Unfazed by Christie Plan, Sweeney Pushes His Education Proposal

Senate president looks for some Republican support, says he’s willing to go around governor if necessary

State Senate President Steve Sweeney speaking with Sen. Brian Stack (seated) and Kevin Drennan, executive director of the Senate Democrats.
When Senate President Steve Sweeney earlier this month proposed a new state commission to help solve New Jersey’s school-funding woes, it was the only viable plan on the table to address one of the state’s more complex and vexing issues.

But that all changed with a thump last week when Gov. Chris Christie came back with his “Fairness Formula,” a proposal to amend the state constitution to provide all school districts — rich or poor — the same state funding per pupil.

By most accounts, Christie’s plan is going nowhere under a Democrat-led Legislature — at least for the foreseeable future. But that doesn’t mean he’ll stop making headlines with public pronouncements and well-placed town halls, including one coming Tuesday in Wall Township.

And it has clearly changed the political dynamics, in some ways putting new pressure on Sweeney’s proposal — and possibly giving it new momentum.

More could play out this coming week, when Christie and the Legislature have a few big topics on their schedules, namely the state’s budget for the next fiscal year and the ongoing back-and-forth over raising the gas tax to pay for transportation needs.

Whatever happens, neither Sweeney’s nor Christie’s school plans would affect next year’s budget for schools: Nominal aid increases are proposed across the board.

But with the Legislature in session and Christie on the “Fairness Formula” campaign, Sweeney said last week that he will press ahead with his proposal and consider whatever options he has to win its passage — with or without Christie’s support.

“I put a plan forward that meets constitutional muster and fixes the formula in a fair way,” Sweeney said Thursday. “We don’t want to divide people. In my formula, there will be winners and losers in the suburbs, winners and losers in the urbans. But it gets us back to the formula the courts passed, and it’s fair.”

When asked its political prospects to be passed, and then the chance of Christie signing it, Sweeney said without further elaboration: “I am exploring options to get around him.”

In announcing his own plan last week in Hillsborough, Christie did not rule out supporting Sweeney’s proposal, which would create a commission to develop recommendations for revisions to the state’s funding formula. The commission — which would be appointed by the governor and Legislature — would put those recommendations before the Legislature to approve or reject in entirety.

When asked specifically whether he would sign Sweeney’s bill, Christie said, “I don’t know, it depends what it looks like. Let’s see what lands on my desk.

“I’m not opposed to it,” he said. “It might be something that I would consider, that things run on parallel tracks [with his proposal] … But I would have to see what Steve’s bill looks like if and when it gets to my desk.”

Sweeney’s bill is by no means a done deal, either. When the measure came before the Senate education committee last week, the powerful New Jersey Education Association complained that the commission’s work doesn’t address funding disparities caused by charter schools.

The proposal still won the committee’s approval, including with one Republican vote from Republican state Sen. Diane Allen, but it has yet to be posted for full Senate vote. The Assembly has yet to consider a companion bill.

The bill is sure to see some amendments, too. As initially proposed, it would call for the commission to examine specifically the extra aid provided districts to ease the transition, and also the aid provided to districts seeing big enrollment increases.

Last week, the sponsors — including state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, the education committee’s chair — amended the bill further to have the commission look at ways for districts to reduce their tax levy.

“I heard there was opposition,” Christie said last week, “and that often means changes wind up being made, magically, as it works its way through the process.

“I said to Steve when he told me, ‘I don’t think this is a bad idea. I just think it is too small an idea, and we should be thinking much bigger than that.’ . . . I don’t oppose it, but that doesn’t mean I’ll sign it.“

Sweeney didn’t discount Christie’s political acumen with this counter-proposal, saying he’d heard from Democrats in support of the idea of equalizing state aid.

“I think it’s a conscious effort to both improve his image, and burnish his Republican credentials even further,” Sweeney said. “It is a very, very harsh thing to be talking about, to defund our schools.”

“But politically, it’s red meat.”

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