Gov. Phil Murphy has earned NJEA’s endorsement for reelection as governor because he is the pro-public education candidate. He has made education a top priority four years in a row, funding New Jersey’s public schools at record levels. He’s increased access to preschool for working families. Through the Community College Opportunity Grant and the Garden State Guarantee, has made a college education an attainable reality for New Jersey residents.
Murphy, with support from his pro-public education partners in the state Senate and Assembly, has reduced the high cost of health care for NJEA members through Ch. 78 relief. He has provided job security to educational support professionals (ESP) through two ESP Job Justice bills. The new laws provide just-cause protections and limitations around a district’s ability to privatize the work of ESPs. These two laws give ESPs in New Jersey the strongest job protections in the nation for public school support staff.
Gov. Murphy has paid more into the pension funds than any governor in history, making the first full actuarially required state contribution into the pension system since 1996. In fact, the payment was more than was required for Fiscal Year 2021—and a year ahead of schedule.
Gov. Murphy stands for honesty in education, supporting and strengthening the work of the Amistad Commission and signing into law inclusive curricular requirements about the history and contributions of the disabled and the LGBTQ+ communities.
And Gov. Murphy has kept us safe. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has followed the science and the advice of health care professionals. He has consistently prioritized science over politics and has focused on keeping students and staff safer during this global pandemic.
On Aug. 31, Gov. Murphy met with NJEA Review editor Patrick Rumaker outdoors at Veterans Memorial Park in Newark to have a conversation about the issues that matter to teachers and ESPs. The questions and answers follow.
You’ve accomplished quite a bit for public schools and the people who work in them over the last four years: school funding, preschool expansion, access to higher education, full pension funding, cutting the burden of health care costs and more. Could you talk about these accomplishments and what they say about your approach to public education?
At the core of New Jersey’s future is an outstanding education. People ask me all the time, “Quick, tell us about New Jersey.” The first two words out of my mouth are talent and location. Our state’s location is second-to-none, and to take advantage of that we need to continue to invest in our infrastructure.
As it relates to talent, it’s everything from pre-k right up through higher education. We have the best educators in America, and we have the best public education system in America. We want to expand that. We want to make higher education more accessible and more affordable.
And we want to make sure that a career as an educator is one that’s on a pedestal so, as young people are getting educated themselves they’ll be saying, “You know what? I look up and I see educators as my role models. I want to be one too.”
We have the best education anywhere in this country, if not anywhere in this world, and that’s why families move here and stay here; it’s why businesses move here, start here, and grow here.
Thank you for signing the ESP Job Justice bills. From your perspective, how have these laws changed public education?
I think for far too long, under my predecessor particularly, there was a lot of name calling—I don’t have to tell educators that—and there was a lot of “us versus them.” And there was an unnecessary distinction between classroom teachers and everybody else who is part of a child’s life during the day.
The fact of the matter is that they’re all educators. I learned that from Marie Blistan. Everybody who works with a child throughout the day, whether they’re the bus driver, the custodian, the cafeteria worker, whoever it might be, is in their own way an educator. So I was proud, at long last, to make sure our educational support professionals (ESPs) have due-process rights and job security. It should have been there from the get-go. They deserve it. They do an enormous amount of work, they impact our kids’ lives, and they’re the unsung heroes of public education. I put ESPs, as I do all educators, on a pedestal.
What do you hope our students will see and hear when they hear our state’s elected leaders talking about public schools, teachers and ESPs?
Well, I hope that they hear governmental leaders putting public schools first, and educators and kids first, because that is the formula for success. I hope they hear nothing but complete respect from everyone in our communities. I hope that they hear that folks are committed to telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth as it relates to our country’s history.
That’s why there’s an Amistad Commission, and I’m proud to say that today I’m signing a bill that establishes the Amistad Commission Exemplary Award program (S-3654). We need to tell the whole story about slavery in our country. We need to teach about climate change. We need to teach about the LGBTQ community. We need to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth as it relates to how we teach our kids. And I hope that they hear that from governmental leaders like myself and others up and down the state for years to come.
What will you do to ensure that full actuarially required payments and other priorities, such as school funding, are sustainable over the next four years and beyond?
I’m incredibly proud of the record funding into public education under all of the budgets that we have presented. I’m incredibly proud that we’ve at long last made more than 100% of the actuarial pension payment—$6.905 billion.
And that’s important to win back the trust of educators and retirees, for sure, but also to win the trust of rating agencies and anybody else who does business with the state—that we’re good for it. Our word means something. That’s important.
Each year, though, all of that is subject to appropriation. What we have to do as a state is to make sure our economy continues to grow. And that’s why education is so important to that objective as well. We want to make sure that families and businesses want to continue to come here, live here, grow here and stay here. We need to encourage that economic activity that allows us the financial latitude to make those investments in public education, in funding the school funding formula—a formula, by the way, that was underfunded by my predecessor to the tune of $9 billion—to make that full pension payment, to work constructively on health care and the costs associated with that.
We have to continue to run the state in an efficient, smart manner so that where we can save money we don’t do it on the backs of public employees but do it with them in a in a mutually constructive way.
We must keep growing the economy, running the state smart, and prioritizing both education and our obligations. Those are our guiding principles, and they will continue to be.
What steps are you supporting to lead to a more diverse teaching force in New Jersey?
We are the most diverse state in America, and we wear that as a badge of honor. NJEA has been really terrific on this and has been a great partner. We each respectively have or support recruitment programs for educators of color, and we try to find as many opportunities as possible to work together.
We must have educators who reflect the diversity of our state. We must make sure that our kids, when they look up at their role models—educators, coaches, police officers, firefighters, elected officials and other members of the community—that those role models are as diverse as the kids who are looking up to them.
Again, NJEA has done a great job. I think we’ve helped in our own right. I’d say we need to do more. We celebrate that diversity. It strengthens us.
How will you ensure our schools have the resources they need to support educators in their work around racial justice? What has your administration done to support school districts and educators in their commitment to honesty in education?
I am incredibly proud that we are committed to implementing the Amistad Commission, that we will teach about climate change, that we will teach about the LGBTQ+ community, among other initiatives. No other state in America can say that.
In my view, when it comes to teaching those histories, our job as educators is to tell it like it is: the good, the bad and the ugly.
I think America is the world’s greatest nation, period. But, as my former boss, President Barack Obama used to say, we wake up every day trying to perfect that nation. We are on a journey. And we have to look ourselves in the mirror. We have to make sure we see the entirety of our state and country—the entirety of our history.
The Department of Education sets some incredibly important guidelines and parameters, and through them we work with our districts.
We’ll continue to teach our kids the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
As you consider what needs to be done to ensure schools are safe in the midst of the pandemic, what do you take into consideration?
We’re guided by two principles as we turn the corner here to head back to school over the next few days. The first is that we have to ensure a safe environment. That means—and I do not come to this with necessarily a lot of joy—but it’s the right thing: everybody’s got to be masked, at least at the beginning of the school year.
The Delta variant is all over the state. We’re probably dealing with it better than any other state in the nation. I’m proud to say that we have the lowest percentage of the beds in our intensive care units occupied by COVID patients of any state in America. That’s the good news. The bad news is the still over 1,000 people in the hospital. This variant is real, and it’s highly transmittable. We’ve got to take this seriously, so everybody has got to be masked.
And we’ve asked educators and all school staff to be fully vaccinated by the middle of October. Educators are already at a high level of vaccination, which is great. And if you’re not able to get vaccinated, we’re going to have to ask you to get tested, probably multiple times a week.
We think that package accomplishes the objective of having a safe environment to bring everybody back into school.
The second principle is to get in school, face to face. Over the past year and half, educators were heroic. Moms and dads were heroic. Kids themselves were heroic. Everybody deserves a lot of credit. I’m incredibly proud of the fact we’ve shrunk the digital divide to zero. We did that together. But the fact of the matter is that there’s nothing like the richness of education that you receive when you’re in a room together—when you’re face to face and you’re able to communicate.
Those are the principles that are guiding us. And we watch this like a hawk, as you can imagine. Every single day, probably every hour of every day, we’re monitoring the data and monitoring the environment as it relates to health and safety. We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through this together.
What role do standardized tests such as the NJSLA play in a student’s education? Do they have a role in teacher evaluation?
Standardized tests play a role, but I’m not a fan of high-stakes, high-stress, standardized tests. I’m not a big fan of taking a lot of classroom time to teach to the test. My sister’s a retired Boston city educator. She got to me many, many decades ago on that, and she’s right.
By the way, I want our kids assessed. I’ve got four kids; I want to know how my kids are doing. But let’s do it in a way that makes sense, consistent with the classroom experience. And nobody knows that better than educators.
And so, I’m not a big fan of, “Oh my god! A month from Tuesday, everything’s going to be on the line.” I think that goes for kids, most importantly, but I think it goes for educators as well.
I’m always looking for data points. Who isn’t? But I’m a fan of a lower stakes, more frequent, more nimble assessments with classroom educators who are actually in front of students in terms of that process. Educators want to know how they’re doing. Everybody wants to know for themselves if they are doing a good job. Myself, I want to know how I’m doing in my own job.
But I don’t like this notion that all the chips are on one particular test.
What do you see as the role of community colleges in New Jersey, and what do you think about their future?
Community colleges in New Jersey are incredibly important. I used to talk all the time about a McKinsey study that’s now about four or five years old. It talked about New Jersey recapturing the innovation economy. We’re doing most, if not all, of what was recommended in there. It’s a playbook that we’ve used.
One of the big conclusions in the study was that if we develop our economy right, there will be a skills gap, and it would not be at the Ph.D. or master’s or bachelor’s level. It would be at the associates level.
So from the start we said that we we’re going to invest in our community colleges, and we’ve been doing that. Community colleges will continue to play the incredibly powerful role they already play today.
But it’s also important that more students are able to access a community college education, which is why the Community College Opportunity Grant is such a game changer. And it’s not just kids. You go to a community college campus, and yes, you’ll see 18-year-olds, but also folks at various points in life, even up to their 60s and 70s.
The Community College Opportunity Grant, which is now going into its fourth year, allows anybody from a family up to a certain level of income to go to a community college free of charge. We’ve now extended that to the Garden State Guarantee: if you do use the Community College Opportunity Grant for the first two years in a community college and you transfer to a state college or university, your last two years can be free of charge if you are still under that level of income.
It is an investment in our community colleges and other institutions of higher education, but it’s also an investment in our residents to enable them to afford to go to those institutions. And I think they’re making a huge impact on our economy.