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Cerf Assembles Expert Team to Review School Funding

Acting commissioner's dream team includes academics, researchers, and consultants.

Gov. Chris Christie has long said he doesn’t much like how – and how much -- New Jersey funds its public schools, especially its urban districts, and more recently he has said changes would be coming with his next state budget plan in early 2012.

Not surprisingly, Democrats have cried foul, with leaders calling for the administration to show its hand. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) wrote to acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf demanding details of what changes he has in mind.

Now, some information is starting to come out.

Cerf said yesterday that he has enlisted a team of nearly a dozen academics, researchers, and others to look at the effectiveness of the current School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) formula and help him come up with changes.

The court-ordered review of SFRA is already a year late. Cerf said it would come this winter.

And it looks as if the review will be quite extensive, with proposed changes either to the formula itself -- requiring legislative approval -- or to the regulations that dictate how the money is to be spent, Cerf said.

He described the process as very much a work in progress, with few if any models to follow from other states. But he also said budget simulations are being made to test out different ideas.

“What we propose will be unique and distinct,” he said.

The central reform principles would center on what Cerf called the flaws of the current SFRA, which defines a precise mathematical calculation for how much each district should receive, based on specific demographics and needs of children.

“Where we have collectively gone astray is we have talked about how much money each district receives and not about how they spend it,” Cerf said.

He said he would like the money steered much more toward specific programs and reforms. When asked whether he would propose tying at least some funding directly to student achievement, he said that is possible.

“It’s one of the ideas we are considering,” he said.

He stressed the final recommendations will be his, but he has enlisted help from a mix of school funding experts from across the country, most from academia. They are:

  • Sean Corcoran – New York University
  • Eric Hanushek -- Stanford University
  • Brian Jacob – University of Michigan
  • Susanna Loeb – Stanford University
  • Mona Mourshed – McKinsey & Co.
  • Steve Rivkin – Amherst College
  • Marguerite Roza -- University of Washington
  • Cecilia Rouse – Princeton University
  • Jason Willis -- Stockton (CA) Unified School District

Hanushek, Rouse, Loeb, Willis and Corcoran will be paid consultants, providing research for the ultimate report, said department spokesman Justin Barra.

“These are very talented folks, and represent a broad spectrum of thinking,” Cerf said of the group with whom he has met once collectively. “These are hard and knotty problems, and we want to listen to their views.”

Some of the names are notable. Hanushek, a school finance expert with the Hoover Institute at Stanford, is an outspoken critic of school spending patterns, which he says rarely show any correlation to student achievement.

He testified on behalf of the Christie administration in fact-finding hearings about the latest challenge to the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings. Christie lost that case, and the state was ordered to allot an additional $447 million to the New Jersey's highest poverty districts.

But the fact-finding judge also said Hanushek raised some provocative questions as to what does drive achievement, just not ones applicable to the specific legal challenge.

At the other end of the spectrum is his Stanford colleague Susanna Loeb, who was involved in the development of SFRA three years ago. She testified in New Jersey courts as part of the Abbott litigation, praising SFRA as “an effective and appropriate means for education funding.” Mourshed of McKinsey, the management consulting giant, has done considerable work on effective school systems around the world.

The release of the names comes three days after Sweeney's letter to Cerf demanding details of the process and any consultants or researchers he was enlisting.

Sweeney in the letter called SFRA a fair and collaborative system that was developed through a lengthy and public process, including public hearings and testimony of experts like Loeb.

“I trust that your office will proceed in the same open, transparent manner,” Sweeney wrote Cerf.

The Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation, has been keeping a close eye on the developments. David Sciarra, its executive director, said he was still unclear what Cerf had in mind and questioned if it could be done through the upcoming review of SFRA.

“That by statute is a very limited exercise,” he said. “You can’t change the formula through that; it’s really an updating of its different components . . . The formula itself remains intact.”

Still, he also said that much of what Cerf was talking about in terms of requiring how districts – especially low-performing districts -- spend the money can be done through administrative code and regulation.

“If he has proposals for how the money should be used, he should do it by regulation,” Sciarra said. “He has the authority now to do that.”

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