Democrats to Christie: Rethink Changes to School-Funding Formula

Party-line vote demonstrates strength in numbers, but with budget just weeks away, can Democrats hold the line?

As expected, Assembly Democrats yesterday passed a joint resolution opposing the Christie administration’s suggested revisions to the state’s school-funding formula, passing the proposed plan back with a list of changes of their own.

What’s going to happen next is unclear, although the conflict is a good indicator of what’s likely to be one of the main sticking points when Gov. Chris Christie releases his state budget at the end of the month.

The joint resolution passed the Assembly yesterday by a 47-30 vote along party lines and with virtually no discussion. The state Senate passed it the week before by a similar margin.

The primary sponsor, state Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer), did not speak at all beyond making the motion. There was just one voice of opposition: state Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris).

At the heart of the clash is a process that has not been invoked before, one outlined in the state’s five-year-old School Funding Reform Act approved by the state Supreme Court in its most recent Abbott v. Burke rulings. Essentially, the state can request adjustments to the funding formula every three years through the Education Adequacy Report. But the adjustments must be supported by the Legislature if they are to become final.

With the Democrats opposing some of the changes to extra aid or so-called funding “weights” that would be allotted for the neediest students, the Christie administration has 30 days to revise the adequacy report.

But the law does not specify the process beyond that, and with the state budget presentation just two weeks away, most legislators interviewed yesterday said that this is where the differences will need to be worked out.

“I think for some members of the Democratic caucus, there is a sentiment that we are going back to the old debate where the large urban districts subject to the Abbott decision should be entitled to what the court said,” said Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex).

“We felt the Adequacy Report was an effort to skirt around what the court laid down,” she said in an interview.

Oliver acknowledged that time is short and she’s gotten no indication of what the governor is planning. “But let us work in a compromising fashion to fully fund the formula,” she said.

Oliver and others from both parties said yesterday that another big factor in the debate is the makeup of the state Supreme Court, which has nearly 40 years history with school equity and almost certainly is not done with the topic.

Christie has openly said he wants to remake the court to reverse or at least scale back what he calls activist rulings. He has two nominations now pending before the court.

“The biggest challenge is probably the future of the Supreme Court and where it will come down on this issue,” said state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the Republican minority leader in the Assembly. “That is over all of this. Whatever we do with school funding, the question will be whether the court will find it constitutional.”

The Education Law Center, the advocacy group leading the Abbott litigation, has closely monitored the back and forth over the adequacy report.

“Now that the Legislature has passed the resolution objecting to the new funding weights, it would create a real concern if the administration didn’t revise the report to address those objections,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s director.

But other legislative leaders weren’t so sure what would happen. State Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee, acknowledged that the Democrats all but gave the administration a pass last year on what were similar changes in school funding to districts.

The Legislature ultimately rejected the language for the changes but still approved the final aid numbers. And he said with deep revenue crisis facing the state, there will be little wiggle room.

“We will need to be mindful and see what the governor brings to the table,” he said. “This will be interesting to see.

“In the point of view of the revenues coming in, it could be a difficult year,” Prieto said. “But we are adamant that these districts where the students are the most vulnerable, the money needs to get there.”