Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, spoke at an April 11 Assembly Budget Committee meeting.
Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, spoke at an April 11 Assembly Budget Committee meeting.

Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, joined several other state officials in speaking about Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget at an April 11 Assembly Budget Committee meeting.

“The governor’s spending plan would provide nearly $19.2 billion to support New Jersey schools, including increases in K-12 school aid, increases in preschool funding and various new and continued programs that prepare students for career success and promote healthy, safe, and high-quality schools,” the commissioner said. “With a $650 million increase in K-12 formula aid, this budget would usher in year five of the seven-year statutorily required formula designed in partnership with the Legislature to phase districts to their full funding under (The School Funding Reform Act) as amended by S2. This aid would bring the total increase in kindergarten through twelfth grade aid under this administration to nearly $1.8 billion since the governor took office.”

Allen-McMillan highlighted the governor’s efforts to expand access to early childhood education, noting that the proposed budget would expand preschool funding by $68 million, bringing the total preschool budget to nearly $1 billion. “This includes $40 million dedicated to new preschool programs that will garner access (to high-quality, full-day preschool) for an estimated 3,000 additional children in approximately 40 communities,” she said.

The Murphy Administration has increased investment in preschool education aid by $310 million and created almost 12,000 additional seats, Allen-McMillan noted.

She also looked back at the pandemic, noting that last month marked the two-year anniversary since New Jersey schools closed to in-person instruction, an event that she said marked “a profound moment in our state’s education history that changed how we think about our schools, our educators and our students.” She added, “This required a systemic reassessment of our education systems and the basic foundations on which they are built.”

The NJDOE’s proudest achievement over the past two years may be its distribution of unprecedented levels of federal education aid, Allen-McMillan said. “Through three rounds of Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, or ESSER funding the department has distributed a total of $4.3 billion,” she said. “Though this funding is provided to districts on the basis of federal methodology and under federal requirements, in this time the department has also developed and carried out a coordinated policy strategy that dramatically expands schools’ capacities to identify and address the academic, social, emotional and mental health needs of students and staff.”

During her remarks to the committee, Allen-McMillan went over in detail how the department has doled out COVID-19 funds from the federal government and how 90% of the funds, or nearly $3.9 billion, was doled out directly to local educational agencies via entitlement grants based on a federal formula that prioritizes low-income communities.

Learning Loss

Throughout the meeting, members of the committee expressed concern about the learning loss students suffered during the pandemic as well as plans to combat it.

Since many students suffered learning loss – and not just in New Jersey or in the United States – it would be a disservice to students to make them repeat a grade level, Allen-McMillan said. Instead of “remediation,” the focus should be on learning acceleration, she said, which is something she spoke on in her opening remarks.

“To advance learning acceleration, the proposed budget includes $2 million for the department’s Reading Acceleration and Professional integrated Development or RAPID initiative,” she said. “RAPID will assist the Department in assessing learning loss statewide to develop long-term literacy and learning acceleration recommendations consistently.”

She noted numerous other line items in the budget, including $20 million in stabilization aid to provide one-time assistance for school districts facing fiscal challenges; $400 million in extraordinary special education aid to help defray the cost of educating some of the state’s most vulnerable students; a new $5 million program to help provide grants and other services to LEAs to implement climate change education standards; $2 million for the expansion and support of professional development of computer science teachers and advances computer science course offerings; $75 million to support capital maintenance projects and emergent needs in traditional school districts and $5 million to address those needs in charter schools; $350 million proposed for the Schools Development Authority; and $4.5 million for the Supplemental Wraparound program to support low-income families with before- and after-school care.”

The commissioner also highlighted the department’s efforts to bolster the teacher workforce, noting that it worked in conjunction with the State Board of Education to propose regulations to implement the five-year Limited Certificate of Eligibility and Limited Certificate of Eligibility with Advanced Standing pilot program and recently announced a partnership with Rowan University on the Men of Color Hope Achievers program, which is designed to increase and retain a diverse K-12 education workforce – specifically men from disadvantaged of minority backgrounds.

Schools Development Authority Chief Also Testifies

Also speaking at the meeting was Manuel Da Silva, CEO of the New Jersey Schools Development Authority, which is the state agency responsible for fully funding and managing the new construction, modernization and renovation of school facilities projects in 31 school districts known as the SDA districts.

“This past fall alone, we delivered two new schools and two major additions. The new schools were the Camden High School Campus and the Joseph A. Taub School in Paterson. The major additions were at the Millville Senior High School and Orange High School. With these projects alone, SDA delivered approximately 3,600 new student seats and more than 583,000 square feet of new construction,” he said.

He added, “Since the start of my tenure as CEO in 2019, we have opened nine new schools and 3 major additions. That’s 1.6 million square feet of new construction, with more than 10,000 students impacted and a state investment of more than $730 million. It is important to note that much of this work was completed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and despite all the obstacles, restrictions and challenges that this created.”

All SDA facilities, including the ones recently completed, are delivered fully furnished and with 1:1 technology, Da Silva said. “The technology SDA delivers includes a combination of tablets, chrome books, desktops, and/or laptops as deemed appropriate within each school district’s educational program.”

Commenting on the governor’s proposed budget, Da Silva said, “The governor has once again signaled his continued support of the SDA school construction program with the inclusion of $430 million in his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal. $350 million of this would be a direct appropriation to the SDA to fund capital project work in the SDA districts.” He added, “It is important to note that the appropriation not only allows for the delay in the issuance of bonds for the program but will also allow the SDA’s board of directors to consider $350 million of additional projects for advancement as part of the SDA’s capital program. The remaining $80 million would allocate $75 million to be administered by the SDA for emergent and capital maintenance needs in SDA and regular operating districts. The other $5 million would provide charter schools with grant funding from the Department of Education. To date, the SDA has already distributed more than $54 million of the fiscal year 2022 funding that was set aside for this purpose. The SDA continues to work with our partners at DOE to communicate the availability of this funding to all New Jersey school districts. We will continue to disburse grant funding as school districts submit their required certifications. The SDA anticipates utilizing a similar process for disbursement of the $75 million if approved in the fiscal year 2023 budget.”

Committee members asked numerous questions throughout the budget hearing, asking the commissioner and Department of Education staff about a number of challenges, particularly plans to combat learning loss. Other topics included making sure students continue to get the food and nutrition they need, the challenges of transporting students to and from school, ensuring that COVID-19 money from the federal government is allocated in a timely manner, charter schools, and making sure schools are kept up to date.

Access an analysis of the governor’s proposed budget for the Department of Education from the New Jersey Legislature’s Office of Legislative Services.