With the state Supreme Court a week from hearing new oral arguments in the Abbott v. Burke case, a nonpartisan legislative study detailed how full funding of the state’s school finance law could benefit suburban districts as much, if not more, than urban ones.
The report by the Office of Legislative Services (OLS) was released yesterday for the Assembly budget committee’s first hearing on the Christie administration’s education budget. It found that it would take about $1.7 billion more to fully fund the state’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) for next year.
But counter to some claims -- or at least perceptions -- the report indicated that the bulk of the money would not go to the 31 urban districts at the center of the case but to a wide swath of districts outside the cities, blue-collar and wealthy alike.
The biggest beneficiaries would likely be working- and middle-class districts, according to the OLS, where full funding would on average amount to increases of as much as 13 percent of their current budgets.
The Abbott districts would still see sizable increases, averaging about 10 percent, but their share of the state’s overall funding would drop from 59 percent this year to about 50 percent, the report said.
The OLS report was repeatedly cited in the Assembly budget committee’s hearing yesterday, where acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified for three hours.
The prospect of the court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs has cast a long shadow over the legislature’s budget deliberations. Even Democrats have conceded that picking up an additional $500 million, let alone the previously estimated $1.6 billion needed to fully fund the law this year, would set the budget deliberations on their head.
Still yesterday, several Democrats cited the OLS report in describing how their own districts have been shortchanged under the current funding.
Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the chairman of the Assembly budget committee, said his legislative district has seen its schools underfunded by the state by $32 million.
"That’s made up with property taxes, the biggest problem we have in the state," he said.
"No tool kit can replace those cuts," he said at another point, alluding to Gov. Chris Christie’s term for his school and municipal finance reforms.
Republicans were less sympathetic, saying a full funding of the SFRA would increase school spending to as much as $20,000 per pupil, with little to show for it.
"Frankly, I don’t think it would make a difference," said Assemblyman Gary Chiusano (R-Sussex).
The OLS study is timely with the state Supreme Court sitting next Wednesday to hear the latest arguments in the epic Abbott school equity case, where the plaintiffs claim Christie’s and the legislature’s steep cuts in education funding this year left them well short of SFRA’s requirements and in violation of the constitution’s guarantee of a "thorough and efficient" education.
In defending the cuts, Christie has repeatedly maintained that the state needs to move away from a system that has rewarded urban districts more than suburban, citing the cities’ low achievement rates as evidence that additional money has not improved the schools.
Christie has proposed a $250 million increase in state aid for next year, spread across all districts, with each district getting back about one-fifth of the cuts this year.
Yesterday, Cerf said the prospect of needing hundreds of millions more, let alone $1 billion-plus, would lead to steep cuts elsewhere in the state’s budget.
He said full-day preschool, one of the clearest success stories of the Abbott rulings, could be sacrificed, although he didn’t mention that such a move would likely run afoul of the court as well.
"It is not on anyone’s list and it would be a tragedy, but if we absolutely had to find all this $1.6 billion, that is probably the biggest pot in this budget," he said.
Cerf, however, said there is no move currently underway by the administration to rewrite the formula, certainly not in time for next year’s budget.
Still, Democratic legislators said the administration – and themselves – better start looking at the options. Greenwald said the proposal so far for the $250 million increase could prove a "pittance."
"We have a billion in new revenues this year, so when we have cut back $1.6 billion, we send the wrong message to the court," he said. "We are going to find a hole in our budget that we are going to need to address."
At another point during the hearing, one of the more intriguing exchanges came when Democrats briefly questioned Cerf about an outside consultant doing work for the department, paid by a California foundation.
Cerf said William Cox was providing consultant work in his "transition," aiding in his planned reorganization of the department.
Cox is being paid $20,000 a month by the Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based foundation focused on urban school reform.
Cerf bristled after the hearing when reporters asked about the consultant contract, only saying that it was not uncommon for the Broad Foundation to provide technical support to its fellows. Cerf attended the foundation's school leadership program in 2004 during his tenure as deputy schools chancellor in New York City.