Fine Print: Sweeney Proposes Commission to Report on School Funding

John Mooney | June 10, 2016 | Education
Task force to report in year on inequities in funding, followed by five years to implement recommendations

Senate President Steve Sweeney discussing his School Aid Funding Fairness Commission.
What it is: State Senate President Steve Sweeney yesterday unveiled a bill to create the School Aid Funding Fairness Commission to present within a year a plan for fully funding New Jersey’s School Finance Reform Act — the prime pump for state aid for public schools — within five years.

What it means: The bill is a blueprint from Sweeney, an all-but-certain Democratic candidate for governor in 2017, for his plans to address what has become a gaping chasm between what the school funding law mandates and what has actually been provided. But the proposal for a study commission is hardly a bold step, and questions have been raised about whether only postpones the tough choices until after the gubernatorial election.

What it isn’t: The bill is a switch from what had been the expected next move from Sweeney. The Senate president had been working with state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) to craft a bill that could significantly redistribute aid to districts. That bill appears all but dead with this new proposal.

The new commission: The commission, modeled in part on the federal military base-closing commissions, would consist of four members, two appointed by the governor and one each from the Senate President and Assembly speaker.

The task: The commission would hold hearings over the next year to look at core areas of state’s $9 billion plus in direct aid to public schools and put forward a recommendation to the state Legislature within the year.

Up or down: Under the bill, the Legislature would vote on the entire proposal — yes or no.

What it covers: The bill calls for the commission to look at four key areas, albeit not exclusively. The biggest is the more than $600 million now provided to scores of districts in so-called “adjustment aid,” a line item meant to buffer districts that could lose state aid under full funding. The funding would also look at additional aid for districts with significant enrollment increases, state limits on administrative spending, and how the state determines what is a district’s “fair share” of local funding, a key determinant of state aid.

What it doesn’t: While all issues will technically be on the table, the bill does not speak to some key areas, including the validity of the SFRA itself and its different funding criteria for districts with high concentrations of low-income and immigrant students. The bill does not speak to special-education funding as well.

The reception: Several of the main advocacy groups said the public study of the funding issues will be valuable process, and they commended Sweeney’s proposal. But others said it didn’t go far enough, and the Education Law Center, the prime challenger to the state’s school funding of urban districts, said the state did not need a commission to tell it to fully fund the formula.

The NJEA response: The New Jersey Education Association, the powerful teachers union that will carry significant weight with the Legislature, said one prime omission was the impact of charter schools and the money they have required from local districts.

The bill’s prospects: The press conference yesterday did not include any Republicans, including Beck, anyone from the Assembly leadership. And Gov. Chris Christie’s office did not comment.