Cerf’s Visit to Education Committee Raises Question About Budget Balance of Power

John Mooney | January 29, 2013 | Education
Committee member: why wrangle over state school aid if lawmakers can't affect final numbers?

The Christie administration and Senate Democrats continued their tug of war over the details of state aid to schools yesterday. But it took a Republican to raise an important question as to how much say the Legislature will have in the distribution of the final amount for next year.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf testified for the first time yesterday before the Senate Education Committee, with much of his visit taken up defending the administration’s latest proposal in his Education Adequacy Report for adjusting some weights in the state’s school-funding formula.

In more than two hours of testimony, Cerf said that the state remained among the most generous in funding for public education, and his changes would only make what he called “exceedingly modest” reductions in the extra amounts that districts with high poverty would receive for their students.

“The notion that we are doing this on the cheap for at-risk kids, I find that extremely hard to take,” Cerf said.

Cerf brought up a familiar argument concerning Camden schools, a district that he said spends over $22,000 per student while seeing 23 of its 26 schools in the bottom 5 percent in terms of student performance.

“Is there anyone who really believes if we gave Camden more money, it would change the education outcomes?” he asked.

But all minds were on Gov. Chris Christie’s budget for fiscal 2014 — still a month away — and the breakdown of state aid for each district.

And while Democrats picked at Cerf’s testimony — and a formal resolution rejecting the report remains pending in the Senate — it was one of the Legislature’s most conservative members who complained that it didn’t matter much given that the administration’s aid assignments typically stand no matter what the Legislature says, good or bad.

“It should be the Legislature driving the train here, and we have let our authority be taken away from us,” said state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren).

Doherty for years has openly proposed that state aid be evenly distributed across all districts, eliminating any extra weight for the state’s poorest districts, which fall under the Abbott v. Burke school equity hearing. The proposal has yet to gain much, if any, traction.

Even so, Doherty he raised the point that the timing of the budget release in late February leaves the Legislature little time to do much of anything with the aid figures, with local districts having just a few days afterward to set their budgets for the next year.

“We do we have the timeline totally fouled up?” Doherty asked. “Before we pass the final budget, the horse is out of the barn for all the towns.”

That has not necessarily always been the case. The Legislature has in the past added money to help certain districts, and two years ago, the state Supreme Court ordered close to $500 million be added for the Abbott districts. And it was the Legislature that enacted the state’s school-funding law to start with.

But Doherty is right that once the actual numbers come out each year, the prospect of significant changes are at best rare. Last year was a perfect example, where the legislative Democrats rejected the administration’s budget that made many of Cerf’s formula adjustments, but still approved the final figured determined by that budget.

“The time was such that we didn’t have much of a choice,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

Ruiz said maybe a solution would be a process in which budget deliberations start earlier or even look a year ahead, but she said that poses its own challenges. “What you are raising is something we should probably address globally in terms of the timing with school districts,” she told Doherty.

This year provides a little more leverage for lawmakers, since the Legislature does have the authority to reject the Education Adequacy Report that is issued every three years under the School Funding Reform Act. But the Senate resolution passed in committee two weeks ago is still waiting vote of the full Senate.

Nonetheless, Ruiz vowed that the debate will not die with the budget presentation and the release of state aid numbers. “I will do everything in my power to have that conversation by the end of this year,” she said.