Exploring Christie’s Budget Plan — From the Education Angle

John Mooney | April 24, 2017 | Education
Acting education commissioner Harrington slated to appear today before Assembly committee to speak up for governor’s public education allocations

Acting Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington
With the stakes more consequential than one might think, New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Kimberley Harrington today goes before the Legislature for the first time today to defend Gov. Chris Christie’s budget plan for public education in 2017-2018.

The hearing before the Assembly budget committee is the first of two that Harrington will testify on about the fiscal 2018 spending plan. On May 2, she will go before the Senate budget committee.

It’s a bit of a Statehouse coming-out party for Harrington, who has yet to be confirmed by the Legislature as commissioner after she replaced former commissioner David Hespe last fall.

Unenviable position

And it’s an unenviable position for the former classroom teacher as well, who faces a Democratic-led Legislature intent in poking holes in anything Christie proffers in his final months in office, including his signature education policies.

For this year, that will include level funding or miniscule increases in state aid to districts and a host of small programs funded and not funded.

Overall, state funding for public education is increasing less than 1 percent under Christie’s budget, continuing a pattern of level state aid for schools under the Republican governor following what were steep cuts in his first year.

But there is a great deal in flux in New Jersey public education as well, and a variety of questions about what happens next for school funding and policies.

Will Christie and the Democrats reach some compromise?

Christie in his budget speech in March challenged the Legislature to come up with a better way of paying for New Jersey schools, calling the existing School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) a “failure” and offering a 100-day window for the executive and legislative branches to come up with something better.

Christie’s own plan — now virtually dead — would have paid every district the same per-pupil amount, regardless of need. Led by Senate President Steve Sweeney, however, the Democratic leadership has been following its own path for working within the existing formula that adjusts for need.

Holding public hearings across the state, Sweeney and his allies have said the SFRA at its core is sound, but have called for its full funding with some adjustments to make up for disparities. The most significant is the phasing out of close to $1 billion in aid to districts that have been “held harmless” from cuts due to what is an overfunding of their schools by the state.

The two sides have apparently met once or twice, but there is little progress to report — at least publicly. Christie isn’t saying much so far, and Sweeney has said this could come down to the final days of the budget deliberations in June. But any major changes at this point will also be difficult with school budgets already being finished for next year.

Details, details?

Overall funding for schools is easy math, but there are many components of school funding in New Jersey that bring their own interests and concerns. While the political players may be talking bottom-line numbers, there numerous questions about how the money will be distributed within those totals.

For instance, will the state change how it distributes special education dollars, a major cost-driver for districts? The Christie administration has also provided tens of millions of dollars each year to hold charter schools harmless from cuts. Given the ongoing debates over charters, is there leeway in that spending?

Led by Assemblyman Gary Schaer, chair of the Assembly budget committee, there continues to be continued push to provide more aid to nonpublic schools as well. Schaer has been especially adamant about providing the schools additional aid for security, given the fears of possible terrorist attacks.

And there’s always school vouchers, a never-ending debate in New Jersey. Christie has again included in his budget an additional $1 million for a tax-credit system that could open the way for select low-income students to attend private schools on the state’s dime.

It’s likely not going anywhere, as Democrats have pushed back every time and the state’s teachers unions would marshal all their forces to prevent it. But it’s ever a provocative topic and the advent of President Donald Trump and his pledges for massive federal aid to spur school choice keeps it in the forefront.

PARCC, ESSA and other acronyms

The budget deliberations are ostensibly about money matters, but other issues often enter into the discussions around school policy, and 2017 is not expected to be an exception.

Front and center is the ongoing debate about the state’s ongoing testing of student performance with the PARCC system. Currently just a half-dozen states use PARCC, and the Christie administration is coming under increasing fire for its reliance on the online testing system.

The latest ammunition came from a letter to the administration from Sweeney and other Democratic leaders last week asking that the state pull back its use of PARCC as a graduation requirement for high school.

The Assembly has already moved on a resolution that would demand the same, and Sweeney’s move is a significant step for the Senate to join in the demand. But it would require significant compromise by the administration and the State Board of Education, neither of which indicating such willingness to bend.

The state is also in the midst of seeing its accountability plan approved by the federal government under the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), including new rules for when and how the state intervenes in schools that are found underperforming. This gets into the minutiae of state intervention and accountability, but nonetheless these issues matter gravely to schools.