‘Highest Achievement, Lowest Spending’ — Administration Looks to Models in Funding Review

As directed by the state Supreme Court, the Christie administration is reviewing the formulas used to determine aid for schools

What is “adequate” when it comes to public education? What does it include? How much does it cost?

In New Jersey these are not just political and educational questions, but legal ones too. And the Christie administration is about to weigh in with its own calculations, ones it hopes satisfy the state Supreme Court.

The court in its latest Abbott v. Burke ruling in 2009 found the state’s current school funding formula enacted in 2008 to be constitutional, driven by its varying models for staffing and programs and how much they cost, including special weights for student income and other special needs.

But that order also required the state revisit the formula within three years to ensure its numbers held up and to adjust them where they don’t. By September 1, the state Department of Education must submit its recommendations to the legislature.

Much of the game changed with the state’s fiscal crisis, as Gov. Chris Christie and the legislature made deep and universal school aid cuts, leaving the formula largely moot for the time being.

Those cuts have been challenged in court by the Education Law Center, the Newark advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation. It contends the cuts are in violation of the Supreme Court’s larger order.

But less noticed has been the fate of the mandated review, a review now fraught with its own political and financial consequences in the aftermath of the school cuts.

The process will begin with a planned meeting on August 10 between state Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, his staff and a select group of superintendents in districts that state officials say epitomize the “thorough and efficient” education that the state’s constitution requires.

“They’re the districts with the highest achievement with the lowest spending,” said Willa Spicer, assistant education commissioner. “With them, we want to take a look at the old models and see whether it still holds.”

“Is there anything new to add to the equation?” she said. “How many teachers do you need, do you need the same number of vice principals, things like that.”

Gene Wilhoit, the former Kentucky state commissioner and now executive director of the Council for Chief State School Officers, will lead the meeting, Spicer said.

From those findings and other studies, the state would then derive the needed costs and whether they match the existing formulas, before reporting back to the legislature.

But even before the process starts, critics said they worry that the review is steered to reducing school spending and justifying Christie’s aid cuts, more than providing the constitutionally required education.

The Education Law Center in its challenge of the aid cuts has asked the court to suspend the review given the formula was never fully funded in the first place.

“How do you review it when we haven’t funded the formula?” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director. “How do we know? The review was based on the formula being fully funded and operational.”

Sciarra said he feared the review could be used by Schundler to try to rewrite some key components of the formula, including its specifics for extra funding for students of low-income, special education and limited English language skills.

“It would be extremely inappropriate to use this report to rewrite the formula,” he said. “They are certainly entitled to do that, that’s their right, but not in this process. And anything like that would be a flagrant violation of the law and an end-run around the legislature.”

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