Op-Ed: An Open Letter to Lawmakers About School Funding in Garden State

Tom Puryear | September 9, 2015 | Opinion
State must return to following formula required by statute, adopted by Legislature, and ignored by administration

Tom Puryear
Dear Legislator:

This letter is submitted on behalf of Our Children/Our Schools.

As you know, the Educational Adequacy Report (EAR) on New Jersey’s school funding formula must be submitted by the New Jersey Department of Education to the state Legislature every three years. This procedure is part of the statute that established the formula – the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, or SFRA.

The next EAR is due this September, and Commissioner of Education David Hespe has said he intends to submit the report on time. In anticipation of this, Our Children/Our Schools, a statewide network of education, civil rights and children’s rights organizations, wants to bring to your attention several concerns.

In December 2012, then Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf submitted the first EAR. The report included recommendations about the weights, or aid levels, for at-risk students and English language learners for the subsequent three years, as required by the SFRA statute. The commissioner recommended reducing these weights.

Legislators, on February 14, 2013, within the 90-day period during which the response to the EAR is due, passed a concurrent resolution, SCR134, objecting to reductions in the weights because the commissioner’s explanation for the necessity of this change “is devoid of the type of research and analysis of the school funding level necessary to achieve the State’s standards as required by the ‘School Funding Reform Act of 2008.’”

The SFRA statute requires a response from the commissioner to the Legislature’s objections, but Commissioner Cerf’s response did not deal with the substance of the objections, and the Christie administration continued to use the reduced weights when calculating school funding in subsequent years.

It is the position of OC/OS that the administration’s response was inadequate, inappropriate, unsupported by the mandates of SFRA, and flouted the will of the Legislature.

It is our hope that Commissioner Hespe will refrain from presenting recommendations in the upcoming EAR that are not based on research and analysis or that go beyond the clear scope of the report. But if this is not the case, we urge you to do what you did in 2012-13, and reject unsubstantiated and unacceptable recommendations.

We also implore you to follow up on your objections and insist that the Christie administration and the NJDOE follow the formula as written and as passed by the Legislature on a bipartisan basis.

The importance of the formula weights for New Jersey school children cannot be overstated. The Legislature in 2008, on the recommendation of the NJDOE (which had conducted years of expert study of funding requirements throughout the state), established a weighted student formula that is a model for the entire country. The formula is based in part on the correct and important notion that poor students and those learning English need additional resources to succeed in school.

Reducing those resources has an enormous impact on our children and schools. We are already seeing that years of underfunding of the SFRA – the formula will be underfunded by an additional billion dollars in 2015-16 – are causing schools to shrink staff and drop programs that support the neediest students. School districts with large numbers of these students are finding it increasingly difficult to help them reach state standards.

In addition, these same districts are laboring under recent unfunded mandates from the state, including the new PARCC online tests, new systems for evaluating teachers and principals, new requirements for bullying cases, etc. These costs, which are not included in the funding formula, are further eroding school budgets and impacting students.

We look forward to standing with the Legislature as you insist that the administration follow the statutory process for the EAR and respect and follow your decision with regard to the report’s eventual recommendations. We have greatly appreciated your championing of the formula over the years. We urge you to continue that legacy going forward.