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Christie's Education Budget: Reading Between the Line Items

With the budget coming in at almost $9B, it's something of a surprise to learn what it isn't going to cover.

Now comes the grunt work on Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed fiscal 2014 budget, as the state Legislature begins its department-by-department reviews of the $32.8 billion spending plan -- starting this week with education.

The nearly $8.9 billion allotted to state aid for public schools is the biggest slice of Christie’s plan, and it very well could get the bulk of the debate, too. Discussions over urban school reform, teacher evaluation, property taxes, and school vouchers are all woven into the line items for education.

The Assembly budget committee's department hearings start on Thursday morning in Trenton, with state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf slated to testify.

Education will also be the focus in the final stop in the Assembly’s road show of public testimony being held today in Newark as well, with school advocates preparing large public protests.

As the legislators and their staff prepare to parse the numbers, here are a few prevailing questions that are likely to come up -- and may even be answered:

How good -- or bad -- is this budget for the state’s public schools?

It’s not easy to tell whether this is the most generous education budget in history or one of the most egregious, given the rhetoric coming from both sides in the debate.

Actually there is a bit of truth in each.

The governor is in full reelection mode, pitching the state’s investment in school aid as the highest ever. And strictly by the numbers, the amount is indeed the most the state has directly paid.

But that’s hardly the full picture. In fiscal 2010, schools actually received more in overall aid, helped by an additional $1 billion in federal stimulus money. The year after, without that help, Christie made deep aid cuts to schools, leading to unprecedented layoffs and decimated programs.

Three years later, districts are getting close to returning to those 2010 totals under Christie’s latest budget, but the financial wounds were deep and with a 2 percent tax cap in place since then, few would say they have healed.

Really, a dollar?

Christie has made a big point that two-thirds of all districts will see an increase in state aid this year, and none will see cuts. But that’s not exactly true, on a couple of counts.

For one thing, 41 districts are seeing a $1 boost in their aid. Not $1 per student, a small figure in itself when per-pupil spending is in the thousands, but a single dollar overall.

Doubly stinging, another nearly 500 districts are seeing an increase in their required contributions to the debt service on grants they received for new construction costs, not a sizable amount for many of them, but a significant six-figure hit for more than a dozen.

“While the fees are not part of state formula aid, which has been held at no less than flat for districts, the fees nonetheless reduce a school district’s budget and the high increase was another bad surprise,” read prepared testimony from Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

Will the administration defy the Legislature on at-risk aid -- again?

The Legislature has been in a tug of war over how the administration adjusts the aid formula under the School Funding Reform Act, as permitted under the law.

Last year and again in this budget, the administration has sought to reduce the amount of extra aid for at-risk students, whether they're limited English or low-income. And in each case, the Legislature has said, "No."

But even so, the administration has pressed on with the numbers in the next budget, maintaining they are small changes, at most. Will the Legislature stand firmer this time?

“We rejected the changes and they are still being used,” said state Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee. “That’s a problem, and for some districts, it’s just not fair.”

Will this budget bring the first school vouchers to New Jersey?

It’s all of $2 million, a tiny fraction of the total, but it may get the most chatter of all: the launch of a small pilot program that would offer 200 low-income students $10,000 each to attend a school of their choice, public or private.

After two decades of debate and some fits and starts, this is the closest yet to school vouchers in New Jersey.

But advocates, and especially the New Jersey Education Association, have hardly relaxed their opposition, calling the plan -- however small -- a dangerous precedent.

So far at least, the Legislature -- both Democrats and Republicans -- has been relatively quiet. Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver says she is willing to listen, and Prieto said the same, with some conditions.

“That’s something left for debate,” he said yesterday. “I do ask whether it should be separate legislation. Not sure this should happen through budget language.”

What’s not in the budget?

For all the discussion of the budget as a blueprint for policy, a few high-profile issues are barely addressed.

There is no extra money to help districts implement the new tenure law, for instance, which includes an evaluation and professional development system for teachers and principals that must be in place by next fall.

For all the discussion of urban school reform, including the planned takeover of Camden schools, there is no additional money for the state satellite centers that are charged with overseeing improvements.

On a lesser scale, there is also no money to address the state’s anti-bullying law, after a modest $1 million grant this year. Other notable absences: more money for charter schools – a Christie personal favorite – or for school facilities.

“It’s not what’s in the budget, but what’s not in there,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist for the state school boards association who pressed for ramp-up costs for teacher evaluation and support.

“I understand there’s a limit to state resources, but there will be ongoing costs associated with all of this,” he said. “Are we going to have that discussion at some point?”

Is there really all that much money available to make significant changes?

For all the back and forth, there is not a lot of wiggle room, as revenue estimates for the state are so far coming in below forecasts, only portending less money, not more.

Updated figures and a revised budget in May will dictate much of that, but Prieto isn’t hopeful for big changes. The committee chairman said he hears complaints that districts -- especially in his working-class county -- could be set back under the budget plan.

“They tell me it will be very difficult to operate,” he said. “But realistically, there may not be a heck of a lot we can do. The revenues are not going the way they should be.”

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