Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed $12.8 billion in funding for New Jersey’s public schools for next year, the single biggest slice of his state budget, gets its first close-up from the Legislature today.
State Education Commissioner David Hespe will testify before the state Assembly’s budget committee this morning in defense of the multifaceted budget proposal, which is as much a political document as a financial one.
Much like his boss, Hespe is sure to highlight the proposed funding increase – albeit slight – for the state’s school districts. Overall, districts are to see less than a 1 percent increase in direct state aid, a tiny increase from what the governor is quick to repeat are historically record funding levels.
Nonetheless, a vast majority of those districts are facing flat funding compared to the current year, and critics will point out that most districts continue to see less aid from the state than they did in 2009, when Christie took office.
In any event, the budget process is unlikely to see school-funding levels for next year change much, if at all, which means the budget hearings are more likely to be in the realm of political and philosophical discussions.
The Senate budget committee will take up education funding on April 28.
Three issues are almost certain to be points of discussion, if not contention:
Schools are still underfunded
For all the talk of record levels of state funding, New Jersey schools are still getting well less than what was authorized under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), the 2008 law that set a formula for how schools are to be funded by the state.
Such a shortfall is not unusual. New Jersey has a poor record, dating back over several administrations, for fully funding its school-finance formulas.
But that gap has only grown under Christie, with critics maintaining that districts next year will be another $1 billion short of full funding – amounting to $6 billion over the last six years.
An analysis by the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy organization, said the funding shortfall has hit hardest in the districts that can least afford it.
“Instead of making decisions about how best to invest in students by adding the programs and services that would boost achievement and improve the lives of children, districts are again struggling to maintain what they have,” the center wrote in its analysis. “And according to the state’s own formula, what they have is not enough.”
School vouchers are back – for now
As he did last year, Christie has proposed allocating $2 million for a “Opportunity Scholarship Demonstration Program,” in which low-income students would receive state-backed scholarships to attend schools of their choice, public or private.
As he eyes a possible White House run, Christie’s proposal is sure to endear himself with segments of the Republican base nationwide who view school vouchers as a successful model of school reform.
But, at least so far, it has been a non-starter in New Jersey and the Democrat-led Legislature. A couple of years ago, school vouchers may have had some momentum, but interparty disagreements over a final package prevented an agreement.
Chances for an agreement on the issue are even slimmer now. When Christie’s plan was proposed two months ago, Democratic leaders said it had no chance.
“No, we’re not even going to discuss it,” said Senate President Steven Sweeney at the time.
Other key issues
While the school-funding piece of the state budget can be anticlimactic, with little chance of big changes being made to the big-ticket items, there are still a lot of details to work out.
School choice remains a key issue – particularly when it comes to how much money Christie proposes to spend to back up his public support for expansion of charter schools and the state’s inter-district school-choice program, which permits students to move within district schools.
Christie has proposed only enough funding in his fiscal 2016 budget to support keeping up the status quo, with some additional funding for students already enrolled in the school-choice program and slightly reduced aid for charter schools.
Another critical line item: funding for special-education programs. Again, there is little additional funding in Christie’s budget plan, which calls for no change from this year’s $928 million in total aid to help defray the costs for the state’s highest-need students.