Is Record-High State Aid to Schools Really Just a Numbers Game?

John Mooney | March 13, 2014 | Education
Nonpartisan analysis shows districts getting less than total received in 2009-2010

In touting his proposed state budget for next year, Gov. Chris Christie is quick to say that New Jersey, under his watch, is providing more state aid to public schools than at any time in history.

But while that is true for the total aid package, a new analysis by nonpartisan legislative staff finds that four out of five school districts would continue to see less state aid under the new budget than what they received in 2009-2010, when Christie took office.

Maybe more damning politically, two of three legislative districts would see their schools losing a significant amount of aid over that time, according to the analysis, including aid drops of more 20 percent in some North Jersey school districts.

The annual analysis by the Office of Legislative Services is not a big surprise. It has been a long-running point of debate, and previous analyses by OLS have found the same reality for a majority of school districts over the past several years.

Christie’s proposal in his next budget to boost state aid to districts by less than 1 percent was not expected to change that picture much.

Nonetheless, the new report provides an updated backdrop for the start of the budget deliberations, with the state Assembly’s budget committee holding its first hearing yesterday at Montclair State University.

Among a flurry of concerns expressed by more than two dozen people testifying before the committee, several advocates yesterday contended the Christie administration continues to shortchange public schools.

Whether much will change, however, is an open question. The state faces a mounting fiscal crisis as it tries to meet its pension obligations, leaving little to no discretion in the budget.

But the Assembly committee’s chairman, Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), said after the hearing that the budget process is an open one that could bring changes from the Legislature.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged the tight constraints on the state’s finances.s

“The question is how much will there is to do more for education,” he said an interview. ”These are critical issues … these are vital issues. But do we have the wherewithal, that is an open question.”

The Christie administration continued to defend its budget yesterday and emphasized that state aid remains at a record high. It said the only reason that most districts continue to see less aid compared to 2010 is that federal stimulus that year gave a one-time boost to what districts received.

“When it comes to state funding for public schools in New Jersey, there is one undeniable, undisputable fact: State aid for education is at the highest level ever,” said Mike Yaple, spokesman for the state Department of Education. “This is true in the governor’s recent budget proposal, it was true the year before, and it was true the year before that.

“When people compare the state’s current school-funding levels to fiscal 2010, they sometimes conveniently forget that New Jersey had a billion-dollar cushion in federal stimulus money that year,” Yaple wrote in a statement.