Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, acting commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Education, spoke in support of Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed fiscal year 2023 budget at a Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee meeting April 28.
Her opening remarks were similar to those she delivered at an April 11 Assembly Budget Committee meeting, which was covered in School Board Notes.
McMillan noted that the proposed budget would provide about $19.2 billion to support New Jersey schools, including increases in K-12 aid and preschool funding. She emphasized that the proposed budget continues Murphy’s commitment to high-quality preschool education as it would provide an additional $68 million in total preschool funding.
If the budget is approved, that would bring the total preschool budget to almost $1 billion and garner access to preschool education for about 3,000 more children in 40 communities, Allen-McMillan said.
She also reflected on the historic nature of the pandemic, noting how schools made a rapid shift to virtual instruction and became hubs to fulfill basic community needs. She noted that as the result of three rounds of federal COVID-19 relief aid, the department has distributed about $4.3 billion in funds, 90% of which has been distributed to local educational agencies on the basis of federal methodology.
She highlighted the department’s efforts to bolster the teacher and educational workforce, including its partnership with Rowan University to increase and retain diversity in the K-12 education workforce, specifically men from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds. The new program, “Men of Color Hope Achievers,” will focus on recruiting, preparing, and placing men of color to become teachers in New Jersey.
Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, who represents District 29, expressed concern about learning loss as a result of the pandemic, noting that there must be a level of urgency to face it head on.
Other senators asked questions about the school funding formula and whether or not it should be revised. A good deal of time was also spent on addressing concerns related to the Comprehensive Health and Physical Education Standards for K-12 students.
Those standards have been the subject of media coverage and intense interest from many parents and community members in recent weeks.
Allen-McMillan noted the standards are designed to be responsive and respectful – and she emphasized that parents have the right to opt out of sex education that conflicts with their beliefs.
As to the controversy itself, she said the department sees it as an opportunity to engage with parents. “We encourage all parents to be involved and engaged,” she said. “This provides an opportunity for everyone to be very clear about how this process works.”
She highlighted that there is a process in place for the public to comment at the state level prior to the public adoption of standards – as well as to comment on the local level as school districts decide on what curriculum to adopt that aligns with the standards.
Faced with so many questions about the standards, however, at one point, Sen. Paul A. Sarlo, deputy majority leader, and chair of the committee, had to refocus the committee’s attention on the budget as so much time was being spent asking the acting commissioner questions about the learning standards.