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Time’s Up for New Jersey State Board of Education Members.


Adam Jaskowiak, parent advocate from South Orange


September 2023

For the past year and a half, Our Children/Our Schools (OC/OS) and other education advocates in New Jersey have been pressuring Governor Phil Murphy and the State Legislature to nominate and confirm new members to the State Board of Education (SBOE). The current Board no longer supports New Jersey schools and children as they deserve.


The SBOE handles a host of issues that directly impact the state’s 1.4 million schoolchildren and their families, as well as thousands of educators. The Board approves regulations, including but not limited to statewide assessments, special education, educator preparation, bilingual education, and policies enforcing equity across schools. We need Board members with diverse backgrounds in education who understand and have experienced these issues.


Governor Murphy has the right to nominate Board members once a member’s term has expired, yet no new members have been seated since the Governor took office six years ago. As of June, every single Board member’s term has expired, and one current Board member was even seated thirty-three years ago! Another Board seat has been vacant since January.


The Board had an attendance problem even before the vacant seat. Over the past five years, the SBOE has had a troubling 81% attendance rate.


It’s easy to think public education isn’t a priority in Trenton.


After years of inaction, Governor Murphy nominated three highly qualified public education advocates to the Board in September 2022. Unfortunately, these stalwart nominees have run into political headwinds. The Senate has refused or been unable to confirm the nominees.


Some of the Governor’s nominees may have languished without confirmation because of Senatorial courtesy, an antidemocratic and unwritten rule that allows a single Senator to hold up the executive appointment of an individual residing in the Senator’s legislative district. Another nominee, Mary Bennett, was scheduled to be confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, but her confirmation was abruptly pulled without explanation.


Problems at the SBOE came to a head during August’s monthly meeting. The Board voted to amend N.J.A.C. 6A:7, the New Jersey Administrative Code for “Managing for Equity in Education.” This code is designed to ensure equity for students as required under the New Jersey State Constitution, the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, Titles VI and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of Education Amendments of 1972, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That’s a lot of ground to cover. Amendments to the Equity Code allow us to develop new practices to fight discrimination in our schools.


And we need new strategies. Transgender students are suffering right now. We are dealing with a mental health crisis in our schools, and transgender students suffer disproportionately. To be clear, gender-nonconformity is not the cause of this crisis. The problem is that efforts to ensure equity for transgender people have resulted in a wave of reactionary laws and acts of violence throughout the country.


Fortunately, New Jersey has chosen a more inclusive path. The Equity Code amendment proposed in August proffered transgender inclusive practices: gender neutral language and self-identification of gender for sex education classes. Both practices are widely accepted in making students feel a sense of belonging and allowing them to feel present in their learning experiences. We need schools that recognize and validate our transgender students’ lived experiences.


At the August SBOE meeting, Board members debated the changes to the Equity Code, but without the knowledgeable education advocates we need. Instead, some Board members relied on well- worn tropes and fantastic stories to advocate against the amendment.


One Board member claimed cisgender youths would become victims of discrimination. This zero sum constitutional rights analysis is wrong. Transgender rights do not impede cisgender rights. Equity isn’t simply equality, as different students have different needs. Our students deserve inclusive schools with practices that meet all students' educational needs.


The next shock at the SBOE meeting occurred when another Board member claimed “[a student] who last week was identified as a boy, now has changed and is identifying as a girl, is coming into a sex ed class that my daughter may now feel uncomfortable being in that class.” First, coming out before a sex ed class is rational, not opportunistic. Second, August sex ed classes? This story
seriously strains plausibility.


Fortunately, Acting Secretary of Education, Angelica Allen-McMillan, responded eloquently. She shared two life experiences where she saw students successfully advocate for transgender accommodations at their school. Students want these changes too.


At the end of the August Board debate, a vote was eventually called. The updated regulations were passed. It was a nail biting six-to-five vote (with two absences)!


It’s time for new leadership at the SBOE. Join the Time’s Up Campaign with Our Children/Our Schools and help make the change!

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