Winners and Losers for School Aid

Complicated formula hits some NJ cities hard while suburban schools see gains

The first details are out in Gov. Chris Christie’s trumpeted increase in state aid for New Jersey public schools next year, showing a much more complicated picture that will mean big increases for some schools but sharp cuts for others.

Released late yesterday by Christie’s office, the state aid figures for each district under the governor’s $32.1 billion budget are, at first look, short on clear patterns. Some of the state’s larger urban districts will be hit the hardest in actual dollars, with Camden for instance losing $5.5 million (2 percent) and East Orange $2.9 million (1.7 percent).

But it’s not universal: Newark loses a relatively small $600,000 out of a nearly $1 billion budget, and Jersey City is actually slated to get a single dollar more.

Other districts seeing significant cuts include such places as Winslow ($896,000), Hopatcong ($764,000) and Monmouth Regional ($482,000). In all, 95 districts will see some reductions, from 13 percent down to miniscule dips.

But that is just the losers, a small minority in a budget where four out of five districts will see at least some increases. They are going more to the suburbs, but they include a wide range as well, including blue-collar places like Bayonne ($2.8 million increase) and the top dollar winner, Freehold Regional ($3.2 million).

“We see this as a good news budget for an overwhelming number of districts,” said acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

Much of it comes back to the complexities of the state’s aid formula under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), one that Christie has long lambasted as too generous for so-called failing districts in cities like Newark and Camden. He has all but ignored it the last two years, making steep across-the-board cuts two years ago and then increases last year, much of them by order of the court in the latest Abbott v. Burke decision.

But somewhat ironically, Christie is closely following at least SFRA’s core principles in this budget, albeit with some significant and sure to be controversial changes that Cerf said would be phased in over five years.

The SFRA formula enacted by former Gov. Jon Corzine and approved by the state Supreme Court bases state aid on a complicated computation that determines a model range for spending and allots a certain amount of money per student, depending on their needs and the local district’s ability to pay.

Those different weights for different needs are critical to the math, as is how the students are counted in the first place. Cerf is making changes in both those methods that would appear to provide less help than previously to districts with higher concentrations of poor or disadvantaged students.

For instance, low-income students who formerly would get as much as 57 percent more in per pupil aid would see that reduced to 46 percent under Cerf’s plan. Some estimated that alone could cost $1,000 less per child in aid.

Cerf is also proposing changing how students are counted, moving away from a single annual count on Oct. 15 to a rolling average student attendance rate. Again, that could hurt urban districts where attendance can be much more problematic.

Cerf doesn’t deny the changes will have significant impact in some districts, saying he hopes they will put more focus on how the money is spent rather than how much is spent.

“I’m trying to disentangle us from the idea that money buys us achievement gains,” he said in an interview.

He outlined much of his philosophy and some of the math in a 83-page document to the legislature called the Education Funding Report, a report required under SFRA to look at possible adjustments in the formula over time.

It is heavy on Cerf’s view on needed reforms in schools, including teacher effectiveness and school “turnaround” strategies. With charts and graphs, he repeatedly makes the argument that additional spending has not led to increased achievement results.

At one point, he even raises the questions if all at-risk students as measured by eligibility for federal free-lunch dollars must necessarily be presumed to be educationally disadvantaged, or whether there is a better way to measure it. (He doesn’t answer the question, instead only recommending a task force to study it.)

Cerf also made significant changes in how the state distributes what is called “adjustment aid,” a $570 million account this year to more than 150 districts that was meant to cushion any cuts.

Under the fiscal 2013 budget, that will come down to $555 million, with more reductions to come. For districts getting adjustment aid and spending more than the SFRA says is adequate, the amount would be steadily reduced to half the current total over five years, Cerf said.

That hits some of the urban districts hard, but also those in more rural areas that either spend more than deemed adequate or are seeing enrollment drops, or both. They include scores of districts in Sussex, Cape May and Burlington counties, some where the adjustment aid is as much as half of their overall aid.

Interestingly, the first negative reaction to the aid figures came from Republican legislators representing those districts, quickly putting out a press release late yesterday decrying the cuts in Sussex, Warren and Morris counties.

“This is exactly why we need a new funding formula that is balanced and accountable,” said state Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex). “Dozens of our local school districts are now among about 185 suburban and rural districts shortchanged from receiving basic aid, leaving them faced with potential increases in already too costly property taxes.”

The criticism also came from those representing urban school children, too, but for different reasons. They said the adjustments in the weights will only hurt schools serving at-risk students. The report will go next to the state legislature, which must approve the weight adjustments.

“By lowering the weights, you are shortchanging these kids,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, which has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation. “These are radical changes that need to be rejected.”

Still, it’s a more mixed reaction among those who stand to gain, at least for this year. The reaction was one of relief, if not applause, from the representatives of suburban districts that have long felt shortchanged by the state’s funding.

“Seeing not only the plus column next to our members, but also the echo of an improved aid picture for the suburbs in the future feels good,” read an email from Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a group of more than 100 suburban districts. “It has been a long time.”

The superintendent of Piscataway, a district that would gain $1.2 million in this budget, said he was more cautious than optimistic. Piscataway is among the districts that is well below the model for spending and would stand to gain the most if and when SFRA is fully funded.

But it also lost $5 million two years ago under Christie’s first budget, and even with the increase this year, “we’re still a long way from the $5 million we lost,” said Robert Copeland, the Piscataway superintendent.

Copeland also had his questions about some of the computations, worried the reduced weights for at-risk students could hurt his district in the end. He echoed others who said the numbers analysis had only just begun, with much of it sure to be debated in the coming weeks and months as the state Legislature reviews the entire budget.

“Like everyone else, we still want to be able to check the math,” Copeland said.