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The Nuclear Option: Will Christie Budget Blow Up School Funding?

Educators, parents, advocates have been working for months to come up with a plan to countermand the governor’s ‘Fairness Formula’

Lester Taylor, East Orange mayor
Lester Taylor, mayor of East Orange, says that nothing about Gov. Chris Christie's "Fairness Formula" is fair.

The discussions started back in the fall, when Gov. Chris Christie was heavily promoting his controversial “Fairness Formula” for school funding, a scheme that would essentially blow up how the state pays for its public schools.

Initially led by the New Jersey Education Association, advocacy groups including the Education Law Center and the state NAACP started discussing how to come up with a strategy for what to do if Christie actually imposed his plan on the state.

Four months later, the big test is coming on Tuesday with Christie’s next — and last — state budget plan for New Jersey. Conjecture is rampant about what the governor is planning for school funding, the biggest piece of the budget pie.

Taking no chances, a slew of groups yesterday came forward to speak out against the possibility of Christie moving forward with his funding plan in the budget — even as they acknowledged there is little hard evidence as to what he may do.

“I don’t think anyone knows for sure,” said Elisabeth Ginsburg, president of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, representing largely suburban districts. “I think perhaps there is only one person knows for sure.”

“But there is a lot of anxiety, a lot of speculation,” she said, “none of which is good for the operation of stable educational programs.”

Make no mistake, the changes under Christie’s proposal would be significant. He would provide every district the same amount of per-pupil state aid — about $6,599 — vanquishing the current formula that steers more aid to districts with greater poverty and greater needs.

It would mean significant increases in aid for some suburban districts, but also harsh cuts for others, especially urban districts like Newark and Jersey City. Newark could lose almost half of its overall budget, by some estimates.

But given the harsh consequences, especially in districts that the state itself operates, the odds may be just as strong that Christie doesn’t pick his final fight over school funding on Tuesday, especially as he has recently moved to other priorities such as the state’s opioid crisis. Some surmise he could propose a level-funded aid package for all districts, as he basically has for the past five years. That possibility received added traction earlier this month when the state Supreme Court refused to even hear a Christie challenge that would have included his funding reform plan.

Christie himself is providing little clue. In his monthly radio show last week, he said his budget wouldn’t include any “big surprises.” Yet in the next breath, when asked if school funding reform could be included, he said: "Could be. Stay tuned."

That’s enough to keep the advocacy groups, as well as Democratic legislators, nervous about what’s to come.

While Christie has promoted his plan, State Senate President Steve Sweeney has been pressing for smaller revisions to the existing funding formula, rather than the governor’s complete overhaul. He has led a series of public hearings across the state about his plan, including one in Newark this week.

“This is an issue of greatest importance,” Sweeney said in opening the session this week.

In case Christie moves for more drastic measures, the options available to the Democratic-led Legislature are substantial as well, including its own budget language to reverse the governor. But Christie can also come back and veto those changes, if he has enough support to prevent an override.

Yesterday, the speakers in the State House press conference ranged from a parent in tiny Palmyra in Burlington County who said the schools could lose up to $100,000, to the mayor of East Orange who said more than $100 million could be lost to his schools.

“As a mayor of an urban city is a hard enough job without having the so-called fairness formula being imposed by Gov. Christie,” said Mayor Lester Taylor. “We would lose $113 million — $113 million … It’s not fair, nothing about it is fair.”

Cecilia Zalkind, director of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, added she did not recall before such a preemptive campaign for school funding before a budget was even introduced.

“This is unusual,” she said. “And I was thinking, do we want to plant a seed (with the governor)? But it’s well past that. . . We can’t take anything for granted. It’s not a time for wait and see.”

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