OPINION: From pre-K to college, we need to invest
This OpEd originally appearedhere in the Home News Tribune.
Education is the great equalizer, the portal of opportunity to the American Dream for generations of New Jerseyans. Our high-performing schools are a competitive advantage that attracts families to New Jersey and keeps them here. The quality of our colleges and universities is essential to companies looking to partner on research and recruit high-skilled employees, and keeping college affordable is critical to students who know that higher education is the pathway to a good-paying job in our increasingly global economy.
From preschool to postgraduate education, New Jersey is doing well, but we need to make a commitment as a state to do better by putting tax dollars where they will do the most good, by providing all students with an opportunity to succeed no matter where they live, and by making sure that all students can go as far as their abilities and their drive can take them.
To achieve those goals, Senate Democrats have set forth an aggressive agenda to expand preschool education, to fully fund our public schools on a fair and equitable basis, and to make a college education affordable for all.
New Jersey has been a national leader in preschool education, establishing pre-K programs for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds in our urban school districts that have fourth and fifth graders in our poorest school districts who attended preschool performing nine months ahead of their peers who didn’t.
That’s why New Jersey’s business leaders have banded together with educators and parents to push for Pre-K For All, and it’s why we need to provide full-day kindergarten in every school district and expand preschool education statewide.
The budget we passed in June included a $25 million appropriation sponsored by Senate Education Committee Chair Teresa Ruiz as the first stage in a multi-year plan to expand preschool to 17 more school districts across the state, but unfortunately, it was vetoed by the governor. Even worse, as the Star-Ledger pointed out, the governor’s new school funding plan would have decimated existing preschool programs that are producing such strong test results.
New Jersey’s schoolchildren need our support, not school aid cuts. We should be proud that a 2015 Urban Institute study found that New Jersey students — across every socioeconomic group — ranked second in the nation in overall test scores and are 6-10 months ahead of the national average in academic achievement. African-American, Hispanic and low-income students in New Jersey are all outperforming their peers in other states.
The problem with school aid in New Jersey is that we have not properly funded the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which was designed to ensure that students in all school districts — rich and poor, urban and suburban — would have the resources they need to receive a ‘thorough and efficient’ education and live up to their full potential.
That is why I joined with Senator Ruiz, Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling to introduce legislation to establish the State School Funding Fairness Commission.
By June, the panel will recommend revisions to the 2008 law to ensure that state aid is distributed on a fair and equitable basis to all districts, and that fast-growing school districts receive the additional funding they need to compensate for enrollment growth.
We have pledged to add $500 million in additional school aid over the next five years to guarantee that every school district receives 100 percent funding and that the commission’s recommendations are implemented.
New Jersey’s colleges and universities are moving up in national research rankings, boosted by the $750 million Building Our Future Bond Act, legislation that merged the state’s medical schools into Rutgers University and the addition of a new medical school at Rowan University that are creating the research synergy New Jersey needs to compete at a national level.
Certainly, we need to invest more in our colleges, but we also need to do more to make higher education affordable. Too many graduates are saddled with excessive debt, which prevents them from purchasing a home, starting a family and fully contributing to our state’s economy. Currently, 68 percent of New Jersey graduates leave college with debt, and the average amount for graduates of New Jersey four-year colleges is $23,000 — one of the highest student debt loads in the nation.
To make matters worse, a joint hearing of the Senate Higher Education and Legislative Oversight committees earlier this month demonstrated that the state’s Higher Education Student Assistance Authority has ruthlessly pushed families and students who get into financial trouble into bankruptcy with harsher debt collection policies than other states. We are pursuing that investigation and will make recommendations for significant change.
Clearly, systemic changes are also needed, which is why Senate Higher Education Chair Sandra Cunningham and I have asked the College Affordability Study Commission we created to include recommendations to cut higher education costs by expanding dual enrollment programs that allow students to complete their first two years at county colleges, by allowing county colleges to offer certain four-year degrees, and by authorizing three-year accelerated B.A. programs at four-year colleges. We want all colleges to allow high school students to take college courses for credit, and we need to provide students with financial literacy courses so that they understand student debt.
We need to do better, both to provide our students an affordable college education, and to guarantee employers that New Jersey will continue to offer the well-educated, world-class workforce that is one of our state’s greatest strengths.
Sen. Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, is President of the New Jersey Senate.
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