Advocates Put NJ on Notice Technology Gap Could Face Challenge

Tens of thousands of students lack tools for remote learning. Group says that violates their rights
Credit: August de Richelieu via Pexels
Distance learning depends on technology that many students do not have access to.

As the stakes and the drama rise on the reopening of New Jersey’s schools, the Murphy administration’s controversial approach allowing for a mix of online and in-person instruction is now facing some constitutional questions as well.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based organization that has led the landmark Abbott v. Burke school-equity litigation, announced Thursday that it had sent a formal notice to Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature that the continued gap in technology access for tens of thousands of students could very well be a violation of their constitutional rights to a “thorough and efficient” education.

“This letter is to put the state on notice that this technology is not just a discretionary matter,” said David Sciarra, the executive director of the center, in an interview Thursday. “It is an essential resource that must be provided to all students.”

The letter in itself is not a legal challenge, but Sciarra didn’t shy from the possibility of one coming as more than 1 million students are returning to instruction in the coming weeks, both in person and online.

“Could we go to court over this? Yes,” Sciarra said. “We know a lot of kids in the spring had educational loss, and if we get to the same point in the fall, this puts the attorney general on notice.”

Is there a Murphy plan to close tech gap?

Murphy has acknowledged the gap exists and committed $50 million in federal emergency aid to districts’ technology needs. But the administration has hardly been transparent since then in detailing where the gaps exist and how it will require districts to close them.

The state in June conducted a survey of districts that found as many as 230,000 students — a fifth of the state’s enrollment — were without either the necessary devices for online learning or the requisite internet connectivity. Efforts to update that number have been unsuccessful.

Murphy said he would seek to raise $40 million of the $50 million from private and corporate donors, but has yet to say publicly if that goal has been met.

On numerous occasions, Murphy has said the technology gap is on its way to being closed but remains a problem.

“It is an untenable divide,” Murphy said this summer in announcing the additional aid. “It is not a cost we can ignore, we must address this now.”

Looking for answers

Sciarra said the lack of hard data about where are the holes and what progress is being made is a fundamental request of his letter. “Six months into this, we need to know where the problems are,” he said.

The law center’s letter also recommends several steps to help schools address the gap, including statewide purchasing arrangements for local districts to tap for devices and other needs.

Paterson is among several districts that have said they have seen difficulty in fulfilling orders.

The ELC also implored the state’s Board of Public Utilities to make internet connectivity an “essential utility” that is part of its oversight.