By Mary Ann Koruth,

Expanding universal, free pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds and creating new K-12 literacy initiatives targeted to make better readers of the youngest students will be key education priorities this year, Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday in his annual State of the State address.

So, what makes Murphy proud on the education front and what is he planning to do in 2024?

Under his watch, the state has added 14,000 preschool seats, Murphy said Tuesday. He also touted a favorite theme in his public speeches — New Jersey’s position as having “the best schools in the country.” According to Education Week, New Jersey was ranked second after Massachusetts as having the best schools in the nation based on math and reading scores for fourth graders and eighth graders in 2019.

But those scores have dropped since the pandemic across the nation and in New Jersey, too. Third graders are struggling to catch up to pre-pandemic performance levels, and only 55% of the state’s 11th graders have graduation-ready math skills, according to state testing results in math, English and science in 2023, compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Expanded state preschool programs

State funding for preschool programming has gone up every year since 2019 under the Murphy administration, but the expansion has had “unintended consequences” for private providers, said Meghan Tavormina, board president of the New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children, an organization that advocates for better early-childhood care and lobbies for industry improvements.

Some of the otherwise welcome expansion comes at the expense of private preschool providers, she said. Schools can partner with private preschool providers using state funding, and there are many good examples of this in New Jersey, Tavormina said. But many private providers see parents moving their 3- and 4-year-olds to the free public programs, leaving them to shoulder the more expensive infant and toddler programs.

The state needs to be “intentional” about expanding free pre-K to better include community and private partnerships, said Tavormina, who also runs a day care in Chatham.

The state distributed $25 million to 26 school districts to expand preschool facilities for 3- and 4-year-old students in the 2023-24 school year, as part of Murphy’s proposal to expand full-day, high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-olds.

“My hope is that the governor will equally build a strong infant-toddler wrap-around and mixed-delivery system that’s affordable for families, rather than focus on just one aspect of it,” said Tavormina.

K-12 literacy and reading initiative

Murphy also said he hoped educators and lawmakers would “improve literacy rates among our children. We will be introducing new initiatives to teach our kids the fundamentals of reading — like sounding out letters and combining them into words.”

He was responding to a push to return to the more traditional phonics method of teaching reading by sounding out words and syllables, instead of newer methods that use guessing and context clues.

Early literacy is indeed a “top priority,” said Paula White, executive director of the education watchdog JerseyCan. The group wants the state to address drops in reading skills among third and fourth graders who missed two years of continuous in-class learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murphy’s focus on literacy in the State of the State “served as a desperately needed ray of sunshine for the many children across the state who need to learn how to read and write,” White said. “No community in the Garden State is immune to our literacy problem.”

The state is considering investing in teacher preparation programs for reading and phonics-based education for in-service and pre-service teachers, said people familiar with Murphy’s plans.

For the governor to discuss in the speech the importance of investing in teacher training, literacy assessments of students, and collaboration with local universities and colleges to prepare future teachers to address these significant challenges was critical, said White.

“But there is a great deal of work to be done, and there will be no quick fix,” White said. “The solutions outlined today energize a discourse” on an urgent topic.

Several states have passed laws requiring phonics-based instruction in response to the pandemic’s impacts on reading. “I hope to work with educators and legislators to improve literacy rates among our children,” Murphy said.

White said she supports addressing education issues through legislation provided it is “comprehensive,” involving stakeholders and school districts. “Laws provide a basis for sustained trajectory” toward achieving educational goals, she said.

Growing teacher shortage

Murphy also touched upon student-teacher scholarships and similar efforts to address the growing shortage of public school teachers through programs that feed the pipeline for educators.

He talked about focusing on programs to “address our lingering shortage of critical workers, especially nurses and educators.”

Murphy didn’t miss a chance to slip in the name of a major financial supporter and powerful union, the New Jersey Education Association, when he named a student, Jason Williams, working toward becoming a special education teacher. The NJEA steered many Democratic legislative victories in the November election.

“He is a student at Kean University — and a member of the New Jersey Education Association,” Murphy said.


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