Advocates are praising Gov. Phil Murphy’s pick to lead the state Department of Education, Kevin Dehmer, a former interim commissioner and 15-year department veteran known for his expertise in school finance and funding.
Dehmer was the department’s chief financial officer for five years. After a brief stint at Rutgers, he is returning to the agency, replacing Angelica Allen-McMillan, the acting commissioner who retired Jan. 31 after serving for three years.
Insiders say Allen-McMillan was sometimes difficult for department employees to reach, though external K-12 groups have said she was accessible.
Allen-McMillan almost never directly addressed the press after taking over in 2020, even as schools made unprecedented and now controversial changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, requiring some combination of masks, social distancing and remote learning until the public health emergency was lifted two years later.
Then came big drops in K-12 scores and graduation readiness, all linked to the pandemic, and the culture wars that seized local school boards and became political fodder when the state revised its sex education standards to make them more progressive. Allen-McMillan defended those standards with a rousing rebuttal at a Senate budget committee hearing in 2022.
Dehmer left the department in October 2022 to join Rutgers’ Heldrich Center for Workforce Development as executive director. His return as top brass is being hailed by advocates, many of whom are former state employees and know him to be knowledgeable and accessible.
“Most of us who have worked in New Jersey education and are committed to positively challenging the status quo know Kevin well,” said Paula White, head of the K-12 watchdog group JerseyCan.
She welcomed his nomination “as the state continues to grapple with how to support all students in meeting basic grade-level standards,” she said in a statement, referring to the pandemic’s impacts.
The state’s teacher shortage and school funding solutions to address inflation — and rising costs linked to staff shortages, violence and cybersecurity threats, mental health, transportation, learning loss remediation and the expiration of federal COVID-relief funds later this year — are among key issues advocates are hoping will receive more attention under Dehmer.
Focus on NJ teacher shortage
The state’s teacher shortage is one crisis area that the Murphy administration has been very slow to address, advocates argue.
The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, welcomed Dehmer’s nomination with a statement underlining the teacher shortage as its priority. Dehmer’s “deep understanding” of the Education Department will help him “to address the educator shortage crisis in New Jersey,” it said in the statement.
Allen-McMillan oversaw ending the requirement of the edTPA, a standards-based assessment, for teacher certification, a step Murphy signed into law in 2022, but many procedures and laws that hurt teacher recruitment and certification have stayed in place. These have “remained unchanged and at great detriment to the educational community and the 1.4 million students that are served in public schools,” said a teacher shortage report published last January by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
Eliminating the Praxis Core test for prospective teachers, lowering grade-point average requirements for teachers from 3 to 2.5 to stay in line with New York’s and Pennsylvania’s requirements, and returning to a one-year program for people entering teaching through an alternative route are changes supported by both the NJEA and the New Jersey Public Charter Schools Association.
“We have a good working relationship with Mr. Dehmer. I think it’s a fresh opportunity to make progress on issues that impact teachers and kids and especially the teachers shortage,” said Harry Lee, head of the charter schools group.
Address NJ’s K-12 funding issues
Another expectation is that Dehmer will bring his school finance expertise to fix some of the state’s K-12 funding issues.
“Looking to see how we will fund our public schools is our main concern,” said Timothy Purnell, head of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “Because federal funding is set to expire, we’re wondering how our local school boards will support these innovative programs that they have brought in.
“Many districts are being hit with the budgetary issues having to do with the funding formula and balancing staffing, inflation, transportation and special education costs,” Purnell said. “These are rising costs that could push districts to go above the 2% tax levy, and that is concerning.”
School boards want to compensate their teachers, but the state has to create a balance between the taxpaying public’s trust and paying for its schools, he said.
The state budget and the K-12 education budget are expected in February. “It’s very encouraging for groups like the NJSBA and other stakeholders to have someone who can hit the ground running,” said Jonathan Pushman, a lobbyist with the New Jersey School Boards Association.
Dehmer’s start date is Feb. 12. Chris Huber will serve as interim commissioner until then. Dehmer will remain acting commissioner until the Senate confirms him.