Will School-Funding Formula Survive Christie’s Flouting of Law?

John Mooney | March 19, 2014 | Education
Despite being upheld by top court, weighted system for allotting eaid wasn’t even factored into proposed state budget

Gov. Chris Christie
For much of the last four years under Gov. Chris Christie, arguments have raged over how much the state’s school-finance formula, which determines how much money local districts receive from Trenton, has been funded – or underfunded – by the governor.

But Christie’s budget for next year may provide a new point of debate entirely: Will the school-funding formula even survive?

For the first time under his term and since the state Supreme Court endorsed the School Funding Reform Act, Christie and his administration are not even using the formula in determining changes in state education aid next year.

Instead, Christie has proposed that every district receive an additional $20 more per pupil, regardless of where the district may fall under the SFRA. The increase amounts to an average of less than 1 percent overall in state aid.

The move is directly counter to the SFRA, which aimed through a complex mechanism to earmark additional funding to meet the specific needs of students in any given district.

The formula was the product of more than a year of legislative negotiation and brinksmanship, and ultimately was the basis of the state’s high court ruling that the law met constitutional requirements for providing a “thorough and efficient” education to New Jersey’s students as defined and fine-tuned by more than two decades of litigation under the Abbott v. Burke court cases.

A spokesman for the governor said yesterday that the administration’s decision this year to opt for the straight $20 per-student increase does not necessarily mean the funding formula is being abandoned. He pointed out that Christie is hardly the first governor to take a year – or two – off from using the funding formula of the moment.

“I would discourage you from reading more into that point this year than in any other, including previous budget years, when fiscal realities did not allow legislatures and administrations to fully fund a given education formula,” said Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman.

Roberts maintained that Christie nonetheless is providing more state aid to districts than any previous administration, a claim made repeatedly by the governor.

“Gov. Christie has shown his commitment to public schools by proposing more education funding in the history of New Jersey for three consecutive years now – a record $9 billion this year,” Roberts said.

Still, the issue is sure to come up in the coming weeks as the Legislature gears up for public hearings on Christie’s proposed $34.4 billion state budget for fiscal 2015.

The single biggest line item is state aid for schools.

Even among the Democratic leadership, state legislators have conceded that there is little leeway in the budget for school funding next year. More than 90 percent of proposed increased spending is to address added costs to cover the state’s pension and health insurance liabilities.

Nevertheless, the chairman of the state Assembly’s budget committee said in an interview last week that abandoning the formula for an across-the-board increase makes no sense.

“That is obviously a problem,” said state Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), who is in his first year as budget chairman. “This is an easy way out (for the administration), and as we have learned, the easy way out is not necessarily the best way out.”

Schaer said the $20 more in aid per student “only continues a philosophy that is flawed to start with.”

He said the funding formula was meant to provide additional resources to school districts with greater needs.

“That was the whole point,” Schaer said, “and we don’t do anyone a good service when we take a broad approach when some districts clearly need more than others.”

Not surprisingly, advocates have also spoken out against not just the underfunding of the formula but Christie’s failure this year to apply it all.

The Education Law Center, the Newark-based organization that has led the Abbott litigation, issued a press release yesterday calling for the Legislature to reject Christie’s education budget altogether.

“In effect, the Governor has abandoned the SFRA,” the ELC said in its release. “This failure leaves educators, parents and legislators without the requisite information on districts’ (required) budgets and the gap between the Governor’s aid proposal and the level of funding they should be receiving under the SFRA formula’s cost, weights, aid amounts and other operative parts.”

What will happen is unclear, given the Legislature’s recent track record.

In each of the past two years, the Democratic leadership has balked at the administration’s attempts to even tweak the SFRA’s budget language, in each case rejecting any changes to the formula.

But the Legislature has nonetheless gone along with the bottom-line aid amounts that the administration has proposed for districts.

This year, a resolution that was passed by the Assembly committee and is pending in the Senate would require the state to at least provide districts information about the aid amounts they are entitled under the funding formula.