Imagine it’s 2017. For the past eight years you’ve seen headline after headline about how incumbent Gov. Chris Christie is no friend of public education. Pensions. Budgets. Funding. You might have come away with the impression that electing a Democratic gubernatorial candidate would lead to across-the-board increases in aid for New Jersey’s public schools, especially those districts in underserved communities.
On March 6, 2017, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and former DNC National Finance Chair Phil Murphy sat with Steve Adubato to discuss New Jersey’s school-funding formula. As a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor, Murphy praised the existing formula, calling for it to be fully funded.
Here is what he had to say: “The bad news is, we have a school-funding formula. It was blessed by our state Supreme Court, the only formula ever that blessed. It was a national model. I want to go back and fund that formula. This governor has underfunded it by over $8 billion; it’ll be over $9 billion by the time he leaves. Uh, let’s fund the formula. And if we fund that formula, again which was viewed to be one of the most innovative formulas in the country, if we fund that formula and we get our priorities straight again, I think we find our way clear to answer the question you asked.”
During his candidacy, Murphy was correct in his assessment of New Jersey’s existing funding formula. New Jersey’s public schools have consistently been ranked best — or among the best — in the entire nation. On average, New Jersey has smaller class sizes and higher graduation rates than the K-12 systems of many other states. As many people expected, Murphy won the gubernatorial election in 2017.
Changing funding levels
Within the first year of Murphy’s term as governor, on July 24, 2018, he signed New Jersey Senate Bill 2, a law changing school-funding levels in nearly every New Jersey public school district. Some districts, such as Newark Public Schools, gained funding as a result of the change. Yet many districts, both small and large, both suburban and urban, saw their budgets slashed. One of the hardest-hit districts was Jersey City’s public school system: Approximately $120 million in aid has been lost since S-2 was passed. Just last year, $55 million had been lost in the year-to-year changes, $13 million more than was previously anticipated. The second-largest school district in New Jersey, Jersey City Public Schools, is designated as one of 31 Abbott Districts or SDA Districts. The SDA Districts include schools that serve high-need areas and communities as the result of the 1985 New Jersey state Supreme Court decision that Murphy referenced in his 2017 interview. Other SDA Districts were adversely affected by S-2, including Monmouth County’s Asbury Park Public Schools and the Keansburg School District, where I worked as a substitute instructor for several years.
Jersey City, Keansburg and Asbury Park were far from the only communities hit hard by Murphy and the Legislature’s policies. A great many in Monmouth County were affected by cuts, such as the Freehold Regional High School District serving six municipalities, Neptune, Hazlet and Middletown among others.
While superintendents, teachers, students and parents have been organizing to support New Jersey’s schools, the vast majority of New Jersey’s political leaders have not been treating this topic like the existential long-term crisis that it is. One legislator who has seriously acknowledged this issue is Assemblyman Robert Clifton (R-Matawan) who is quoted on the NJEA’s website as stating: “I will also fight for fair school funding. Under S-2, the school districts in my legislative district will lose over $70 million in funding.”
If we want to examine the political ramifications of cutting school aid, history should be our guide. In 1990, then-Gov. Jim Florio proposed a school-funding change that was designed in principle to provide more aid to school districts in struggling areas at the expense of funding for more affluent — in some cases only slightly more affluent — suburban areas. While this proposal was designed to uplift students in need, many New Jerseyans felt as though Florio was targeting not the wealthy but the middle class. Furthermore, Newark, one of the municipalities most in need, faced a state takeover that was deeply unpopular with many African American Essex County leaders such as Newark Mayor Sharpe James. Essex County’s leadership felt slighted at Florio’s actions and, three years later, didn’t turn out in full force for the governor’s reelection against Republican challenger Christine Todd Whitman. Alan Steinberg acknowledges that if voter turnout in Essex County in 1993 had reached the same level that it did in the 2009 Corzine vs. Christie race, Florio would have prevailed. As a result of unpopular education policies, a Democratic incumbent lost the governorship in the Garden State.
Republican education accomplishments
Many Democratic campaigners frequently accuse Republicans of seeking to defund public education, and one can expect that the Dems might use that line of attack in 2021. Yet, lest we forget, Republican governors such as Tom Kean Sr., Christine Todd Whitman and Chris Christie have made a variety of education accomplishments. Kean raised public teachers’ salaries several times, created New Jersey’s Governor’s Schools, dedicated millions of dollars to modernize New Jersey schools and developed the alternate route program. Whitman brought development to both Abbott and non-Abbott districts through new pre-K programs and new facilities through the 2000 Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act. She also centered her efforts on accountability through raising curriculum standards. Following Superstorm Sandy, Christie provided millions in dollars to help devastated Shore towns and communities, some of which went to public school districts affected by the disaster.
If the governor can’t see the impact of school-aid cuts and doesn’t reverse them, he doesn’t deserve re-election. Time and time again, history has taught us that you can’t put a price on the future of young people, in New Jersey or elsewhere. If New Jersey’s Democratic Party standard-bearer can’t live up to the national party’s stated ideals, which include “… closing the school funding gap …” and supporting “ …funding formulas that direct resources to the schools that need it most …”, why should Democratic voters, who make up a sizable proportion of the Garden State’s electorate, send the state’s leadership back to the halls of government in Trenton?
It’s never too late to do the right thing. Murphy and New Jersey state legislators are in full control over their legacy; how they are remembered by historians and the public is ultimately up to them. Restoring state aid to the public school districts that lost funding under S-2 would not only be fair but also live up to the governor’s promises and stated ideals. Families can feel as though they have futures in New Jersey and such a move could reverse the number of New Jerseyans fleeing for other states. Republican challengers in 2021 could and should seize upon this issue if it isn’t resolved.
Perhaps Murphy would be wise to heed his own words: “Don’t be the knucklehead that ruins it.” Fund the formula.