NJ 2021: Issues, problems and potential conflicts in education

When and how to address the toll the pandemic has taken on education, dealing with the digital divide, finding requisite funding and resuming testing looming concerns
Credit: Juhan Sonin via Flickr
As thousands of students across NJ go “back” to school, remote learning is still the rule.

A year ago, “remote learning” sounded like science fiction, and the “hybrid model” referred to e-vehicles rather than a kind of schooling.

But, oh, how education changed in 2020, and so abruptly. Within days in mid-March, New Jersey’s more than 2,500 public schools and 1.4 million students left the classroom and opened up their laptops — at least those who had them.

The restart of schools in September was equally dramatic, with districts making Herculean efforts to shield and protect students. But most teaching was still a remote activity, and the largest districts remained online-only.

Now that 2021 is here, the year ahead for schools is nearly as unpredictable as 2020 was, with countless questions facing New Jersey educations leaders and policy-makers. Here are a few:

Reimagining education?

It’s been a mantra since nearly the start of the pandemic: Let’s learn from this unprecedented time, instead of returning to the same old model of schooling, one borne of the Industrial Age.

Well, have we? And what will this schooling look like?

It’s important to note the pandemic isn’t over by a long shot, and schools are expecting to at least start 2021 when students end the winter break this month with the current assortment of remote and in-class, as well as a hybrid mix of both.

But discussions have begun about what lies beyond, when schools fully reopen  in 2021, with some participants optimistic and others frankly worried. One such forum in New Jersey involving more than 20 stakeholder groups has been meeting regularly online to talk about next steps for the state’s public schools.

Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association, has been hosting the call. Joining her have been members of school boards and administrator groups, state policymakers and legislators, special education advocates, the state PTA and others.

Blistan said she sees an opportunity for fundamental change in schooling, and no doubt the powerful teachers union and its 200,000 members will to play a prominent part if there is.

“I am very hopeful,” Blistan said in a year-end interview with NJ Spotlight News. “We can’t make all the changes in a year or two, but we can start to shift the whole school structure.”

When asked what that specifically means, Blistan cited a prominent playbook by Stanford University academic scholar Linda Darling-Hammond.

Darling-Hammond has been a well-known thinker on education for years, and just recently led President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team on education and was said to be on his short-list for U.S. education secretary.

Her report titled “Restarting and Reinventing Schools” lays out 10 priorities for schools going forward that speak to a fundamental change in both academic and other supports:

  1. Close the digital divide.
  2. Strengthen distance and blended learning.
  3. Assess what students need.
  4. Ensure supports for social and emotional learning.
  5. Redesign schools for stronger relationships.
  6. Emphasize authentic, culturally responsive learning.
  7. Provide expanded learning time.
  8. Establish community schools and wraparound supports.
  9. Prepare educators for reinventing school.
  10. Leverage more adequate and equitable school funding.

“Each of these 10 policy priorities will help schools reinvent themselves around principles of equity, authentic learning, and stronger relationships, and they require shifts from policymakers and educators alike,” wrote Darling-Hammond, the report’s lead author.

Each priority is a playbook book itself, and the first two on school technology are immediate tasks that have already gotten considerable attention in New Jersey.

Nonetheless, as proof of the daunting challenge, 10 months after the start of the pandemic, nearly 10,000 students in New Jersey still don’t have the necessary tools for distance learning, today’s equivalent of basic school supplies.

Darling-Hammond’s next few priorities will be equally critical, addressing students’ mental and social-emotional health. The latter is not a new concept in education, by any means, but it may be where students have suffered most in the past 10 months of semi-isolation and devastation.

“When we know what we know about all the trauma they have gone through in their homes and communities, we can’t just bypass that when they come back,” Blistan said.

Of course, no structural changes will come without the buy-in of the teachers unions, and Blistan was less specific about that, saying that will likely be decided locally.

“When we are talking about a different workday, a different work year, those things will be clearly bargainable,” she said. “We’re looking at after-school, summers. We’re in a whole different world.”

Funding, funding, funding

School funding has been a landmark issue in New Jersey long before the pandemic (as Abbott v. Burke makes abundantly clear), and it could be even more critical in 2021 as schools emerge from the pandemic.

Gov. Phil Murphy has warned that New Jersey remains in a deep financial hole, with state and local governments reeling from lost tax and other revenues. But the state was already grappling with funding shortfalls and inequities when it came to schools, and worries abound they may worsen for districts with the greatest needs and the fewest financial resources to address them.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, will be a key player in the year ahead as one of the state’s unofficial watchdogs when it comes to education funding.

And he said he’s not waiting much longer for the state to meet its obligations to its disadvantaged communities, especially in regard to school facilities that the pandemic has proven woefully inadequate in attempts to reopen.

“We will be back in court in January,” Sciarra said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.

Sciarra said he recognizes the financial stresses, but also cites the state jumping to approve borrowing an additional $4 billion for other relief and, just last week, $1.5 billion a year for new tax credits.

The law center already put the Murphy administration on legal notice in October, saying it has failed to meet its constitutional obligations under the Supreme Court’s funding mandates in its Abbott v. Burke rulings regarding school facilities. Sciarra added he’s left with “no alternative” but to go back to court.

“They have just turned a blind eye,” Sciarra said of Murphy and Legislature. “They were willing to give tax credits away, but couldn’t address these needs? … They could find billions for tax credits, and couldn’t find $200-300 million to make sure school buildings are safe to return to?”

Also on the front burner is Murphy’s upcoming fiscal 2022 state budget, the biggest slice of which is school funding. Will he maintain his path from fiscal 2021, which saw funding unchanged for most districts. Will he make new investments in schools Or will he make new cuts?

On the other side of the ledger, the state’s schools stand to gain by some estimates more than $1 billion in additional federal dollars under the second stimulus bill out of Washington. Will that be added on or used to offset cuts?

Sciarra is skeptical of the latter, and points to New York State’s move to use the expected money as a stopgap, not a new investment.

“The point of all this is the money needs to be extra, new money — money for things like facilities and addressing the learning loss,” Sciarra said. “But the state would need to have a plan and not just leave to each district to work it out.”

Testing, learning loss, and election politics

When Murphy ran for governor four years ago, among his pledges was a promise to end the state’s reliance on student testing, the hot topic at the time.  With the world changed by COVID-19 and Murphy now running for reelection in 2021, that pledge remains unfinished business.

Technically, the state’s testing regimen back in 2017 — then best known simply as PARCC — ended two years later, at least in name. The state essentially retained the online model but renamed it the Student Learning Assessments, and Murphy took some incremental steps to reduce its weight in matters such as teacher evaluation.

But then the pandemic hit, and testing in any form was cast in a new and uncertain light.

On one hand, the federal Department of Education essentially waived the annual testing requirements last spring, killing all state testing for the year. And with the Biden administration starting up this month, it is possible that could happen again.

But that’s where the uncertainty comes.

Worries have mounted that the state isn’t doing enough to measure and ultimately address the potential learning loss or delay from the past 10 months. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential chair of the Senate’s education committee, has backed a renewal of the testing and said the state needs to take steps to measure “unlearning.”

Ruiz (D-Essex) has gone so far as file a bill to require the state to conduct such a review, a bill that passed the Senate in December by 38-1.

“If we are genuinely committed to closing the achievement gap we must acknowledge there was a divide pre-COVID. We must assess how it has grown throughout the pandemic. And we must invest post-COVID to ensure that it does not continue to grow,” she said.

But the state’s teachers union and other major education groups have pushed back, saying such as assessment during the craziness of the 2020-2021 school year will provide little benefit and only put added burden on schools.

Where Murphy will land is yet to be determined, and as if the year needed more challenges, it could prove a battleground within his own party in 2021.