NJ cut aid to some schools. Did that break federal pandemic-relief rules?

Advocates for schools that lost in Murphy’s budget are looking to the federal government for help
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New Jersey’s budget may have been signed and sealed for the next year, but advocates for dozens of school districts seeing cuts to their state aid aren’t giving up the fight just yet — and this time with a twist.

With the state budget now moot, advocates are taking their argument to the federal government, contending that New Jersey — with its cuts to some schools — is not fulfilling its obligations to a so-called “maintenance of equity” requirement under the massive American Rescue Plan relief package.

At stake is the state’s application for more than $2.4 billion in federal pandemic-relief aid to New Jersey schools.

The appeal is being led out of Jersey City, the state’s second-largest school district and one that’s taking the biggest hit by far at more than $70 million.

“We urge you to act now to ensure Governor Murphy and the State of New Jersey enforce the ‘maintenance of equity’ provisions in President Biden’s American Rescue Plan,” starts the letter to U.S. education secretary Miguel Cardona from New Jersey Together, a coalition of community leaders. “Failure to do so would amount to punishment of some of the state’s most vulnerable children.”

And the coalition will have high-powered company, as the Education Law Center, the statewide advocacy group, said it would be sending a similar appeal to Washington.

Down $170 million?

The center’s analysis, released before the budget was finalized, found more than $170 million additional funds would be needed to meet the American Rescue Plan’s equity requirements.

“Senator Sweeney, Speaker Coughlin and Governor Murphy were on notice the American Rescue Plan does not allow New Jersey to cut funding to students in poor schools,” said David Sciarra, the center’s executive director, in an email. “Yet they did it anyway.

“We will be asking the USDOE to withhold federal COVID-19 relief to New Jersey schools until these cuts are fully restored,” Sciarra wrote.

At issue are cuts in state aid — millions of dollars in a handful of cases — to nearly 200 school districts under the 2022 fiscal year budget, part of a seven-year school funding agreement reached by Gov. Phil Murphy and Democratic leaders in the Legislature to close the funding gap in the state’s school finance law.

Overall, state funding for schools next year will increase by nearly $600 million toward that end, and a majority of districts will see increases. But the cuts to a sizable fraction have been a political sore spot for the Murphy administration, especially during an all-around difficult year for schools because of the pandemic.

Inequitably funded

Murphy has acknowledged the cuts and the difficult times, but maintained that these districts have been inequitably funded under the state’s funding law. He said the state would be there to provide relief in extraordinary cases.

“We know not everybody is a winner, even if the total spent is an all-time record high,” Murphy said last week after signing his $46.6 billion budget. “We will work with them the best we can, and hopefully come up with solutions that don’t hurt.”

How much the appeals to Washington will have on the federal review of New Jersey’s application is yet to be seen, as the federal education department this week released only the first seven of its approvals of state plans.

The ELC’s analysis focuses on certain criteria required of states to receive the ARP relief funds. Specifically, it says the state is restricted from reducing state per-pupil aid to certain “high-need” and “highest poverty” districts. It found that state aid is being cut to 70 such districts in New Jersey.

“Given the overwhelming need for teachers, support staff and other resources in these districts, any cut in school funding is ill-advised this year,” said Danielle Farrie, the ELC’s research director, in releasing the analysis last month.

‘A terribly written federal law’

“We must ensure the budget does not jeopardize the State’s receipt of billions of federal COVID-19 relief funds for our public schools.”

Efforts to get comment from Murphy’s office and the Senate Majority Office were unsuccessful Thursday. But the state’s school funding plan under Murphy and the Democratic lawmakers has its own advocates, and at least one of them said he hoped the federal government doesn’t get in the way.

“Reading sections of the ARP’s statute, it’s clear that federal lawmakers had no idea what the situation is in New Jersey, where 200 districts get more state aid than the law recommends, while 370 districts get less,” said Jeff Bennett, a former South Orange school trustee and research director for the Fair Funding Action Committee.

“By centering their argument on a terribly written federal law, whose authors knew nothing about New Jersey’s education budget landscape, the demand … is not fair and is insensitive to the tax and budget stress that prevails in most of the rest of New Jersey,” he said.

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