In Trenton: Thumbs up for civics lessons and aid to school lunch debtors

Lawmakers in both houses of the state Legislature on Thursday took up issues that have recently made headlines: school lunch programs that impose penalties on students and families who fall behind in payments, and the lack of a mandatory civics curriculum for students in the Garden State.

After months of public outcry over sanctions imposed for unpaid breakfast and lunch meals, members of the state Assembly sought to fix what they said were loopholes in current legislation. The existing wording allowed students with unpaid tabs to be denied food, shamed and even banned from prom.

“They were in lunch lines next to a child where a food employee was instructed to throw the food away because the student didn’t have money,” said Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt, a Democrat whose district includes elements of Burlington and Camden Counties. “She too wanted to pull money out of her pocket to be able to pay for the student’s meal, but it wasn’t allowed.”

The package of new bills discussed by the Assembly Education Committee on Thursday includes a measure giving a student’s parent or guardian a 10-day grace period to pay school lunch bills in arrears. Another clarifies that no part of the law requires districts to impose restrictions on meals or activities. And a third stops schools from trying to collect unpaid meal fees directly from students.

“What these bills do is they really make sure that kids are not served an alternative meal that they’re not marked as different and shamed even kind of from the side,” said Adele Latourette, the director of Hunger Free NJ.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey talked about the importance school lunches play in nutrition for some students.

“When schools have half days, do you know that in the poorer districts they dismiss after lunch?” said the Essex and Morris Democrat. “And the reason they do that is they know that their kids depend on school lunches and breakfasts.”

Another bill would require school districts to set up a fund allowing them to accept and receive donations to pay down the school meal debt of students.

Assemblyman Eric Simonson said he applauded the bill but had questions about details.

“Are there going to be provisions on who can set up these accounts? Are people going to start a GoFundMe page and then making sure the money goes to the student? That’s my only concern,” said the south Jersey Republican.

Lampitt said the mechanics would be left up to local officials.

“The school board will define how the actual funds will be able to be donated,” she said.

All four bills were approved without dissent by the committee.

Meanwhile, the Senate Education Committee unanimously endorsed a bill that would bring civics lessons back to middle and high school classrooms in an age when many in society know precious little about how their government works.

“Young people today, they can tell you the names of the Kardashian sisters, but they cannot tell you the names of the U.S. senators who represent them in Washington,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, the Mercer County Democrat. “We need to have more of our students engaged.”

The bill requires school districts to use the Department of Education’s curriculum guidelines to teach the values and principles of democracy, lessons that were a mainstay of education generations ago. The idea is for students to learn about the functions and limitations of government and the role of a citizen in a democratic society.

Student advocate Hope Perry said that New Jersey currently ranks in the bottom third of all states for civic engagement among 18- to 24-year olds.

“New Jersey is only one of 10 states that does not require any civic education in high school,” said Perry, a high school student herself. “We have great schools but we are doing our children and fellow citizens a fundamental disservice by not providing this education. We are not equipping them to advocate for themselves as adults.”

The legislation also requires the Department of Education to provide funding for the civics instruction.

Leaders of both committees said the school lunch and civics instruction issues were top priorities for this legislative session.