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The Public School Funding Battle: No Holds Barred

Christie wants to scrap Abbott v. Burke; Sweeney wants a commission to make sure that funding decisions are fair

sweeney christie
Gov. Chris Christie (left) and State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney

The hotly debated topic of school funding in New Jersey may have just hit the boiling point, as two opposing approaches to how the state funds its public schools came into sharper focus yesterday.

For starters, Gov. Chris Christie — a longtime antagonist of the state’s public teacher unions — called on the Supreme Court to reopen a landmark education ruling that helped poor communities get more school funding. He also asked that the court give the Department of Education control over laws and bargaining agreements that protect tenured teachers.

Later in the day, Christie’s primary legislative antagonist, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, pushed through a resolution to create a school-funding commission to look at the issue of “fairness” that would keep the existing system but would even out the funding that has changed due to fluctuations in income and population. This commission does not require Christie’s permission or participation.

In a legal filing by Attorney General Christopher Porrino, the administration asked the that the court reopen the case of Abbott v. Burke, arguing that 31 urban and low-income districts that the ruling targets haven’t caught up with their suburban counterparts, which was the goal of the law. Opening the case back up, the administration argued, would enable it to freeze aid to the targeted districts until lawmakers could put a new funding strategy in place.

The filing also asked that the court give the state education commissioner the authority to scrap negotiated prep time for teachers and restrictions on teacher training time, the length of the school day and school year, as well as other laws that it sees as “impediments to a thorough and efficient education.”

“What we know now is, more money alone does not translate into a better education,” Christie said in a statement accompanying the administration’s announcement. “Better teaching methods, more instruction time and improved educational programs make the difference, and we cannot in good conscience fail another generation of children living in the Garden State’s poorest school districts by denying them access to a proper education that is delivered by eager and capable teachers.”

It was a surprise announcement that elicited strong response from the state’s largest teacher’s union, with whom Christie has routinely sparred over his two terms as governor. The New Jersey Education Association called the filing a “frivolous legal challenge” that would “gut the best public schools in the nation to advance a partisan agenda that puts politicians ahead of children.”

“He knows his legal argument does not hold water,” Wendell Steinhauer, president of the NJEA, wrote. “He tried this strategy before in a 2010 challenge to the Abbott decision and it was rejected by the court. This is not a legal strategy. It’s a political ploy.”

But Christie’s wasn’t the only education agenda advanced on Thursday. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), during a voting session of the Legislature's upper house, also saw his proposal for the creation of a bipartisan education commission to review and revise the state’s school funding formula sent up.

The “School Aid Funding Fairness Commission” would be tasked with presenting within a year a plan for fully funding New Jersey’s School Finance Reform Act — the prime pump for state aid for public schools — within five years. Sweeney introduced his bill in June and it sailed through the Budget Committee early this week. The commission would be made up of six members, with all four leaders of both houses and education associations like the NJEA and the School Boards Association each getting an appointment.

Yesterday's vote wasn’t without debate, however, with lawmakers on the floor arguing back and forth over whether a vote for the commission — which would hold hearings over the next year about the state’s $9 billion in school aid and put forward recommendations to the state Legislature — was reneging of their sworn responsibilities as elected officials. Under the bill, lawmakers would be able to vote “yes” or “no” on the commission’s suggestions and proposals, but would not be able to review them in committee or amend them beforehand.

Sweeney’s bill was crafted as a concurrent resolution, which means it does not require Christie’s approval.

“What you’re saying here is the legislature is not competent enough to address the various issues with respect to school funding, and since they are not competent, we will remove them from the process with this bill,” said state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), arguing against the resolution. “This is a democracy. You might not like the outcome, but you must not skew the process.”

But Gill’s concerns were contrasted by tepid support from Republicans, many of whom see fixing a broken school funding formula as one of the most important problems facing the state. They call the current formula “grossly” inequitable, with some districts seeing less than what the formula, based on factors like student enrollment and demographics, calls for, while other see more.

State Sens. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) and Mike Doherty (R-Hunterdon) both stood to praise Sweeney’s efforts on the floor, saying the bill wasn’t “perfect” but that something must be done.

“Can we all agree on what is fair in terms of funding education for our children, and make it so the same formula is used in every school district, and can we remove the political influence?” Beck asked. “Because it doesn’t make any sense right now.”

Beck worked with Sweeney on crafting an earlier bill that called for significant redistribution of aid to districts, while Doherty is a co-sponsor of Christie’s “fairness formula” in the Senate. That plan, introduced by Christie over the summer, would issue a flat $6,599 in state aid for every pupil, without additional help for poor districts, and would require a constitutional amendment, which Christie wants put on the ballot next fall.

That coincides with election season, when several prospective gubernatorial candidates will be gunning for Christie's seat — including Sweeney.

“This is not a perfect bill, this is not the way I would do it, but this is a vehicle to bring the issue to the people of New Jersey,” Doherty said.

The vote on the bill was 28-6. An identical version of the bill is moving through the Assembly, but Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, echoing concerns raised by the NJEA about how restrictive a commission might be, has said he's hesitant to support it.

Chase Brush is a former PolitickerNJ reporter and NJ Spotlight editorial intern from North Jersey.

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