NJ Senate Education Committee Rips DOE’s Digital Divide Failures

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“I’m so angry right now that I’m trying to contain myself,” Ruiz, D-Essex, told state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet during an Education Committee hearing. “If we don’t see 100% of families connected before September, I gotta tell you I don’t even know what is going to come out of my mouth.”

This was the scene at yesterday’s Senate Education Committee hearing as Repollet informed members that the State Department of Education had made no progress in closing the digital divide during this extended period of school closures.

Why are about 100,000 New Jersey schoolchildren — one out of eight kids — still unable to access remote instruction, due to either lack of internet or lack of a device?

Because the NJ DOE is a laissez-faire institution right in tune with NJ’s affection for local control. Offer guidance, sure. Actually solve systemic problems that require oversight? Not so much.

This approach works out fine for families who can afford to buy their way into high-performing schools in wealthy towns. It works poorly for families shut out from gated communities and forced into schools with long histories of graduating students who can’t pass basic competency tests. This “let them eat cake” culture certainly doesn’t work during a pandemic and economic downturn where our neediest kids are left far behind, all for want of broadband connections and chromebooks.

Yesterday Paula White, who lasted one day as DOE Deputy Commissioner due to NJEA leaders’ disapproval, wrote on Facebook,

Thank you, Sen. Ruiz. 1.4 million students, 100K of them lacking the technology they need to learn. Poor whites, and most Black and Brown children may as well be wearing Cross Colors jeans and playing with Cabbage Patch dolls because their schools are in a past era, yet some leaders still look for any chance to let the “#1 state for education” drivel roll of their tongues. These words are a betrayal and a disgrace to the children who, because of how the math shakes out, can be hidden under a rock.

Or, as Senator Ruiz told Senator Ruiz told participants during a webinar called “Learning from NJ’s Public Charter Schools during COVID-19,” 

We say we [our state education system] is the number one in the country. I laugh about this all the time, and I will until that’s actually true for all our districts….That is not the honest truth for all my families. Until that is true for every student in New Jersey there is still a lot of work to be done. Our achievement gap is stagnant and growing. 

Ruiz added later in the webinar, “we don’t ever want to dictate to districts, but the New Jersey Department of Education must have one uniform approach: To see what we’ve done and what has not been done. We need [from the DOE] uniform benchmarks so we know these expected things are happening.” 

Instead, we have a DOE that dismantles its Department of Educational Technology and writes on its homepage

The Department recognizes that ‘schooling’ cannot continue as usual and that schools and educators will be addressing the diverse needs of their students in different ways. We hope that this information will help our students continue to receive the same high-quality education that has made New Jersey number one in the nation. 

Note to the DOE: This information is not helpful.  You have provided no bottom-line benchmarks and your guidance is word salad. 

That’s why there is no progress in bridging NJ’s digital divide. 

And that did not go over well at yesterday’s committee meeting. Journalists took notice:

 NJ Spotlight: “Senate Democrats were unsparing in their criticism, with Ruiz, Chair of the committee, especially candid: ‘The fact we are not more angry and livid about this is extraordinary. We talk about equity and then we do things that are anti-equitable.’..Senate Democrats especially were unsparing over the state’s lack of progress in closing the digital divide, an issue that Gov. Phil Murphy had said would be priority when schools were shuttered.

Advance Media: “’Why are we not all screaming?’ Ruiz asked.

InsiderNJ: “100K families [without access to the Internet and technology] is unacceptable,” Ruiz told Repollet.

“We’re trying to hold districts accountable,” said Repollet. “We have been putting guidance out.”

“People want uniform benchmarks,” Ruiz said. “It’s great to hear you’re giving guidance but what does that guidance to the district look like? I’m a parent, and I haven’t seen that come before me yet.”

Repollet is on his way out. I’ve heard a few names tossed out as successors but no one seems certain whom his replacement will be. Yet this we know to be true: If Murphy is committed to equitable access to educational opportunities for New Jersey families, he’ll appoint a commissioner who does more than pose for photo ops.

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