BY BARBARA KESHISHIAN
Labor Day is behind us, the beaches are nearly empty and school buses are on the road in force. It can only mean one thing: class is back in session for nearly 1.4 million public school students in New Jersey. While I’m sure many of them would have opted for just a little more summer vacation, it is time to get down to the business of learning again. And there is no better place to do that than New Jersey.
This summer brought news that New Jersey’s schools are leading the nation in closing the achievement gap. The work isn’t done, but we are making significant progress. Just a couple of weeks ago, the New Jersey Department of Education released information showing that 99.7 percent of our teachers are rated Highly Qualified according to federal guidelines, with almost no gap remaining between low-poverty and high-poverty districts. And New Jersey still has the nation’s best graduation rate, turning out students who are well prepared for both college and work.
That is the kind of good news we’ve come to expect from our public schools, but it does not happen by accident. It takes a combination of talented teachers and school employees, hard-working students, involved parents and communities committed to public education. Fortunately, New Jersey has all of those in good supply.
We will need all of that and more as we enter a particularly challenging year. Times are tough here, just as they are across the country. The economy is wearing on all of us, and I’m sure that many students feel that stress and carry some of it with them to school.
Fortunately, school remains a place of hope and possibility. Because of our state’s commitment to a thorough and efficient free public education, no child will be turned away from a public school this year because his or her parent lost a job or is struggling to make ends meet. In fact, for many children, school is also a place to get a nutritious meal or two along with an education.
Times like these remind us why public education — true public education — is so critical. It has always been the cornerstone of the American Dream, and the ladder that any child could use to rise above his or her circumstances and secure a better future.
That is why I am so proud to live in a place where that ideal still flourishes. Our current economic crisis has only highlighted the depth of New Jersey’s commitment to its students. In a year when billions of dollars were slashed from the state budget, Gov. Corzine and the Legislature protected public schools, and even increased funding. When students returned to school, they found the people and programs in place to help them succeed.
It was an act of political courage to protect schools when so many important programs and priorities were on the chopping block, and it proved that our elected leaders have a long-term vision for New Jersey. Gov. Corzine has often repeated his belief that investing in education is an investment in New Jersey’s future economic prosperity. He and the Legislature have backed that up with action.
Barbara Keshishian, a mathematics teacher in New Milford, is the elected president of 200,000 teachers, certiﬁcated staff, educational support professionals, and retired members of the New Jersey Education Association.