Democrats Seek to Block Administration’s Attempt to Revise School Funding Formula

John Mooney | January 15, 2013 | Education
Under governor's proposal, poorest districts could get less in next year’s state budget

Credit: NJ Senate Democrats
Sen. Teresa Ruiz
The Christie administration’s plans to adjust the state’s school-funding formula and reduce the extra aid for at-risk students hit another snag yesterday, as Senate and Assembly Democrats took steps to block the changes before the 2014 state budget is even introduced.

The Senate and Assembly budget committees both endorsed a resolution that effectively rejects a report filed by the administration under the School Funding Reform Act, which proposes changes to the complex formula used to divvy up almost $9 billion a year to schools.

The Education Adequacy Report filed by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf last month proposed increasing the base amounts that all districts should be spending on pupils, but decreasing the extra amounts — or so-called funding weights — aimed specifically at low-income and limited-English students.

Senate Democrats yesterday afternoon echoed what their Assembly colleagues said in the morning, maintaining that reductions for at-risk students would only hurt programs aimed at closing achievement gaps between rich and poor kids.

A report by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said the administration’s plan would be $162 million less than the amount if fully funded under SFRA — something that it has rarely been. Close to 100 districts would get more under the proposal, while 152 would see less, the OLS report said.

One of those districts that could see a lot less is Newark, a state-operated district that has been the focus of Cerf’s reform agenda under Gov. Chris Christie. The OLS estimates that Newark’s adequacy amount would be $50 million less under Cerf’s proposal than under the existing SFRA. That does not necessarily translate to an overall state aid cut, but only one of the amounts used in determining state aid.

“We have become the model of reform, and decreasing any of the [funding] weights sends the wrong message and puts a community at risk that has been working to ensure students perform at their best and could negatively impact the work that everyone is here to do,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), sponsor of the resolution and the influential chair of the Senate education committee.

Both committees approved the resolution along mostly party lines, with the measure next going to full vote of both chambers. The measure requires the administration to revise its report and resubmit it to the Legislature.

The immediate significance of that requirement is uncertain, however. Technically, if the resolutions are approved as expected, the administration has 30 days to come back with a new report that “responds to these objections.”

But even Democrats acknowledged that the real battle will be in upcoming budget deliberations, with this resolutions giving the administration ample warning as to what Assembly and Senate majorities will support. Christie is expected to present his fiscal year 2014 budget on February 26.

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), chairman of the Senate budget committee, said the resolution sends a clear message to the administration not to come back with a budget that incorporates the proposed changes in the aid allotments.

The administration made almost identical changes in the current year’s budget, earning a rebuke from the Democrats as well. Although the Democrats rejected the language, however, they ultimately upheld the final dollar amounts.

Sarlo blamed that the Democrat’s decision on the timing of the budget process last year. “This time, they have plenty of time now to come back to us,” Sarlo said yesterday after the meeting. “They need to come back to us.”

Added Ruiz: “This opens the doors to discussion during the budget process. Doing this now really gives the chance for the Department of Education to revisit the issue.”

The gist of the Democrats argument yesterday was that the state had not shown any empirical evidence that reducing the funding weights was warranted. Several of those who testified for the resolution said the approach ran against the administration’s own new focus on low-performing schools.

“They can’t simultaneously decide to decrease funding to those students requiring the most intensive resources,” said Deborah Cornavaca, an organizer with Save Our Schools New Jersey, a grassroots advocacy group. “It is simply counterintuitive.”

Conversely, Republican legislators said there was no evidence the additional funding would help these schools, and cited what they called the unfairness of a funding formula in which some districts receive exponentially more in state aid than others.

“There are millions in this state who feel the state funding formula is not serving them well,” said state Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris).

“When you have a funding formula that so favors some districts over others, that subsidizes some students and essentially ignores others, not only is it a bad statement on fairness, it is a financial burden on million of taxpayers in the state,” he added.

Editor’s note: This story has been amended to clarify the figures included for Newark schools in the Office of Legislative Services report.