As New Jersey plans to reopen its schools this fall, it’s an ugly yet open secret that while this state has one of the best public school systems in the nation, deep veins of inequity run through it, and too many Black and Latino students are still getting a raw deal.
Nowhere is this savage inequality more obvious than in the physical condition of the brick-and-mortar school buildings we are likely sending kids and teachers back to this fall. The simple fact is that if you’re a Black or Latino student in New Jersey, your school is more likely to be overcrowded and in need of repair or replacement than if you were a white student. This is true at precisely the time we need more space for COVID-related social-distancing policies, especially in the Black and Latino communities hit hardest by this virus.
This inequity is wrong — especially in a state that bills itself as “progressive,” while a growing body of scientific evidence indicates that investments in school-building improvements can lead to better student outcomes.
Making matters worse: New Jersey’s state agency in charge of fixing the problem has been effectively broke for several years, is mired in yet another scandal and faces dim prospects for new funding amid a statewide fiscal emergency. Meanwhile, a roof collapsed at a school for children with special needs in Jersey City, a middle school classroom ceiling in Salem City went unrepaired for 12 years and finally collapsed in 2016 and only two of the 20 “Worst School Buildings in Newark” have been replaced since the list was put together by the Education Law Center in 2014. And the state’s charter schools have been shut out of over $12 billion in capital funding directed to all other types of public schools — even though they now educate about one in five students in low-income school districts. These are just a few of the “lowlights” that exemplify New Jersey’s school facilities crisis. And the state is not alone; a recent report from the Government Accountability Office demonstrated the national scale of the problem.
That’s why it was a breath of fresh air to see the U.S. House of Representatives recently pass a national infrastructure package that included the Rebuild America’s Schools Act (RASA). The RASA bill would provide $100 billion in federal grants to states to rebuild low-income public schools of all kinds (district, charter, magnet, county, and so forth), as well as $30 billion in bond programs to help build even more schools. The legislation also provides reasonable taxpayer protections against self-dealing and waste.
This bill could be the rocket fuel the state needs to remedy this injustice, and we were proud to see that many of the bill’s original sponsors hail from New Jersey: Donald Norcross, Newark’s own Donald Payne Jr., Bonnie Watson Coleman, Frank Pallone and Bill Pascrell. These folks fought for years alongside a civil rights champion in Virginia’s Bobby Scott to get this bill done and they deserve our praise.
It’s also a win-win for taxpayers right now because it puts New Jerseyans to work in good-paying, union jobs rebuilding schools that will be safer, more environmentally friendly and better equipped for controlling pandemics. This kind of infrastructure investment is just the economic stimulus the nation needs and is similar to what we’ve done throughout all major recessions.
The problem is that the GOP-controlled Senate and the Trump White House have effectively declared war on this proposal (and a great many other infrastructure investments that the House passed). The president has issued a veto threat and the Senate seems focused on a narrow range of issues that don’t involve schools. New Jersey’s representation in the Senate (Cory Booker and Bob Menendez) are excellent and committed, but they are in the minority party there.
This is the sorry state of affairs the country finds itself in. We can’t fix crumbling school buildings because of petty partisan politics. We can’t address these kinds of savage inequalities because one party was first to propose something, and now the other party must oppose it or fear for their electoral lives in November (or so the conventional wisdom goes).
For the sake of our children, we must remain hopeful that Senate leaders will do the right thing and pass it quickly — and then Gov. Phil Murphy, Senate President Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Coughlin can craft policy to put it into the field. A proposal that benefits children, addresses racial inequality and puts Americans to work during a time of record unemployment should not fall victim to partisan politics.