Top Democrats rebuke N.J. school board over equity rules

Lawmakers decry lack of communication surrounding controversial board vote

By: - August 4, 2023 6:27 pm

Senate President Nicholas Scutari, right, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said the board needs to coordinate with lawmakers and parents. (Rich Hundley III/Governor’s Office)

Top Democratic legislators distanced themselves from controversial new equity rules approved by the State Board of Education this week.

The new rules, adopted as part of a required septennial rewrite, removed a series of gendered terms from the state’s administrative code and barred districts from segregating sex ed classes based on sex, instead requiring they do it based on gender identity, among numerous other changes.

“It is unfortunate that the State Board of Education doesn’t coordinate with policymakers before they take actions that may affect school districts throughout our state. We expected better communication with them,” Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said in a joint statement released Thursday night.

“We believe that families should have a voice in what is taught to their children, and as long as we have a say over the matter, they will continue to,” they said. “And as always, all children deserve subject matter that is age-appropriate, posted clearly and transparently for families to review, and free from any politics.”

The legislative leaders declined through spokespeople to clarify which provisions of the new equity rules they take issue with, though their broad concerns echo ones espoused by Republicans, some of whom viewed the Democrats’ rebuke as a nod to November’s legislative elections.

Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), chair of the Senate Education Committee, also criticized the board over the possibility of sanctions for districts that are too slow to implement equity plans they must draft once every three years.

“The State Board of Education is charged with the adoption of administrative code and advising on educational policies proposed by the commissioner. This body, which has a membership made up of gubernatorial appointments — a majority of whom was appointed by former Governor Christie — should be focused on this mission and not imposing sanctions that would remove access to funding that kids deserve,” Gopal said in a joint statement with Sen. Joe Lagana (D-Bergen).

Spokespeople for the administration declined to comment on the rule changes.

Sen. Vin Gopal criticized the board and some of the board’s fiercest critics, saying they are spreading misleading information. (Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor’s Office)

Board members, including some who voted in favor of the changes, expressed concerns about a new timeline for the plans’ implementation, which was reduced from 180 days to 60 days under the prior rules.

Districts that do not implement their equity plans within that period risk losing state and federal school aid. Education Commissioner Angelica Allen-McMillan on Wednesday told the board the shorter runway is meant to ensure plan implementation does not stretch across multiple school years.

Administration and board officials have said many of the changes approved this week are largely technical or are meant to align the administrative code with state statute, as is the case for rules around segregating sex ed classes based on gender identity instead of sex.

Some critics said curriculum changes backed by Murphy and Democratic lawmakers contributed to the furor and worried regulators, legislators, and others do not understand the impact the changes will have on education in the state.

“The biggest concerns that we have been hearing from parents and from local boards is this constant threat of punishment and sanctions if you don’t abide by whatever rule change of the week is coming forward, without any sort of guidance, with implementation schedules that are completely unrealistic as schools are still struggling to catch up from the learning loss impact of two years of shutdowns,” said Sen. Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen).

Some local school boards have drawn ethics complaints over efforts to skirt new learning standards, and Attorney General Matt Platkin in June lodged civil rights complaints against three local districts that required parental notification for students who show signs of changing their gender identity.

Democrats say the push against the new rules changes is a political one meant to boost Republicans ahead of this year’s legislative elections, when all 120 seats in the Legislature come up for a vote.

Gopal and Lagana, while chiding the school board for its move to speed the timeline for school districts to pass their equity plans, also denounced “the misinformation and politicizing campaigns” pushed by politicians “more interested in scaring parents instead of being truthful.” 

There is a continual attempt by these politicians to mislead parents with outlandish accusations of schools teaching children inappropriate things with zero evidence of that taking place across over 600 school districts throughout the state,” they said.

Gopal is facing a tough reelection bid in November — he represents the only New Jersey legislative district where different parties hold upper and lower chamber seats — and Lagana’s district is expected to host a close race as well.

Schepisi charged the criticism of the board from Scutari and Coughlin is itself rooted in electoral politics.

“I think they understand how upset parents are at the moment, so in trying to protect their vulnerable members, they now have to take these positions,” she said.

Sen. Holly Schepisi said Democrats’ criticism of the school board is part of an electoral strategy. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

The board

The controversy around the State Board of Education is only the latest to face the board in recent months. It has recently weathered criticism over attendance, testing, and new learning standards on climate change.

But the board itself is not a product of Murphy’s administration. None of its current members were appointed by the governor, and most are holdovers from Gov. Chris Christie’s tenure.

The governor in September made three nominations to the board — his first since taking office in 2018 — but those nominations have since been locked in stasis. Republicans have charged they were nominated to oust board members critical of the administration.

“It’s unfortunate because we have continuously seen this administration replace anybody who challenges or raises a question about the efficacy of a proposed rule change and, immediately, it’s ‘OK, we’ve got to clean house, so now we’re going to bring people on board who will essentially be yes-men and women,” Schepisi said.

The nominations of Kwanghee Jung, an assistant research professor at Rutgers University’s National Institute for Early Education Research, and Stockton University Dean of Education Claudine Keenan have seen their nominations stalled by senatorial courtesy, an unwritten rule that allows senators to block gubernatorial nominees from their home county or legislative district.

The Senate Judiciary Committee was set to vote on the nomination of Mary Bennett, an educational consultant for Seton Hall University, in January, but her name was pulled from the agenda. The panel has not weighed her nomination since, despite reprimands from the state NAACP and the NJEA.

“We’ve had three nominations with the Senate for some amount of time, some significant amount of time,” Murphy said at an unrelated event Friday. “So, I would urge the Senate — it would be good by me if they could get those folks through their process, the advice and consent, which we have nothing but enormous respect for it, but let’s get them through.”

The governor declined to say when he would make other nominations to the board.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.