Gov. Phil Murphy was positively giddy yesterday, taking his budget show on the road to promote the additional $336 million for public schools in his latest state budget — telling jokes and taking credit for what has been close to a $1 billion increase in aid in his three budgets thus far.
And there have been significant strides during Murphy’s term, especially when it comes to further funding the state’s school-finance formula and boosting the amount of money for preschool.
But with his budget address on Tuesday and further details emerging yesterday at his visit to Bound Brook High School, there are still a number of questions about the governor’s plans for public education and beyond.
Partial peace in the State House?
What a difference a couple of years — and some short memories — make, at least concerning state support of New Jersey’s public schools. A year and a half ago, differences between Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney over school funding helped almost lead to a shutdown of state government.
This year, Murphy and Sweeney seem to be solidly in accord over the governor’s plan to pump big bucks into both preschool and K-12 education to further close an estimated $2 billion gap in funding.
That doesn’t mean the two Democrats aren’t battling over a host of other issues, but they struck a deal to close the gaps, and so far it appears to be holding.
“Across our state, hundreds of school districts left behind … are now finally getting some real relief,” Murphy said yesterday.
Sweeney agreed, and in an emailed statement made sure to mention it was his plan the governor went along with back in 2018: “I am heartened to see that the Governor’s budget proposal includes funding the school-aid formula that is contained in my legislation that increases school aid and distributes the funding fairly.”
Winners — but what to do about the losers?
As has been the case in the past two years, that political deal led to some districts seeing increases and others seeing cuts. This year, more than 370 school districts are getting increases, while nearly 200 face reductions due in part to a phasing out of protections for districts facing enrollment drops. Needless to say, those cuts have been greeted with outcries and more than a few legal challenges.
Murphy’s proposed consolation is to offer another year of emergency aid — boosted from $15 million this year to $50 million next year — for districts that can prove the cuts will do real harm in the education their offer. He cited Toms River as one example, a district in battle with the state over cuts last year and seeing another $5.3 million reduction this year.
“I have tremendous sympathy to what they are going through,” Murphy said of the Ocean County district. “They have to go through a process that I assume they will want to participate. They are the sort district we want to help get through this.”
But yesterday, he said how that process will work has yet to be determined, and Sweeney and others said they want to be involved in what those guidelines will be.
Will it be aimed at districts that are spending less than what the formula deems as “adequacy,” or conversely taxing more than their “local fair share”? Will it be for one-time relief or built into the annual aid? Those questions are yet to be answered.
Time to review school-aid formula itself?
More than a decade after it was enacted by the Legislature and endorsed by the state Supreme Court, the details of the School Funding Reform Act’s financing formula appears ripe for review. A complex and somewhat-opaque mix of figures and computations about what a child’s education should cost and who should pay for it, the formula is facing increasing pressure on multiple fronts to revisit how it does the math for each district.
Part of the challenge, however, is that the state isn’t saying. Facing questions of transparency yesterday from a reporter, Murphy repeated longtime claims that the formula itself is run through a “proprietary” computer system that is restricted. State Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said much the same, although he offered the possibility that may change.
In the meantime, districts have sued for its details, and the Senate Majority Office is expected to join the challenges and has already requested full disclosure.
Preschool gets a boost, special education not so much
The big news for many in the Murphy’s budget is the additional funding for preschool, another $83 million that should open up programs in another 33 districts, the governor said.
“It’s wonderful news,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “This is the third year of increases, and what’s especially exciting is that more districts with plans that will be able to apply.
“We’re at a tipping point, there is momentum now,” she said yesterday.
But not all favored line-items got a boost. Murphy did not include additional funding for so-called extraordinary aid to school districts for high-cost programs for special education students with significant disabilities. It’s an enormous and unpredictable cost for districts, and Sweeney and advocates have called for an additional $50 million for the fund in each of the next three years.
Nevertheless, maybe they can find solace in last year’s result, in which Murphy left additional funding out of his initial proposal but agreed to add it in the end. Therein may lie one more lesson: This is just the start of the budget process, not the end.