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Schools Are Closed, Our Children Are Unravelling, and Our Elected Leaders Are Failing Us

Public schools have long needed more funding to keep the bodies and minds of teachers, staff, and students safe. But these are not the investments our elected officials choose to make.

(Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from Getty Images.)

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

At this time last year, I feared my son would be kicked out of day camp. He hit other campers. He ran out of the room. He threw things. Each morning, I tried to guard against an outburst by making sure we weren’t rushed, that he had enough to eat, that we read stories together, that we talked about our feelings. After I dropped him off, I thought, “Today will be different.”

I worked for the next few hours, and waited for my phone to ring or a text to ding. It often did. I fooled myself for a moment thinking, “They probably want to tell me how well he’s doing.” But instead, they would ask me to pick him up or how to manage him. 

Our whiteness protected him from being criminalized, from me being blamed, from both of us being pathologized. Unlike so many Black caregivers and children with special needs, we were seen as human. 

In September, he began first grade at our local New Jersey public school. After a lengthy evaluation conducted the previous spring, the district’s team of specialists found that he qualified for an individualized education plan with learning accommodations, occupational and speech therapy, and a spot in the inclusion class, which has two teachers. Our goal, the case manager told me, was that one day he wouldn’t need the extra support. 

He continued to struggle. 

On some days, when I arrived at after-school care, a staff member, smiling somewhat awkwardly, would make their way to me. I knew what was coming. I pretended not to notice until I couldn’t. In the fall, I sat in a parent-teacher conference and let myself cry without apology. 

If my kid wasn’t OK, nothing was.

But after a few months, his teachers began to tell me how hard he was working, how much joy he brought to the classroom, how proud they were of him, and how proud he was of himself. The outbursts ceased. When I picked him up from after-school care, I would find him reading or drawing or writing. Before we left, he hugged his friends and the after-school director. As we made our way to the door, he always turned around and yelled out, “Goodbye, everybody!” On our walks home, he chattered about school and asked how my day was. 

If my kid was OK, everything was. 

On March 13, the school superintendent closed our public schools for a week because of the novel coronavirus. Days later, Governor Phil Murphy signed an executive order shutting down all of the state’s schools indefinitely. 

Our family didn’t have to navigate capitalism’s most toxic attacks that afflicted so many others during the pandemic: limited access to the internet or computers, job loss, rising rental debt, hunger, inflexible work schedules, racism, incarceration. But this was still untenable for us. My son unraveled. 

We attempted Zoom calls with his teachers, classmates, and friends. I made schedules and bought just about every project my Facebook feed suggested. I thought up games to have him practice reading and math. I made check-out cards for books as a simulacrum of his library class. I work full-time, which added an absurdist cloud over it all. He tried. I tried. 

The outbursts began again. He was sad and angry and lethargic. I saw bursts of his old self, but they disappeared as quickly as they came. 

I missed my son.   

On the day Murphy released his plan for schools in the fall, I cried. I was looking desperately, foolishly, maybe, for an assurance that my son could return safely to public school full-time. Zoom sessions could not replace what he needs to thrive, and neither could I. 

Murphy’s plan kicked most of the details to individual districts. The 104-page document  included a list of costly measures that schools must or should take to protect students, staff, and teachers: installing hand sanitation stations, ensuring adequate ventilation, seating students at least six feet apart, and conducting health screenings. 

To have any hope of returning to the classroom, our schools urgently need funding and direct assistance from the state to implement these plans. But, facing a state budget shortfall, Murphy has proposed eliminating an about $335 million planned increase in school funding. Low-income districts, which rely more on state aid than wealthier ones, would be hit hardest, according to the Education Law Center. “Governor Murphy is using a time-worn playbook: disproportionate state aid reductions to the poorest districts that can’t be offset by raising property taxes,” David Sciarra, the legal group’s executive director, said in a statement

The state has already been underfunding many New Jersey school districts. Parents and teachers have to buy their own classroom supplies. At the start of the school year at my son’s school, parents and guardians of first-graders were asked to donate folders, boxes of tissues, crayons, pencils, markers, glue sticks, and dry-erase markers for communal use. Throughout New Jersey, students learn and educators teach in overcrowded, aging buildings

Last year, Lizette Delgado-Polanco, former head of the state’s Schools Development Authority, told state legislators that agency officials had visited more than 125 schools in need of improvement, including those that were over a century old. The agency oversees building construction and renovation for some of the state’s poorest school districts.  

“We’ve visited schools where we found windows that didn’t open and classrooms that are 80+ degrees,” she testified. “We’ve visited schools where subjects like art and music are taught beneath stairwells and bleachers due to lack of classroom space….New Jersey students can’t receive a 21st-century education in 19th-century facilities.”

New Jersey has one of the most racially segregated public school systems in the country. The student body in its low-income districts is often majority Black and/or Latinx. In 2018, several local groups and families, including my own, filed suit against the state, arguing that the school system’s de facto segregation violated the state Constitution. 

This crisis is borne not from a lack of money, but from a lack of political will. In one of the richest states in the country, the Democrat-controlled legislature has repeatedly refused to sufficiently tax the wealthiest residents and corporations

Since he took office, Murphy has repeatedly tried to increase the tax rate for those with incomes over $1 million, an effort that has been stymied by a fellow Democrat, state Senate president Steve Sweeney. New Jersey legislators have long protected the wealth of the rich. In 2016, as part of a larger tax reform deal with Republican Governor Chris Christie, they passed a repeal of the estate tax, which taxed heirs of estates valued at more than $675,000. (Spouses and domestic partners were already exempt from the tax.) 

According to the think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, the estate tax brought in about $500 million annually. But that was just an infinitesimal slice of the wealth hoarded by the richest state residents. In 2018, there were more millionaires per capita in New Jersey than any other state in the country, according to the local news site Patch. Last year, Forbes included eight of the state’s residents on its list of the wealthiest people in the world, with a combined net worth of about $23 billion. 

Our schools have long needed more funding to keep the bodies and minds of teachers, staff, and students safe. But these are not the investments our elected officials choose to make. They’d prefer to protect the wealthy, while we, as parents, as caregivers, as workers, have been left to crumble, alongside our children.

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg is a staff reporter for The Appeal. She’s a proud graduate of New Jersey public schools.