Op-Ed: Emergency. Our elected officials must reexamine the school funding formula

School superintendents argue the funding formula is arbitrary and shortsighted. And that if it stands, a half million students and the schools they attend will suffer more hardship
L to R: J. Kenyon Kummings, Charles Sampson and Carol Birnbohm

New Jersey’s public schools have grappled with how to serve students during the pandemic. It has been a deft balancing act of enhancing building safety while striving to meet our students’ academic and emotional needs. This work, on behalf of students, families, communities and the economy, has been meaningful, exhausting and costly. Budget-busting purchases, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), disinfecting supplies and equipment, technology, and additional substitute personnel have exponentially inflated expenditures. While CARES funding and additional support have offset some expenses, those funds have barely touched the cost of operating schools.

Compounding this, the arbitrary redistribution of state aid enacted through New Jersey Senate Bill 2 (S-2) has further eroded the ability of many school districts to meet the needs of more than 320,000 students during this unprecedented time. It’s simply unjust that districts that lost millions of dollars under S-2 prior to the pandemic face continued reductions at a time like this. Funding cuts mandated by S-2 will have irrevocable and far-reaching consequences, hampering our ability to prepare students for success in college, careers and the workforce in a post-COVID-19 world.

As first-semester grades are reviewed, it’s clear that students across the country are struggling like never before, both academically and emotionally. This is not through lack of effort by educators, who have adapted their teaching techniques to meet the individualized needs of their students. While we can speculate about the secondary causes of this phenomenon, there is only one root cause: the pandemic. The academic, social and emotional deficits affecting large numbers of students will only be properly addressed with the aid of elected and appointed officials at the state and federal levels.

Overly complex and outdated

Our state’s overly complex and outdated formula has been undermined several times in its 12-year existence. Government officials have ignored the formula by gutting aid ($1.1 billion reduction by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2010), mandating flat aid (no increase or decrease to state aid for several years) and shifting aid (with the enactment of S-2 in 2018).

While our lawmakers could not predict the economic catastrophe brought on by a pandemic when they passed S2, educators warned officials that opportunities for our students would diminish. These losses will be exacerbated as all districts emerge from the pandemic. Students will have unimaginably vast needs for academic and emotional interventions. But the very teachers and staff who have the expertise and compassion to help students could lose their jobs as districts are forced to make difficult budget decisions.

It defies logic that our elected officials would blindly continue the scheduled cuts to schools mandated by S-2 in a year when billions of dollars are being provided for other industries in the form of bailouts, incentives and tax relief. New Jersey’sschools are educating and preparing today’s students for professions, trades and careers in the industries and businesses. But if the current funding formula stands, 500,000 students and the schools they attend will not benefit from similar relief. Rather, they will suffer more hardship due to an arbitrary and shortsighted funding formula.

We previously presented simple alternatives to a system that is hurting our students. We requested a 15-year timeline of scheduled reductions, as opposed to the arbitrary and condensed seven-year timeline. We pointed out that the commissioner’s constitutionally required periodic review of the funding formula has not occurred; this is necessary to ensure the formula can keep pace with the natural addition of advancements to education since 2009. And, we have asked for a pause to study the impacts, but now, as we enter Year Four of this seven-year law, we do not need a study to know this is harming students.

Creating ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’

School funding does not need to be a zero-sum game. A funding system that creates and perpetuates “haves” and “have-nots” post-COVID-19 threatens our ability to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands of students across our state.

If ever there were a time for our elected officials and newly appointed acting commissioner of education to walk back S-2 and review the outdated school funding formula, it is now. We’re in an emergency, and it’s not over yet.

Our students’ ability to emerge from this pandemic requires the focus, attention and allocation of resources by our elected officials. While the effects of this health crisis were beyond anyone’s control, officials do have the power to prevent additional harm caused by funding shortfalls. Continued cuts will result in lasting damage to the future of public education and, most importantly, our students.

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