RICCARDS: Why Are New Jersey Leaders Not Prioritizing Education to Build Back Better?

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It was no surprise that the Congressional Progressive Caucus recently released its priorities for the American Jobs Plan. Based on a survey of its 95 members, including four from the Garden State, the CPC specifically called for investments in: 1) strengthening the care economy; 2) making bold investments in affordable housing; 3) dramatically lowering drug prices and using savings to pay for public health expansion; 4) adding bold investments in climate jobs and impacted communities; and 5) developing a roadmap for citizenship and inclusion for immigrant communities.

A third of the New Jersey congressional delegation are active members of the CPC. Representatives Donald Norcross (NJ-1), Andy Kim (NJ-3), Frank Pallone (NJ-6), and Bonnie Watson-Coleman (NJ-12) are all members of a group that claims then-Congressman Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as its founding chairman and Rep. Pramila Jaypal (D-WA) as its current chair.

No, no one who has followed progressive politics – both nationally and here in New Jersey – would find any of these items on the tick list to be surprising. The true surprise, though, even after drilling down on these five priorities, is that education is nowhere to be found on the CPC’s wish list.

The CPC’s care economy priority list includes some basic language on making childcare a universal benefit, but fails to include any mention of extended days at schools or outside-of-schooltime programs that have proven so effective in bridging instructional gaps. Elsewhere, we see calls for weatherization of homes, drug price limits, the funding of a Civilian Climate Corps, and higher emissions standards. But not a word on the K-12 education or postsecondary education supports, the student loan forgiveness, or the workforce retraining that is necessary if we are to truly “build back better” from both the pandemic and the civil unrest we’ve experienced over the past (at least) 14 months.

Last month, David Aderhold, the superintendent of West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District and the president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, offered up a list of nine key questions NJ Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey State Legislature needed to answer before NJ public schools could fully open for the 2021-22 academic year.  Most of these questions are ones that should be addressed through the American Jobs Plan and other Covid relief legislation coming out of Washington, DC. They should, but they simply are not. Despite the trillions and trillions of dollars being spent so we can build back better, including hundreds of billions going to K-12 schools, none of these questions are addressed. Nor or the issues highlighted by the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

And this is after Dr. Aderhold and the Garden State Coalition of Schools issued lists of hundreds of similar questions that were largely ignored before we decided to re-open New Jersey schools back in the fall and further insisted on expanded reopenings this spring. Hundreds of valid questions regarding physical plant, transportation, connectivity, teacher supports, instructional materials, free- and reduced-lunch programs, and such. Many, many questions. And an absence of answers.

This winter, we entered an era where the progressive voice in Congress (and in our state legislature) is stronger than it has been in modern memory. Yes, the margins are slim, but the voice is louder and more confident than it has ever been. We’ve seen the power in the voice in both the Cabinet selections President Joe Biden has made as well as in the immediate policy about-faces the White House has made on immigration, vaccinations, and other issues as the left flank loudly complains about decisions it disagrees with.

So with the strength of that voice, why are we not seeing that power being directed at education and our K-12 schools? For the third of the NJ congressional delegation that proudly counts itself as a member of the CBC, we must ask, where is education? Yes, clean energy standards and climate jobs are important, but are they more important than providing a high-quality education to all students, particularly those in high-need communities? Are Green New Deal provisions on housing really more important than ensuring our public school buildings have the HVAC systems and the space to properly distance in-person kids in our post-Covid classrooms? While training for the childcare workforce is important, is it so much more important that properly supporting and equipping millions of teachers with the skills and knowledge necessary to teach all children in their charge?

There once was a time when education policy could rise above identity politics and the red-blue divide. A time when, despite our differences, we could all agree that all learners – regardless of race, income, or zip code – were entitled to a high-quality public education. That time, though, seems to have passed us by.

Today, we are demanding that all public schools be fully reopened for physical instruction without addressing the hundreds of operational, logistical, instructional, and strategic questions those leading our school districts have asked. Today, we are pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into K-12 relief and support, without any real guidance to ensure those dollars are being used for little more than to pay off the past-due bills payable to Covid. And today, we are calling for trillions of new dollars to build our communities back better, but leaders in our New Jersey congressional delegation are promoting priorities that don’t even mention the words K-12 education.

With all the tax dollars New Jersey residents send to Washington, DC; with all of the devastation our schools and local communities have endured from a yearlong pandemic lockdown; with our public schools’ collective shortcomings when it comes to the educational needs of the future, New Jersey deserves better. Much better.

It’s disappointing that progressives, including many New Jersey leaders, are not prioritizing education when it comes to the potential impact of the American Jobs Program. But it is truly heartbreaking that legislative leaders in Trenton, other New Jersey leaders in DC, and activists across the state are not using that strong progressive voice to demand that education have a seat at the Rebuild table. 

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