This past month, New Jersey’s public schools reopened for the 2020-21 school year, and not all students are having the same back-to-school experience. As the state continues to limit the spread of COVID-19, some school districts are starting their school year fully remote, some are offering a “hybrid” of in-person and remote instruction, and a few are fully in-person. As a result, the pandemic appears to be surfacing ongoing problems with segregation and school underfunding that translates into unequal access to in-person instruction.[i]
As of September 13, most districts settled with the state on how they would begin the school year, according to data released by NJ Spotlight.[ii] Slightly more than half of New Jersey students are in school districts with fully remote programs; about one-third are in districts offering hybrid programs; eight percent of students are in “combination” districts, which offer different reopening plans within the district; and two percent are in districts with fully in-person instruction (six percent of students are enrolled in districts for which there is no data).
It is important to note that even if a school district offers in-person schooling, that district must offer a fully remote option for students, as required by the Murphy administration.[iii] The figures below, therefore, do not represent how many students are enrolled in each option; instead, they show what options are available to families and students. A student in a “hybrid” district, for example, may still choose to attend school entirely remotely; a student in a “remote” district, however, does not have the option of enrolling in a hybrid program.
The Murphy administration has emphasized the importance of allowing school districts to make re-opening decisions “…that best fits the district’s local needs.”[iv] It is well documented, however, that New Jersey’s school districts are highly segregated.[v] Therefore, it is important to determine if the state’s school reopening plans are equally available to students of different races and ethnicities.
White students, for example, are more likely to be enrolled in a district that offers at least some in-person instruction. Six out of ten New Jersey students enrolled in a hybrid district are white, while only three out of ten students in a remote district are white.
In contrast, six out of ten students in fully remote districts are Black or Hispanic, while only one-quarter of the students enrolled in hybrid districts are Black or Hispanic. This demonstrates a clear difference in the racial and ethnic characteristics of districts that do and do not offer in-person instruction.
There are several possible reasons for these disparities. Polls have shown that Black and Hispanic parents are generally more wary about sending their children back to school buildings during the pandemic.[vi] It may be that school districts offering only remote instruction believe putting their focus on improving that instruction is more aligned with parents’ desires.
However, it may also be that these parents perceive that their children’s schools are less safe than others, due to a lack of adequate resources. Recent national polling has found that Black and Hispanic parents perceive that there are large disparities in school funding across racial lines.[vii] Families of color may, therefore, be responding to systemic inequities that leave their children’s schools less able to offer in-person instruction safely.
New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) sets an “adequacy target” for school districts; the target is the amount of funding that is needed for students to receive an adequate education, per the state’s funding formula calculations.[viii] Many districts, however, do not spend enough to meet their targets; some districts are below their per pupil target amount by more than $5,000.
Many more of the students enrolled in “remote” districts are also enrolled in districts that are underfunded, according to SFRA targets. About 128,000 of those students are enrolled in districts that are severely underfunded; in fact, the vast majority of New Jersey students in districts underfunded by more than $5,000 per pupil are also in districts that offer no in-person learning option.
Overall, inequities in funding appear to be translating into inequities in access to in-person instruction. It would be a serious mistake, however, to assume that these inequities should be addressed simply by forcing districts to begin offering hybrid programs. School districts that suffer from chronic underfunding are almost certainly not able to provide the same level of safety during the pandemic as well-resourced districts. Differences in building ventilation, square footage per student, student-to-staff ratios, health care services, and many other important factors – which are caused by chronic underfunding – will undoubtedly impact a district’s ability to safely educate its students.
The racial and ethnic disparities in school reopening programs should be a wakeup call to New Jersey policymakers: it is yet another example of how inadequate and inequitable funding is creating different systems of schooling for different students.
[i] In this post, I merge the data on school re-openings with student enrollment and fiscal data from the New Jersey Department of Education (https://www.nj.gov/education/data/). By combining these sources, it is possible to determine the enrollment of students in districts employing different learning models, and the demographic characteristics of the students in each type of model.
[ii] John Mooney & Colleen O’Dea, 9/4/20, updated 9/13/20. “NJ Schools Reopen: What Districts Are Remote, In-Person or Hybrid?” NJ Spotlight. https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/09/nj-schools-reopen-plan-list/
[iii] Amanda Hooper, 7/20/20. “N.J. to allow all-remote learning option for students when schools reopen in the fall, Murphy says” NJ Advance Media for NJ.com. https://www.nj.com/coronavirus/2020/07/nj-to-allow-all-remote-learning-option-for-students-when-schools-reopen-in-the-fall-murphy-says.html
[iv] State of New jersey, Governor Phil Murphy, 6/26/20. “Murphy Administration Announces Reopening Guidance for New Jersey Schools.” https://www.nj.gov/governor/news/news/562020/20200626b.shtml
[v] Orfield, G., Ee, J., Coughlan, R. (2017) New Jersey’s Segregated Schools; Trends and Paths Forward. https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/new-jerseys-segregated-schools-trends-and-paths-forward/New-Jersey-report-final-110917.pdf
[vi] Matt Barnum and Claire Bryan, 7/14/20. “Despite stress of closures, most parents wary of rush to return to school buildings, polls show.” Chalkbeat. https://www.chalkbeat.org/2020/7/14/21324873/school-closure-reopening-parents-surveys
[vii] The Leadership Conference Education Fund (2017). The Second Annual New Education Majority Poll. http://civilrightsdocs.info/pdf/education/new-education-majority/New-Education-Majority-Summary-FINAL.pdf
[viii] Baker, B.D. and Weber, M.A. (2019). New Jersey’s School Funding Reform Act at 10 Years. New Jersey Policy Perspective. https://njppprevious.wpengine.com/reports/in-brief-new-jerseys-school-funding-reform-act-at-10-years