week, and proposals are due by July 31.
Sweeney, Ruiz back governor
Standing with Murphy on Thursday were Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, inarguably the two most influential legislators when it comes to education policy. Sweeney’s attendance especially didn’t go unnoticed, given his often-contentious relationship with Murphy.
“These are tough times and there is not a lot of money, but it’s critically important that the governor will insure that all children – that’s a big word, all children – are going to be ensured the opportunity for an education,” Sweeney said.
“How many Einsteins have we lost, how brilliant kids did we lose because they did not get a good education?” he said.
Ruiz has been among the state’s most outspoken when it comes to the digital divide, and she said this investment was a start.
“The pandemic uncovered an ugly truth that many of us always knew,” Ruiz said. “It is not something that happened over the last five months, it is something that we have been screaming about for decades.
“We do not know what September will bring, but we know that many districts will be going hybrid [in-person and virtual], so let’s equip every child with that they need,” she said.
When contacted afterward, Ruiz said more investment will be necessary, citing the needs and training for teachers, as well.
“This was the easiest part to do,” she said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “It’s just the beginning.”