Christie’s School Funding Surprise: Maintain the Status Quo

Governor pledges 100-day window to work with lawmakers to fix funding, but caps offer with veiled threat if no solution is reached

Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)
Well into the second half of his budget address yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie turned to the topic of school funding, raising an audible murmur in the State House chamber.

It was one of the great unknowns of Christie’s eighth and final budget presentation: whether he would try to remake how more than $13 billion in state aid is distributed to public schools, continue the status quo, or follow a third path.

A few people clapped in anticipation. “Don’t applaud just yet,” Christie warned, to some nervous laughter.

But in the end, the governor’s announcement proved anticlimactic, as he presented a fiscal 2018 budget that makes virtually no change in school aid at all, announcing that no district would see a reduction — nor would any see much of an increase.

Overall, direct state aid would rise 0.2 percent, a scant $16 million in a budget of $9 billion. In fact, the presentation was as much about what Christie didn’t propose for school funding as what he did.

Here are three takeaways:

Christie didn’t blow up New Jersey’s school-finance formula

After months of conjecture about what Christie would do, the big news may be that the governor decided not to blow up how the state funds its schools.

It had been a real possibility. Christie for the past year had promoted a bold and controversial “fairness formula” that would essentially provide every district the same $6,599 per pupil, no matter the need.

The plan was never received well in the Legislature, even by Republicans, and the state Supreme Court almost put a fork in it last month when it would not hear an administration petition that included a break from the court’s Abbott v. Burke school-equity rulings.

But that did not rule out the possibility Christie would try an end run around the court using the state budget, which gives the governor extraordinary power. The New Jersey Education Association and other leading advocacy groups ran a campaign over the past three months to prepare for that possibility, and Senate Democrats had budget language at the ready to replace it.

Nevertheless, Christie acknowledged he had not succeeded in winning over the Legislature, not to mention the courts. He called the existing system “broken” and called the school-funding formula a “disaster.” But without conceding defeat, he conceded he was down to one last try.

“So now I will make one final offer,“ he said. “In fact, I will make a pledge.”

Christie proposes a compromise — or else

In what some called an olive branch and others labeled a ploy, Christie offered the Legislature — and specifically the Democratic leadership — a 100-day window to reach a deal.

“I pledge to work with the leaders of the Legislature to come up with a new funding formula,” Christie said. “Everything is on the table. No idea out of bounds for discussion. I am willing to work with you to solve this problem without any pre-conditions on the ideas brought to the table.”

Now the ball would be in the Legislature’s court, especially the state Senate’s, where President Steve Sweeney has made school funding a priority in his own political agenda.

Starting last spring, Sweeney has led a campaign of his own comprising public events and hearings to provide more nuanced fixes to the existing formula, largely about reducing aid in districts that have been funded above the levels set by the state formula and increasing it in those below.

The ultimate aim, he said, has been to provide a more equitable distribution of aid that within five years brings all district to their full and proper funding — closing what is now a nearly $1 billion shortfall.

Sweeney yesterday took the offer from the governor as an opportunity, saying he spoke with the governor.

“I saw it as a positive,” Sweeney said. “We had been planning for six months for that hand grenade to hit. Now that it’s not there, I am happy to sit with the governor and try to work with him.”

But then came the “or else” part. Christie in his address said he would be willing to sit down with the Legislature, but in classic Christie style, with one condition.

“If we can’t do it in 100 days, shame on us,” he said, a moment drawing a standing ovation from the Republican side of the chamber and silence from the Democrats.

“Please be assured that if we do not do this in the next 100 days together,” Christie continued, “each branch will then be left to its own authority and its own devices to fix this problem on its own. I want to act with you. But, if forced, I will act alone. But it will be fixed before I leave this town.”

The words reverberated, but what he meant by that remained an open question.

Sweeney said when asked about the apparent threat, “I have no idea.” Others were equally quizzical, and some scornful.

“We’re confident the Legislature will, in short order, reject the governor’s invitation to repeal and replace the SFRA in 100 days,” said David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center.

“The formula is not broken,” he said. “It’s not a disaster. The only disaster is Gov. Christie’s stubborn refusal to put any new state aid into the formula for six straight years.”

Christie still has power to line-item veto anything that the Democrats seek to add to the budget, but he cannot reduce what he has already proposed. He could always veto the entire budget approved by the Legislature, some others guessed, but that would virtually close down state government.

Next steps were also a question mark. Would it be for the Legislature to craft new measures, or might the governor go along with a version of existing ones? Christie didn’t say.

And with schools getting their aid figures in two days and building their 2017-2018 budgets around them, changing those totals at the 11th hour would come with its own perils.

In the end, business as usual — including some pet issues

For all the drama surrounding the school-finance formula and what Christie would or would propose or not propose, he ultimately didn’t do much different than what he has done in the past six years – a level-funded aid package for schools.

After his first year when he cut $1 billion in state aid to districts after the drop-off in federal stimulus aid, Christie’s budgets have at best provided minimal increases to districts. One or 2 percent one year, flat-funding the next; most schools in the state continue to get less in state aid than they did before Christie took office.

This next budget looks particularly flat, with no increases at all in a majority of the line items as presented yesterday. The truer measure will be in the release of state aid numbers later this week, but state officials said no districts would receive less aid.

“Flat funding … exacerbates the financial difficulties which school districts have been wrestling with the past seven years,” said Richard Bozza of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “With a shrinking state revenue base due to tax decreases, the fiscal stability of school districts is now in greater peril.”

Another question remains concerning charter schools, which have seen an increase in state aid over the past several years to keep their overall funding levels intact. Christie’s budget materials distributed yesterday said the same would hold true again, but did not provide a dollar figure. And while he had made charter schools a focus of previous budget and State of the State addresses, they barely received a mention yesterday.

The same for Christie’s hopes for a school voucher program, something that started as a priority for the governor in his first term. This year could prove a particularly opportune time, with President Donald Trump and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pledging school choice, including vouchers, would be a federal priority, and Trump promising a multibillion grant program for states.

But Christie barely went there yesterday, not mentioning the idea at all in his address. Nevertheless, the governor’s office said there would be $1 million set aside for one last try at the Opportunity Scholarship Act, a program of tax credits to fund a voucher program for handful of low-income students.