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Fine Print: Murphy Vetoes Distance-Learning Bill

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This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.

What: Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday vetoed a bill passed by the Senate and Assembly that would have provided immediate funds to help districts close the technology gap for students ending their year using remote instruction due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Why it matters: The technology gap is among the most pressing challenges facing districts during the coronavirus closure, with an estimated 90,000 students — nearly one-tenth of public-school enrollment — still without the requisite connectivity or devices.

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Murphy’s rationale: The governor has said closing the gap is a priority, but in his veto message he said the state in the midst of the pandemic could little afford the cost and faulted the bill for providing a blank check to districts.

Veto message: “The open-ended appropriation authorized by this bill would trigger an indeterminate, unbudgeted cost, potentially amounting to many tens of millions of dollars. Even under normal circumstances, I would be hesitant to endorse a bill with such far-reaching fiscal implications outside of the annual budget negotiation process.”

The other message: Murphy said in his Monday press briefing that he hoped federal stimulus funds would come through to cover these costs, and alluded to that in the veto message as well. “For those districts whose students lack the equipment or technology necessary to fully implement remote-learning plans, the (federal) funds will be available to assist them in the purchase of laptops, tablets, hot-spot access, and other devices for the students who need them.”

Sponsor’s response: State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the influential Senate education chair, said in an interview yesterday that the money has to be made available, regardless of the federal stimulus. “We’re talking only 90,000 to 100,000 families; how much should it take to connect them?” she said.

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