Op-Ed: Trenton’s hypocrisy on school funding

David Sciarra | January 7, 2021 | Opinion, Education
Why is it the governor and lawmakers have no trouble finding billons for corporate incentives but come up short when money is needed to educate New Jersey’s students?
David Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center.

In the waning days of 2020, Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders congratulated themselves on passing a bill authorizing an estimated $14 billion in corporate tax breaks over the next seven to 10 years. Lawmakers approved the massive tax break in a classic Trenton power play — negotiated behind closed doors and rushed through in a week, with almost no notice or meaningful opportunity for the public to be heard.

The contrast between the eagerness of New Jersey lawmakers to fund corporate-incentive programs and their commitment to our public schools couldn’t be starker.

In 2018, upward of 196 New Jersey school districts were funded below “adequacy,” that is, the level required by the state’s school-funding formula to deliver a thorough and efficient education. That year, the state owed public school students close to $1.5 billion.

When Murphy took office that same year, he promised to wipe out the state’s public education debt. Because teachers, students and taxpayers “have suffered from underfunding,” he said, stopping the chronic underinvestment in education would be “priority number one.”

This sentiment was echoed by Senate President Steve Sweeney when he touted New Jersey’s funding formula as one “that works” but needs “100 percent funding.”

The governor and legislators made some modest progress in 2019 and 2020, when they increased state school funding by $355 million and $191 million, respectively. While the increase lowered the number of underfunded districts to 166, half of New Jersey’s students still attended underfunded schools, many in districts intensely segregated by poverty and race.

And the progress was short lived. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Murphy scrapped a planned $335 million funding increase, and lawmakers jumped on board with “flat” state aid reminiscent of former Gov. Chris Christie’s consecutive state budgets from 2010 to 2017.

In short order, the state’s debt to public education is now back up to $2 billion, and lawmakers have abandoned their high-sounding rhetoric promising to close the funding gap by 2024.

In addition, the fiscal year 2021 state budget negotiations in September did not include funds to replenish the depleted school construction program, even in the face of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s order last April expressing its clear expectation that monies would be provided to  work on dozens of projects to remedy unsafe and overcrowded building conditions. In many schools, these same conditions are a major barrier to a safe reopening and return to in-person instruction during the pandemic.

When asked in October why the Legislature didn’t include funding for school-building repairs and upgrades, Sweeney said, “We just don’t have the money.”

Yet just weeks later, the governor and legislators found the money — over $14 billion for corporations, even the wealthiest.

Meanwhile, 9,000 students remain stuck in the digital divide, with no devices or internet connections for remote learning during the pandemic, and the Murphy administration has no plan to meet the enormous need for resources to reopen buildings safely and provide compensatory education to the hundreds of thousands of students whose academic progress was halted or delayed after schools were ordered closed last March.

Funding to educate New Jersey children or add to corporate balance sheets? In Trenton, it’s not about the money. It’s all about priorities.