Many Questions and Few Answers in Education Budget Hearing

John Mooney | April 12, 2019 | Education
Education commissioner admits state is little closer to solving testing problems, finding increased aid for hardest-hit districts

State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet
When state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet came before the Assembly budget committee this week, legislators were clearly a little antsy.

Even fellow Democrats were primed with a slew of hard questions for the commissioner, on big topics like school funding, state testing, charter schools, and special education, to name just a few.

It wasn’t so much combative as probing, trying to ascertain why the state’s testing system remains in flux, for instance, or why some districts under the Murphy administration are hurting in terms of state aid and others thriving.

Making his second appearance before the committee in as many years, the commissioner and his staff were ready with responses, some more definitive than others. Yet in the end, the hearing left unanswered nearly as many questions about the administration’s education policies and agenda as it resolved.

Here are a few that stood out.

Testing’s future even more uncertain?

When Repollet testified before the Assembly committee last spring in the 2018 budget season, he said he would be back a year later with a plan to remake state testing for public school students.

Gov. Phil Murphy first pledged as a candidate and then as a new governor to end the use of the controversial PARCC testing, promising a “new generation of assessment.”

And while Repollet was indeed back on Wednesday, the replacement has taken longer than he thought, with no clear plan yet in place for high school testing beyond next year.

There are good reasons for the delay, court challenges and decisions on the high school graduation test that have essentially left the state at square No. 1.

And as Repollet explained, requisite regulations and procurement process have barely begun, and it could be another year for changes to be in place.

“I am sorry I don’t have any more information to report,” Repollet said. “We’re still in the process. . . We have to have the regulations in place that are consistent with the law.”

That didn’t go over well with some legislators who said they were losing patience. Beyond just the expense involved — the administration has budgeted $30.3 million for testing next year — state Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), chair of the budget committee, said she worried that the state was “starting all over again.”

She was also concerned that without accountability systems in place, the status of the New Jersey public school system as one of the highest performing in the country — including in its cities — could be harmed.

“I don’t care what it’s called, whether it’s PARCC or something else, but I think all of us would probably agree that some sort of assessment is important to make sure that we know where our kids stand, and I would say in particular for urban areas,” she said.

State aid winners and losers — and what if?

The hearing came with the expected concerns raised by legislators about one district or another among their constituents losing state aid. Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic) spoke at length about the potential cuts faced in his home district of Paterson, where a shortfall could mean the loss of more than 200 jobs.

“Two hundred and forty-six people losing their jobs, that has to be some consideration,” he said.

Repollet said a number of remedies are being considered for districts hit hardest by cuts, including emergency aid, but the state is also revisiting how effectively budget reserves or federal funds are being utilized.

“We are trying to find ways where teachers are not cut,” he said.

Assemblyman John DiMaio
But Republican Assemblyman John DiMaio (Morris) came at it from another angle, questioning whether the Murphy administration could live up to its promises of full funding of any district if the economy didn’t hold up.

“If we hit a recession, how are we going to deal with that?” he asked, citing the rising costs of pensions and health benefits that still needed to be met.

Repollet responded: “We’re going to all have to be able to tighten up our belts and see exactly how we’re going to be able to work together to ensure that New Jersey, especially our students, have a thorough and efficient education.”

DiMaio questioned if the more than $12 billion that the state spends on public schools wasn’t more than enough: “I think that’s enough money to do the job correctly. But we really have a structural problem with the formula and it’s affecting the middle class, and it’s hurting people in New Jersey.”

What’s the deal with Lakewood?

For all the winners and losers in Murphy’s proposed state aid, Lakewood stands out.

Murphy has proposed a $14.9 million aid increase — or more than 60 percent — to the district, by far the largest amount in the state. And virtually all of it is outside the funding formula, earmarked for extra transportation and special education. A fiscal analysis by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services went so far as to say only Lakewood would even qualify for the extra aid as proposed by the administration.

When asked by legislators about the outlier, Repollet cited Lakewood’s continued fiscal strains due to its extraordinary demographics. The public schools serve 6,000 students but also are required to cover certain costs for more than 30,000 students attending outside schools, predominantly Jewish yeshivas.

“There’s not another district in the country with that kind of imbalance,” he said.

Assembly members on Wednesday did not push back on the anomaly, at least not publicly, but it is likely to be a question when Repollet is back in the State House next Thursday for his appearance before the Senate’s budget committee.