Should School Lunch Enrollment Determine State Aid?

With first public hearing set, Education Task Force begins study of NJ’s school funding formula

It’s been quiet since they were first appointed, but Gov. Chris Christie’s Education Funding Task Force will make its first public appearance with a hearing next week in Fort Lee.

The seven-member task force was created by executive order in March in the aftermath of Christie’s state budget proposal for fiscal 2013 with the task of studying the state’s school funding formula.

It specifically was charged with studying how the state measures poverty as part of the formula by districts’ and schools’ enrollment of children in federal subsidized lunch programs.

It is a critical — and controversial — topic given the heavier weight in funding for children from low-income families. It became especially charged last winter with allegations that officials and employees of the Elizabeth City school board had wrongfully enrolled their children in the lunch programs. A State Auditor report last year also cited issues of over-enrollment, where a third of enrolled students in 10 sampled districts were found to be ineligible.

But advocates contended that the lunch program, by and large, is under-utilized in New Jersey, with the state ranking at the very bottom nationally in terms of enrollment. Through his task force, critics contended that Christie was only seeking to scale back funding to urban districts.

The topic came up in state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s Senate confirmation hearing last month, where he called the lunch program a poor measure in general but conceded there may be different cases where it both underestimates and overestimates poverty.

“They are inaccurate in both directions,” he said of the numbers.

Still, Cerf added the stakes are real in terms of state aid to schools: “There are not tens of millions but hundreds of millions of dollars affected by this.”

The public will get its say next week on Wednesday, August 15, as the task force meets at Fort Lee High School at 3 p.m. The school’s address is 3000 Lemoine Ave., Fort Lee.

Members of the public are asked to bring printed copies of their remarks. An additional hearing will be held in the southern part of the state at a later date.

The seven members are the following:

  • Rochelle Hendricks (chair), state Secretary of Higher Education
  • Jerry W. Cantrell, president, Common Sense Institute of New Jersey
  • Anna Lugo DeMolli, former Paterson early childhood director
  • Steven Engravalle, Fort Lee interim schools superintendent
  • John P. Inglesino, Morris County attorney
  • Rev. Edwin D. Leahy, headmaster, St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark
  • Charles Urban; former Absecon City councilmember
  • Editor’s note: The original version of this story incorrectly reported the date of the hearing. It will be held on Wednesday, August 15.