Preserve NJ public schools’ best-in-the-nation status

September brought some very good news about New Jersey’s public schools. Education Week released its annual Quality Counts ranking of the nation’s public schools and New Jersey came out on top. After several years of taking the number two spot behind Massachusetts, the Garden State edged ahead of the Bay State to finally claim the crown.

It’s an accomplishment we should all be proud of. It reflects the professionalism and dedication of 200,000 NJEA members, the hard work of our students, and the commitment our state has made to public education. We have every right to feel good about and celebrate this accomplishment. In fact, we should celebrate it and talk about it, because everyone in New Jersey should know what a treasure we have in our public schools.

To keep our hard-won place at the peak of American public education, we need to double down on our commitment to the educators—in every job and every role

But while we celebrate, another report that came out this month reminds us that we cannot rest. Around the same time that Education Week released its report, New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), a leading policy think tank in the state, released a report on New Jersey’s teacher workforce with the subtitle, “Diversity Lags, Wage Gap Persists.”

That report painted a troubling picture of some of the challenges facing our best-in-the-nation schools and pointed to challenges we must address to keep our perch.

Among its findings are that “teachers in New Jersey make substantially less than similarly educated workers” and that “benefits—pensions and health care—do not appear to make up for the gap in wages.” That’s hardly a surprise to NJEA members, who know that public school employee compensation across the board, for educational support professionals as well as teachers and other certificated staff, often lags the private sector and fails to keep up with the cost of living in our high-cost state.

Equally troubling is the report’s finding that “New Jersey’s teachers don’t look much like the state’s student population,” which is among the nation’s most diverse. In 2017-18, students of color comprised 55% of New Jersey’s public school enrollment, while teachers of color made up only 16% of the state’s educator workforce. Further, according to the NJPP report, “there is little indication the state’s teaching workforce is becoming more diverse.”

That is very concerning. It indicates that New Jersey’s schools are missing out on the benefits of a diverse workforce that reflects the makeup of our state and draws from the talent and experience that reside in all New Jersey communities. As our state grows more diverse, our public schools must ensure that they are hiring well and benefiting from that diversity.

Those two challenges, the pay gap and the diversity gap, should be addressed together, by taking steps to make a career in public education more attractive to any potential candidate. That includes closing the pay gap so that educators in every community can support their own families while providing world-class public schools for all of New Jersey’s families.

And it involves working to ensure that public school employee benefits, including pensions and health benefits, remain affordable and attractive, so that the most talented professionals will enter and remain in the profession.

That is why our campaign to get real relief from the burden of Ch. 78 is so important. By ensuring that high-quality health insurance is once again affordable for public school employees, New Jersey will be in a better position to attract and retain highly qualified people for every job.

It is also why our concurrent campaign to achieve job justice for educational support professionals is just as urgent. Those who fulfill some of the most important roles in our schools, keeping students safe and healthy, supporting their learning and keeping our schools functioning smoothly, deserve the fundamental respect of knowing that their contracts will be honored and that they will have basic due-process rights if their employment is on the line.

And it is why we will continue to fight for the pensions we have earned, and to ensure that those entering the profession can achieve a secure retirement as well. That helps make a career in public education a destination for the best and brightest, rather than just a stepping stone along the way to other things.

To keep our hard-won place at the peak of American public education, we need to double down on our commitment to the educators—in every job and every role—who led us up that mountain. And we must ensure that the generation that replaces them reflects the diversity that, along with our great public schools, makes New Jersey such a great place to live, work and raise a family.

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