Debate Over NJ’s Education Budget Quietly Focuses on Funding Formula

John Mooney | May 31, 2012 | Education
Budget analyses by OLS say state will be paying less for inner-city children, a change critics contend requires Legislative approval

While the public discussion about New Jersey’s budget has largely turned on whose proposed tax cut is better and whose revenue estimate more accurate, quieter debate has also surfaced over the distribution of the largest piece of that budget: school funding.

Christie has called for a $213 million increase in school funding, to nearly $9 billion in direct state aid — by far the biggest piece of the budget. But while some have said the increase should be more and fully fund the state’s school finance law, much of the discussion has been around particular details in how the administration plans to distribute the money it has.

A main point of contention has been the administration’s unilateral move to tweak the existing funding formula under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) to provide less extra money for the students of extra needs, such as low-income children or those with limited English skills.

All part of a complex formula approved by the state Supreme Court that aims to ensure specific dollar amounts for every student, the formula requires that students from low-income families in high-poverty schools, for instance, be funded at 157 percent the rate as students who are not low income. The administration has proposed reducing that to 146 percent.

All combined, the changes could have a real dollar impact, too, with the Legislature’s non-partisan Office of Legislative Services saying in two budget analyses that all the changes combined could reduce the amounts spent in some cases by as much as $1,000 per child. One OLS study said the changes amounted to $300 million less overall from what districts would receive under SFRA as it now exists.

Critics have maintained the changes are illegal without the Legislature’s approval. Yesterday, state Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), a member of the Assembly’s budget committee, said those changes continued to concern the majority.

“Members of the majority are very much concerned about where the school funding debate is going and the governor’s changes to the formula,” Singleton said at a forum hosted by the Garden State Coalition of Schools, a suburban schools group.

“There are certainly some who represent large urban populations who feel the government has taken a step back in funding to those communities, and that is something that leadership in the Assembly is very concerned about,” he said.

Still, Singleton said he was unsure how much the Democrats would succeed in modifying the way money is distributed as the budget is finalized.

The chairman of the Senate’s budget committee, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), said the same last week in discussing the details. But he too hedged on how much would be resolved in the next month for the next year’s budget.

Sarlo instead pointed to a promised report from the state’s acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, that would codify how much the state planned to change in the formula in the long term. The so-called “adequacy report,” required under the SFRA, is long overdue, and Cerf has said it would be completed by the end of this calendar year.

“We’re waiting for that report,” Sarlo said. “That’s the key.”

When asked whether the Democrats would put up a fight in this year’s budget deliberations, however, the budget chairman said he doubted it. “Next year,” Sarlo said.

Meanwhile, others are demanding the Legislature not wait. The Education Law Center last week sent a letter to both houses of the Legislature contending the budget as proposed was illegal and violated the court’s approval of the SFRA as part of the Abbott v. Burke litigation.

It specifically cited the change to SFRA that required Legislature’s approval through the adequacy report.

“We’re confident Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver — because they respect the rule of law and rulings of our Supreme Court — will reject the Christie Administration’s illegal school aid budget,” said David Sciarra, ELC’s director, in a statement.