Op-Ed: Christie Breaks the Law (Again) to Overfund State’s Charter Schools

Darcie Cimarusti | June 25, 2015 | Opinion
In ignoring state mandates, governor acts like he’s above the law, deprives public schools of much-needed resources

Darcie Cimarusti
As Gov. Christie prepares to announce a likely presidential run, his poll numbers here at home have taken a nosedive. A poll released on Tuesday by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind puts Christie’s approval rating at an all-time low of just 30 percent. The majority of New Jersey voters, a staggering 55 percent, now disapprove of the job he’s done.

While certainly there are many reasons for this precipitous decline, education policy has always been a sticky wicket for the governor. This past year has proven to be no exception.

Christie’s refusal to make the pension payments required under Chapter 78, the Pension and Health Benefits Reform — a law Christie himself signed — has generated endless headlines. Governor Christie has hung his hat on Chapter 78 since signing it into law in 2011. He uses it as an example of this political prowess, demonstrated by his purported ability to reach across the aisle and tackle the tough issues — yet now he refuses to follow his own law.

Christie also refuses to follow the state’s School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). Year after year, the governor has consistently and without fail refused to fund New Jersey’s public schools at levels mandated by law, instead choosing to either underfund or flat-fund districts across the state. According to the Education Law Center, public schools have been underfunded by “$6 billion in six years, with another $1 billion shortfall proposed for FY16.”

While the governor refuses to fund teachers’ pensions, or the schools in which they work, he has shown a remarkable commitment to ensuring that a small handful of charter schools in the state get more funding than the law allocates for them.

Under the Charter School Program Act of 1995 charters are to receive “90 percent of the program budget per pupil for the specific grade level in the district or 90 percent of the maximum T&E (Thorough and Efficient) amount.”

An April report from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services (OLS) revealed that the governor had inserted language into both the 2015 and 2016 budgets that ensures charter schools do not experience the same funding decreases he has inflicted on traditional public schools. The impact on public schools is nothing less than staggering.

In 2016 districts will be forced to overpay charters $37.5 million — and this is on top of $70.1 million districts overpaid in the 2014-15 school year.

OLS demonstrated that nine districts account for the lion’s share of the $37.5 million for next year, with Newark alone on the hook for just under $25 million. As the Education Law Center pointed out, that $25 million is a large portion of the district’s $40 million budget shortfall.

My own district, Highland Park, is projected to pay an additional $31,771 to charter schools during the 2015-16 school year, and, unbeknownst to us, we paid an additional $54,932 out of our 2014-15 budget. While these numbers pale in comparison to those in Newark and other large districts, those much-needed funds should be used to benefit the almost 1,600 students in our four neighborhood schools, not to provide a windfall for the two dozen Highland Park students who attend charters in other towns.

On Monday night, the Highland Park Board of Education unanimously adopted a resolution asking the Legislature to remove this problematic language from the budget. In the resolution, we state, “the Governor’s budget proposals not only benefit charter schools at the direct expense of public school districts, they violate the very tenets of the democratic system and the legislative process by avoiding the public scrutiny of amending the Act directly, instead camouflaging the diversion of public funds to charter schools through dishonest budget trickery.”

The governor is failing to comply with the School Funding Reform Act, starving our public schools to the point where they struggle to provide a thorough and efficient education. By using this budget trick to divert funding from district to charter schools, the governor also is failing to comply with the Charter School Program Act, resulting in higher charter school-funding levels than required under that law.

The Legislature must take this opportunity to remind Gov. Christie that he is not above the laws of the state of New Jersey, and that he may not break them to suit his own political agenda. The Legislature must take a stand and strike this language from the 2016 budget.