“Flexibility” Is Fine, Gov. Murphy, But Not When It’s an Evasion of Leadership.

Dear Governor Murphy, 

Today you have an op-ed in NJ Spotlight asserting that New Jersey’s education system is a “gem” and one hallmark of that brilliance is your Department of Education’s emphasis on “flexibility” and “local control”as we prepare to reopen schools. You call your cascading series of announcements –all schools must have some element of in-building instruction, all schools must have the option of starting all remote, actually only some schools have the option of starting all remote —another example of flexibility and your respect for “decision-making based on local input.”

Let me tell you what’s wrong with “flexibility” and “local control” during a worldwide plague that currently has no treatment or vaccine and has disrupted New Jersey’s (every state’s) education system: In moments of crisis, someone has to be in charge. 

Right now the prevailing sentiment among parents, teachers, and school leaders is that no one’s in charge. 

That’s why the Star-Ledger is posting articles on how parents can “supplement or replace their district’s virtual-learning curriculum,” given the “lost learning opportunities” last spring and lack of planning for this fall.

That’s why NJEA President Marie Blistan and Richard Bozza of the NJ Association of School Administrators wrote last week, “it is time to reluctantly acknowledge that goal [of having in-school learning] is simply not achievable.” They denigrate your laissez-faire “flexibility,” and say, “the question of whether and when to reopen for in-person instruction is first and foremost a public health decision that cannot be left in the hands of nearly 600 individual school districts,” stressing the need for “consistent statewide guidance to allow us to focus on addressing critical equity issues.”

That’s why superintendents are outraged at your last-minute, ever-changing adjustments instead of the DOE spearheading strategies –that should have started last March– to close the digital divide, create robust learning platforms accessible to all districts, and scale up online instruction. 

Governor, you’ve gotten yourself in a tight corner as we approach reopening day. Oh, the children of wealthy families who live in leafy towns like Millburn and  Moorestown and Ridgefield will be fine: their parents will create micro-pods or pay for private school or hire their own teachers. The digital divide doesn’t touch them. Some of them are renovating homes to serve as classrooms.  

But the children of families of low-income families who live in districts like Newark and Trenton and Atlantic City won’t be fine. Many–  40 % — lack broadband internet access. In Paterson, one of NJ’s largest districts with 29,000 students, 13,845 chromebooks are on back-order and technicians are trying to refurbish old laptops. Even then, there won’t be enough to go around.

In today’s op-ed you write,

New Jersey’s education system has long been rooted in local control and decision-making, based on local input. I would not ask the students and parents in one community to decide what’s best for the schools next door — or vice versa. And so for the past six weeks, we have relied upon the work of local educational communities to determine the best way for their schools to reopen. 

Here’s some free advice: “Local control” and “local decision-making” may be New Jersey’s anthem but it’s unsuitable for plague-times. You know this — how does relying on local communities square with your warning to shore towns that you’ll close down their beaches unless they control drunken, unmasked crowds? It doesn’t work and we (well, most of us) applaud you for your wisdom in barring movie theaters and gyms from reopening. . 

Why are schools different? If you don’t expect Point Pleasant to independently figure out beach parties, why do you abandon schools to independently figure out the most effective way to help students learn and teachers teach during a pandemic? 


After all, this may be an opportunity to get a little closer to a truly bejeweled education system. Just as analysts are projecting that many work lives will never revert back to 9-5 at the office, online learning isn’t going away once we disarm Covid. It shouldn’t because remote instruction, while inappropriate for some students, provides a potential pathway to a higher degree of educational equity. Online means scale. Scale means our most effective teachers’ efforts can be magnified into other classrooms, both within and without the district (with supplementary small group instruction). 

It’s a whole new world out there!  Why aren’t we thinking big? Why aren’t we taking this crisis and making it an opportunity?

Please stop talking about “flexibility.” We need leadership, not Gumby.

Respectfully,

Laura Waters.

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