The debate over school funding in New Jersey took a new turn yesterday, when Senate Democratic leaders laid down their own ultimatum: They will not move a fiscal 2018 state budget without significant progress toward their long-discussed proposals for revising state aid for schools.
In a not-so-veiled attempt to one-up Gov. Chris Christie’s 100-day deadline for a deal, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Sen. Paul Sarlo, the upper chamber’s budget chair, proclaimed that they had no more patience for debates and would use their budget powers to press the matter.
The comments came in a State House press conference before yesterday’s budget committee hearing, where acting state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington testified about Christie’s education budget.
“The Senate is not going to pass a budget that doesn’t start to address the unfairness in this funding formula,” Sweeney said at the press conference.
“The time of talking is done,” he said. “The time of action is now.”
But the details get sketchy after that, including how any of it would be paid for. Further, the hearing that followed spoke to the complexity of even taking a small step toward mending the wide disparities in funding.
In more than two hours of questions to Harrington, legislators from both parties dwelled on not just underfunding, but also ongoing gaps in a variety of programs, from preschool to school security to school construction.
When pressed for details about how the Democrats would balance all these interests, Sarlo said he could not commit to how much money the Senate leadership was seeking to redistribute, or how many districts would take cuts in aid in the near term.
“We didn’t yet commit to a dollar amount, but we’re talking real money,” he said.
He also wasn’t specific about when the senators would release the breakdowns for each district, saying that remains under review. One of the dangers in making cuts at this point is that districts have already struck their budgets for next year.
But Sarlo said there would be districts losing aid for next year, adding “we’re not going to go full busting on them right away.”
When asked when those breakdowns would be released, Sarlo pointed to the budget deadline in June. “It’s May 1. We’re talking June 15, June 30.”
With Sarlo’s support and that of other prominent Democrats, Sweeney has led a public campaign for close to a year to move the state toward full funding of the School Funding Reform Act through a number of revisions.
It would start with an additional $100 million a year over five years, or $500 million all told, to districts statewide.
In addition, Sweeney has proposed the phasing-out of more than $500 million in so-called “adjustment aid” that goes to overfunded districts to save them from potential cuts. The Senate president’s plan would also remove caps on aid to districts seeing fast enrollment growth.
Christie himself had initially called for a rewriting of the SFRA, providing the same amount of aid per pupil for all districts, regardless of need. That plan — dubbed the “School Fairness Formula” — never got off the ground in the Legislature. Christie ultimately delivered his 2018 budget plan with virtually the same level of aid as this year.
Yet in doing so, he challenged the Legislature to meet with him and come up with a fairer plan by June 7 — 100 days from his budget speech — or he might move unilaterally.
Those meetings have been few so far, but there did seem to be some softening of positions yesterday when Harrington spoke before the committee.
When asked specifically if the administration would support the Senate plan at this point, Harrington was supportive in concept, if not in the details.
“I believe you can count on us to be partners with you in this conversation,” she said. “We agree that what we have is not working, and we need a solution.”
Harrington said there are now 368 districts that are “over-adequacy” in spending more than the SFRA deems as adequate, and 223 “under-adequacy.”
Yet she was also among those who raised some caution flags in dealing with specific aid accounts, saying not all districts receiving adjustment aid are necessarily receiving overfunding in state aid.
“We have to be careful we are not taking aid from districts that are under-adequacy, pushing them even further below,” she said.
State Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) has been among the outspoken critics of the existing funding plan, and the Red Bank schools in her district have been among the centers of protests against the widespread underfunding.
“We have kids learning in the halls, classrooms on a stage without any dividers,” she said. “We have 35, 36, 37 kids in a class. There is an imperative here to figure out how to address this situation. It is really at a crisis point.”