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Gov. Christie’s School-Funding Plan: Bold or Botched -- or Both?

All students getting the same would be fine in the leafy suburbs, but poorer districts would end up hemorrhaging money -- and teachers

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It’s hard to say whether Gov. Chris Christie and his proposal yesterday to blow up the state’s school-funding formula for a simple everyone-gets-the-same plan is bold or delusional.

Almost Donald Trump-like in both concept and execution, the plan looks as if it is going nowhere fast -- immediately drawing criticism and rebuke from Democrats who will in all likelihood control the outcome.

But it’s sure to garner headlines and a lot of talk, maybe that was Christie’s plan all along.

After his 45-minute presentation of the proposal yesterday at Hillsborough High School, Christie sat for an interview with a handful of reporters -- including NJ Spotlight -- and gave the plan less than 50-50 odds, while countering that “I haven’t started campaigning yet.”

Still, outlining plans for a summer-long public push -- including his famous town halls and social media hashtags -- he looked eager for a fight with critics of the proposal, saying those whose schools will benefit, including many Democrats, will have the voters to answer to.

“Every one of Loretta Weinberg’s districts will see an increase in aid,” he said, alluding to the Senate majority leader from Teaneck.

“This is the single most important issue to an overwhelming majority of New Jersey, and if we’re going to amend the constitution, let’s get to it,” Christie said at another point.

“With this on the ballot, I’m willing to bet you it will pass with 80 to 85 percent of the vote.”

This has been a long-running battle for Christie since he took office, when the governor had his eye on dismantling the state’s 30-year history of court-mandated funding for urban schools, and the latest salvo is hardly a surprise last resort.

First, he wanted to remake the state Supreme Court, a strategy that ended up in a stalemate, at best. Then he sought to chip away at the additional money to the former Abbott districts, named after the seminal Abbott v. Burke rulings, but the court pushed back and kept its mandates in place -- and ordered a half-billion dollars in additional aid.

Nearing the end his second term, Christie has now latched onto a proposal that has actually been around for a while: dismantle the state’s decade-old school funding law altogether and instead allot more than $9 billion in state aid at the same amount per pupil for every district, or roughly $6,599 per student under his plan.

The prime author of the idea up until now has been state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren), one of the Legislature’s most conservative members who has long contended the urban districts are getting too much.

After little to no support for years, Doherty was happy yesterday that someone important was now paying attention.

“After years of being the lone voice calling for a new school-funding formula that treats every student and every taxpayer fairly, I’m glad that Gov. Christie has joined my call for reform,” Doherty said.

The specific proposal – its details still to be outlined -- would set a floor for every district at $6,599, increasing aid for 75 percent of districts, some dramatically, but surely bringing draconian cuts to the other 25 percent that receive well more than that, led by the 31 urban districts that are served under Abbott.

For Newark and Camden, for instance, the cuts would be in the tens of millions of dollars – the price of scores of teachers and programs.

Christie’s proposal would be for the Legislature to put the plan on the 2017 ballot -- the same one electing the next governor -- as a constitutional amendment.

But the plan comes with plenty of questions, starting with its prospects.

The Democratic leadership of the Legislature called the proposal dead on arrival, terming it everything from counter to the state’s principles and values to a violation of the state’s constitution requiring a “thorough and efficient” education system.

“This plan is unfair, it is unjust, and it is blatantly unconstitutional,” read a joint statement from state Senate President Steve Sweeney and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the Senate education chair.

Not entirely surprising, Republicans lined up in support -- and both state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and state Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., their chamber’s respective minority leaders, attended yesterday’s announcement.

Christie is not among the most popular of governors these days, with some historic lows in his polling numbers. But Bramnick and other Republicans nevertheless saw the proposal as one to help their constituents.

Still, there is the bigger question as to Christie’s endgame.

In an unexpected disclosure, Christie said he did not rule out supporting a competing proposal from state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to create a new state commission to come up with its own referendum for reworking -- albeit not rewriting -- the state’s school funding law.

“I don’t think it’s bad idea, but it’s too small an idea,” he said of Sweeney’s proposal, which won committee approval in the Senate this week.

How this plays in the ongoing back-and-forth over the next state budget is also a question, including the longer-term debates over new taxes to pay for transportation infrastructure.

When asked whether this was a bargaining chip in the next state budget, Christie yesterday said it wasn’t. But he also said the Democrats have refused to negotiate over the budget, and he made no promises to what he would approve or reject.

In the end, he said his proposal would be the capstone on his administration if it ever passed.

“If I could get this on the ballot in 2017, that would be the biggest achievement of the administration, no doubt.”

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