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For Assembly Hearing, School Budget Analysis Fuels Debate on Aid

OLS report shows how poor districts could get less under Christie’s plan to change formula.

Whether Gov. Chris Christie’s FY 2013 state budget hurts or helps public schools has been an open debate, with today’s Assembly hearing on the budget unlikely to bring any new consensus.

The governor and his administration have said emphatically that the latest budget proposal is a boost to schools, with overall state spending for education seeing a $213 million increase to what the administration maintains is a record high amount for the state.

In its favor, close to 500 districts will see increases next year, easing some of the lingering pain of the last two years and quieting any statewide criticism of the funding plan.

But a budget analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff highlights the ongoing debate in the details of that plan, with questions raised to whether the increases this year and next are masking a longer term shift from the state’s support for especially at-risk students to a funding system favoring wealthier suburban districts.

As the Assembly’s budget committee convenes today to hear from Christie’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, before the members will be the analysis by the Office of Legislative Services arcanely titled: “How Proposed Changes to the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 Will Change the Allocation of State Aid.”

It is a tough -- albeit somewhat speculative -- critique, pointing out that the combination of a half-dozen changes in how the Christie administration calculates the state’s funding formula will ultimately shift money away from districts that have most benefited under the state’s epic Abbott v. Burke school funding rulings.

This is all based on the presumption that the reform act will ever be fully funded, something that hasn’t happened since the year after it was enacted and approved by the state Supreme Court.

But if it was, the OLS report says the state would provide $300 million less out of a total of more than $8 billion in direct state aid under the Christie administration’s changes than if the formula were left alone.

Most of that reduction would come out of the poorer districts, especially the 31 districts that specifically fall under the rulings, including Newark, Paterson, Camden and New Brunswick.

“The aid reductions are generally concentrated among the former Abbott districts and districts classified in the lower and middle [socio-economic] categories,” the OLS analysis reads.

Phased in over five years, the administration’s changes would alter the extra funding received for low-income, limited English and most other students in need of additional services, as ordered by the courts. Under the formula as it stands now, for instance, direct aid for low-income students in districts with high concentrations of poor families is weighted an additional 57 percent. Under Christie’s changes, it would be an additional 46 percent.

The administration will also change how student attendance is calculated, putting at a disadvantage those lower-income districts that have more difficulty getting students to school on a consistent basis.

Christie has said with the changes, the formula could be fully funded within five years, with districts ultimately gaining or losing aid seeing a fifth of the increase or decrease in each year.

Not surprisingly, critics and those advocating for these districts have jumped on the OLS report to cite what they call Christie’s radical changes to the court’s mandates and another example of his intentions to reduce aid to poor urban districts -- something he doesn’t much hide.

The Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, issued a statement earlier this month that called Christie’s plan a “bait and switch.”

"Not only will these districts see overall aid levels reduced under the governor's so-called 'modified' formula, they will have to wait five years just to get what they should be receiving this year,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s director. “It's a classic bait and switch."

The ELC lists half a dozen districts -- urban and suburban -- that will be either subject to cuts this year or see less than what the reform act calls for.

“As the OLS analysis makes clear, and as these examples show, all districts and students are losers under the governor’s proposals, and we strongly urge the legislature to reject them,” Sciarra said.

Unfazed, Christie and his administration haven’t strayed from their public proclamations that this is a record year for state aid to schools. That comes with some caveat that it does not include the last budget under former Gov. Jon Corzine in which districts also received close to $1 billion in federal stimulus aid included in the state’s distribution.

“This is the most generous budget of state funds ever submitted, bar none,” Cerf said yesterday in an interview.

Cerf downplayed the changes that the administration wants to make in the formula, calling them “modest” and based on “common sense.”

But he quickly comes back to the argument that it is not so much about money, anyway, with Camden schools increasingly become Exhibit A.

In that city, 23 of its schools -- 80 percent of the system -- are among the lowest 5 percent in the state in terms of student performance. And under the formula’s definition of adequacy, Cerf says they are spending $55 million more than deemed enough and carrying a surplus of close to $18 million.

“They can’t spend the money fast enough,” he said. “We have to get out of the practice of focusing unilaterally on the amount that we spend.”

Either way, there appears little momentum so far in the Democratic-controlled legislature to make broad changes to what Christie has proposed.

Much of the debate with the Democratic leadership has been over Christie’s proposed 10 percent income tax cut overall and whether it should be a property tax credit instead.

But when it gets down to the details of each department’s budget, the chairman of the Senate budget committee said last month that he didn’t envision wholesale changes in Christie’s school funding proposal.

In the end, another OLS document before the committee today could carry just as much weight: the town-by-town breakdown of state aid increases or decreases next year by all 40 legislative districts.

This is the number that each Senator or Assembly member takes back to his or her constituency, and one that is likely to favor the governor’s plan. Just two districts -- District 1 (Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland) and District 24 (Warren and Sussex) -- are seeing cuts from last year. The other 38 are seeing increases.

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