Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget for public education next year was as stark a departure from the past eight years as any topic he touched on yesterday.
There was no talk of school vouchers; charter schools got barely a mention; and there certainly were no examples of school overspending and waste. Murphy even extolled the virtues of labor unions.
Welcome to post-Christie education budgeting, with the new governor announcing he would increase aid to virtually all districts, move to expand preschool statewide, and start on the path to tuition-free community college.
But there were plenty of caveats offered, leaving some legislators, advocates, and others guessing about the details to come.
Here are a few takeaways on education funding and what may come next.
What exactly is ‘full funding’ of schools?
The new governor said it for months on the campaign trail: His first priority would be the full funding of public schools. Now a month into office, it may take a while.
Murphy yesterday proposed a $283 million increase in state aid to public schools, to more than $9.6 billion, the biggest increase in almost a decade on what is the biggest slice of the state’s $37.4 budget.
But what exactly his campaign promise means is unclear. Yesterday, Murphy said he would call for a full funding of the School Funding Reform Act within four years, but in almost the next sentence, he said he would support revisiting the decade-old formula to update and revise it.
“Even with these investments, we know our current school funding formula, enacted in 2008, needs to be modernized,” Murphy told the Legislature, “and I ask you to work with me to make these changes so we can reach this goal of full, fair funding by the 2021-2022 school year.”
Estimates on the gap to achieve full funding have varied widely, too, from around $1.2 billion to close to double that once all caps and limits are removed. The increase clearly moves in that direction, but it still amounts to just a 3 percent hike in education aid overall.
Nevertheless, Murphy said all districts would receive at least as much as this year, and 94 percent — more than 550 — would see increases, although not saying by how much until state aid figures are released later this week.
State Assemblywoman Pamela Lampitt (D-Burlington and Camden), the new chair of the Assembly education committee, said she was pleased with Murphy’s “commitment and fervor.” But she also acknowledged a few questions.
“Like how’s he going to pay for it?” she said. “The devil is in the details, as we know.”
It will be possible to see the Murphy vision in sharper relief, when state aid numbers for individual districts are released, presumably on Thursday.
A battle brewing?
With no districts seeing cuts in aid under Murphy’s budget, one of the first battles is set with the Senate Democratic leadership — specifically Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
Sweeney last year hung much of his political reputation on a plan to fully fund the state’s school funding formula, but that included what he called the necessity of phasing out extra aid to districts that the formula deems overfunded.
None of that is mentioned in Murphy’s first budget, catching the attention of several prominent Democrats and surely Sweeney himself, although he wasn’t talking publicly.
State Assemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), the Assembly’s majority leader and a Sweeney ally, said it is tough to make judgments without seeing the budget itself, but phasing out the extra aid — known as adjustment aid — is critical to ensure that the funding is fair. And he wasn’t sure leadership would go along without it.
“To us, that is a key component,” Greenwald said following the speech.
Preschool gets a boost
Also integral to his campaign platform was Murphy’s pledge for universal preschool, a tall order in a state that provides it to just 45,000 students now and would need to more than triple its investment to reach every child.
But Murphy did come through with $57 million in additional aid for next year, a sizable down payment that more than doubles any increase that Christie agreed to in his eight years. Murphy’s office said it would allow for another 3,500 children to attend high-quality programs.
It played well with influential legislators. “This is close to my heart, so I really look forward to delving into the details and seeing how we make this work for every district in the state,” said state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), chair of the Senate education committee.
Smaller investments, strong messages
Murphy also addressed a number of smaller initiatives throughout his budget message.
Some were expected, such as his $2 million investment in STEM education in schools, a step he has extolled in hoping to grow the “new economy” for the state. The proposal calls for all high schools to have computer science programs.
Some were less expected, such as Murphy’s budget not cutting aid to charter schools and what has become an annual “hold-harmless” fund that Christie started to save the alternative schools from cuts.
Charter schools have been expected to be a big thorn for the new governor. Murphy has said he would slow their growth, and just last week rejected the expansion of five schools. But in his budget message, he appears not to be looking to punish existing ones.
There were plenty of questions in other areas, like how Murphy would follow through on his pledge for tuition-free community college. He promised $50 million in this budget to increase tuition assistance, and said he would meet his full pledge in three years.
That left some to wait and see, including those who would like to see these schools serve current students first.
“I’d like to know the details on how we would get there,” said state Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), chair of the Assembly’s higher education committee. “I still have concerns about kids we already have in school and making sure they graduate.”
Still, as a longtime public education advocate, Jasey said she was pleased with the governor’s new tone when it comes to education.
“It’s a totally different feel, because I see a real commitment to public education,” she said. “Fairness and equity issue, I think will be foremost.”