Christie and Co. Keep Tight Lid On Education Funding in State Budget

It's a good bet that governor will bump school aid, but where the money goes is tougher to predict

Since his election in 2009, Gov. Chris Christie has lived the extremes of school funding.

In his first year, Christie cut more than $1 billion state aid from schools, in about as tough a financial year for local districts as any in memory.

Over the next two years, he restored much of that money — actually hitting a new high for direct state aid to schools. But part of that pool came courtesy of the state Supreme Court, which ordered almost $500 million in new funding to the neediest districts in its latest Abbott v. Burke ruling.

Now, as Christie prepares his fourth annual state budget address tomorrow and faces a reelection campaign in the months ahead, how state aid and other initiatives for schools — and to which schools — remains center stage.

“It is really the big policy address of the year,” said Michael Vrancik, chief lobbyist of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “This is really the main event for us.”

The administration has played its budget plans close to the vest, careful not to tip its hand to legislators and stakeholders. But the signals point to somewhere between the tough times of 2010 and the relative largesse of the past two years.

On one hand, there is not a lot of new money available to public education — which accounts for a third of the overall state budget — when the state still faces a revenue hole in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the administration has indicated in its own school funding reports that there will be at least a slight increase in base amounts going to schools, and anything less than that in an election year would be a tough political pill for a governor seeking reelection.

“What we need and hope for is at least stable funding so that schools don’t fall backwards,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

“We hope for some increase, but we are not speculating beyond that,” she said. “We’re realists. But we certainly don’t want to go backward and don’t think we can afford to.”

Vrancik said his members would prefer that the state’s funding formula be fully funded, but he wasn’t counting on it in this economic and revenue climate.

“The funding formula is not going to be fully funded, it’s just not,” he said. “To say we get the full funding, it means taking someone else’s cash.”

There are sure to be some debates to come, and maybe some surprise initiatives that are common for an election year budget. For example, in his last budget address, Christie said he would launch in this budget a $50 million state fund for school innovation and rewards.

State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf this weekend would not comment on what would come in the budget, but last year he described it as a state version of the federal Race to the Top competition.

In addition, Christie this winter said he may want to put some additional money toward the kind of performance bonuses included in the new Newark teachers contract.

Or will he put money toward teacher evaluation and tenure reform, major initiatives in his first three years? Or to charter schools or other school choice schemes, which serve relatively small number of students but always draw plenty of dissent?

Beyond any new initiatives, there is sure to be plenty of argument about the distribution of aid. The administration last year first tried to rewrite the state’s school-funding law, reducing the amount of extra aid for at-risk students. The Legislature rejected the language, while still passing the overall amounts.

This winter, the administration released its Education Adequacy Report, which again seeks to make those changes into law, but the Legislature has again rejected them in a joint resolution, demanding the administration come back with revisions.

That faceoff will come in the state budget, and advocates are already laying out their positions. A coalition of advocacy groups and sympathetic legislators held a press conference last week pressing the administration to fully fund the formula without changes.

Among them was Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), chairman of the Assembly’s budget committee, both saying any cuts to districts serving at-risk students would be unacceptable.

“We in no way want to diminish funding for categories of students that we know need that funding support,” Oliver said at the Statehouse event.

“We don’t want to polarize and pit one community against each other, but we want to do with the power we have in the Legislature something that is fair to all of our students and all of our schools,” she continued.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based group that has led the Abbott v. Burke litigation, has sent a letter to state Attorney General Jeff Chiesa warning against changes to the School Funding Reform Act that run counter to the Legislature’s and the state Supreme Court’s expressed wishes.