School Aid Left Intact, But Debate Looms on How NJ Figures Numbers

John Mooney | July 2, 2012 | Budget, Education
Democrats preserve funding formula while awaiting Cerf’s report on formal plan

New Jersey’s fiscal 2013 budget may be signed — give or take a line item or two — but the debate over how to distribute its largest slice of spending is far from over.

Gov. Chris Christie sought in his budget proposal to rewrite parts of the state’s school funding formula, tweaking the intricate methods for determining how much districts receive from the state for individual children. The $8 billion distributed to districts represents close to a quarter of all state spending.

But the Democrat-led Legislature succeeded in tweaking it right back in the final budget approved last week, as it removed all the budget language in Christie’s proposal that would have essentially codified his changes.

The Democrats left intact the final aid numbers that Christie proposed – a $199 million increase overall – but they sent back the message that the administration will have to do more to sell its broader approach that led to those numbers.

That sets up what could be the real debate in the next six months, as the administration has said it will come back with its formal plan for adjusting the formula in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008.

The plan will come in what is called the “adequacy report,” a periodic review to whether the SFRA’s version of what is adequate funding for schools is enough or too much. The report is required under the law every three years, but has been repeatedly delayed.

Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf told legislators that he would have the report done by the end of the calendar year, although many expect it will look similar to the Education Funding Report he prepared for the budget.

“We did not want any misconstruing that this was the adequacy report in any shape or form,” said state Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee.

“I directly asked the commissioner during hearings if this was it, and he said ‘not yet,” Prieto said. “So we didn’t want any perception that we were doing that.”

Advocates celebrated the Legislature’s decision to at least block the language changes for now, although the numbers were left intact. While a vast majority of districts will see increases, nearly 100 school districts — many of them low-income — will see aid cuts.

“What the Legislature did was extremely important,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation.

“Those multi-year adjustments that the commissioner and governor clearly wanted to make didn’t belong in the budget and had no place in the budget.”

The most significant changes proposed by Christie would have slightly reduced the extra funding going to districts for students from low-income families or limited English language skills. In addition, Christie sought to change how schools count enrollment, moving away from the single count each year on a specific date to an average count over the course of the year.

Both moves were criticized as hurting high-poverty districts more than suburban ones, something that Christie has hardly dispelled in his ongoing criticism of the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings and the sums spent by districts like Camden, Newark, and Asbury Park.

A legislative staff report said the changes could have reduced the per pupil funding for students with high concentrations of poor and immigrant populations by as much as $1,000 less than what the SFRA called for, if fully funded.

Yesterday, Cerf stood by both the dollars and the language proposed in Christie’s initial budget, calling the changes “common sense” and the funding amounts historic.

“The budget reflects very significant increases in foundation amounts and what was appropriated for special education,” he said. “It is the largest investment in education that any governor has ever implemented.”

When asked whether he would submit his Education Funding Report as his adequacy report, Cerf said no decisions have been made as yet with the budget deliberations still fresh. “I have a lot of thinking to do,” he said.

The upcoming discussion on the funding distribution will bring a couple of twists, too.

For one, the Legislature will have special powers in reviewing the adequacy report. Under the statute, the administration will submit any proposed changes to the formula by September, and the Legislature will have 90 days to act. If it does not act, the changes will go into effect. But the Legislature has power to reject the changes outright or to make its own, with its decision final.

In addition, only the funding formula itself can be changed, and the administration’s proposed changes to how students are counted would have to be dealt with separately in the statute itself.

Last, there have been a few more political wrinkles in school funding since Christie’s budget was first presented. One is an ongoing effort in the Legislature to provide additional money to districts with particularly high enrollment growth, and there has also been a recent bill that would help more rural districts of the state. That bill passed the Senate on Thursday.