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Report Offers Glimpse of School-Aid Breakdown – and Fight That’s Likely to Follow

Christie, Cerf appear poised to once again try to cut extra funds for low-income students.

In a likely preview of Gov. Chris Christie’s next state budget for public education – and the debates that will surely follow – his administration has put forward a report that proposes increasing some levels of school funding while reducing others.

The proposals are part of the long-awaited Educational Adequacy Report submitted to the Legislature, which is required under the state’s 2008 School Funding Reform Act as a way to periodically update the state-aid formula to meet changing education costs.

Sent to the Legislature on Friday, the largely technical report by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf reiterated many of Christie’s long-standing criticisms that additional funding under the state Supreme Court’s landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation – the impetus for much of the funding law – had failed to result in improved education for students.

“The conclusion is inescapable: forty years and tens of billions later, New Jersey’s economically disadvantaged students continue to struggle mightily,” Cerf wrote in the report.

“There are undoubtedly many reasons for the policy failure,” he continued. “But chief among them is the historically dubious view that all we need to do is design an education funding formula that would ‘dollarize’ a ‘thorough and efficient system of free public school’ and educational achievement for every New Jersey student would, automatically and without more, follow.”

Cerf’s funding proposal, in effect, would repeat what Christie presented in the current year’s state budget, increasing the base amounts to which all students would be entitled for a so-called adequate education while reducing the extra money – or so-called funding “weights” -- that would be apportioned for students who are low-income or have limited English language skills.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature ultimately rejected the proposed language last year, saying it would potentially lead to deep cuts for high-poverty school districts and that it wanted to review it as part of the adequacy report.

But it did approve the governor’s state-aid amounts based on the new formulations, leading to more than $200 million in additional state aid overall.

Legislative staff yesterday said that the latest report was received late Friday, and that Senate and Assembly leaders will review it in the coming weeks. Under the law, the Legislature has 90 days to come back with its own resolution or the administration’s numbers will stand.

At the same time, Christie – running for reelection -- will be submitting his next state budget in the coming months. It is sure to include the new school-aid formulations for what is the largest single chunk of state spending, setting off its own debates.

In an interview last night, Cerf said the proposals would only benefit schools overall and reiterated arguments from last year that any reductions for at-risk and bilingual students were “extremely modest” and “trivial in terms of the overall increases.”

“Actually, this is a pretty generous document,” he said of the report.

In his proposal, the base amount would be $11,009 per pupil in fiscal 2014, up almost $500 from this year. Yet, based on a complicated formula that takes into account a number of factors, he also proposed reducing extra funding for certain at-risk students – and the programs they pay for -- by up to $1,000 per child from the formulations used in the 2008 act.

School funding is as hotly debated as any education issue in the state, with four decades of litigation to prove it, and the budget proposal by Christie and Cerf will undoubtedly draw fire in the coming months.

The Education Law Center in Newark, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation and has been this administration’s chief antagonist on education policy, said yesterday it was still reviewing the adequacy report -- but fired some opening salvos.

David Sciarra, the center’s executive director and lead attorney, said that he would urge the Legislature to reject the adequacy report, meeting with legislative staff as soon as today.

He said last night that the reductions in the at-risk weights came without any study of what was actually needed in the schools, as required under the law.

“There has really been no assessment of the current weights and whether they are sufficient to meet the needs of students,” Sciarra said.

“We will make sure the Legislature is aware that these adjustments are inappropriate, and to reject them in a concurrent resolution,” he said.

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