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“Districts have serious needs, and this could help them address equity issues worsened by the virus. But as welcome as this money is, the state’s depleted Department of Education is woefully unprepared to make sure it’s spent effectively.”
That’s the Star-Ledger Editorial Board conveying its concerns about the ability of the New Jersey Department of Education to manage the infusion of federal money coming to New Jersey school districts through the Biden Administration’s pandemic recovery plans. How much money? About $3 billion (more precisely, $2,764,587,703), with 90% going directly to districts to address learning loss and pay for pandemic needs, like intensive tutoring, summer programming, extended school days, and infrastructure. Newark alone, NJ’s largest school district, will get $177 million, a staggeringly large amount of money, especially when added to the $84 million from an earlier federal stimulus package; that’s an extra $7,300 extra per student. The U.S. Education Department recommends bold initiatives, innovative programming, and listening to parents.
School districts have up to three years to spend the money. They are currently scrambling to produce initial plans that must be submitted for approval to the NJ DOE by June 24th.
Too bad the former commissioner, appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy, dismantled the NJ DOE’s Office of Educational Technology as soon as he arrived in 2017. Too bad the NJ DOE has lost its top assessments guy, as well as most of the veterans of the Division of Academics and Performance, especially since the Biden Administration specifies that district must give assessments to gauge learning loss and learning gain. Too bad the Division of Student Services, which serves students with disabilities and other challenges, those most vulnerable to the disruption of a pandemic school year, is, as one source described, a “shitshow.” Too bad the DOE is without a permanent Commissioner.
Is the NJ DOE up to the task of overseeing how the federal stimulus money is spent or will, as the Star-Ledger worries, the money be wasted on “millions worth of Plexiglass that ends up at tag sales, or hiring a pricey consultant who just happens to be the cousin of a school board president.”
Let’s ask two NJ senators, one Republican and one Democrat.
“It’s not a likelihood that a lot of this money will be squandered,” Sen. Declan O’Scanlon mused last week. “I think it’s an absolute certainty that a significant amount of this money will be squandered. And that terrifies me.”
Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who chairs the education committee, wants the state to hire outside researchers to monitor the success of programs to combat learning loss, so the most effective ones can be replicated. But it all starts with the DOE, she noted: “It has to be a place where districts can turn to, not solely for accountability and checks and measures, but for guidance in thinking outside of the box.”
The problem is it isn’t.
Since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago, I have been warning of the devastating learning loss that has impacted our districts.
Time to lead on learning loss | Editorial https://t.co/4nB6g97TGr
— Sen Teresa Ruiz (@SenMTeresaRuiz) February 22, 2021
The DOE is supposed to oversee 600 school districts and ensure that taxpayer money is well-spent. Is it up to the task? Legislators aren’t feeling it.