With a few lines, NJ says it may restore school-aid cuts

Budget clause says schools will get more money if feds say state cuts broke pandemic relief rules
Credit: (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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In the face of protests and legal challenges, the Murphy administration and legislative leaders have been adamant in staying the course on their multiyear school funding plans that include big increases to previously underfunded districts and cuts to certain districts.

But tucked in as the very last provision in the latest state budget may be a reprieve for those now contesting those cuts, offering some hope — although maybe fleeting — that their state aid could be restored.

The 279-page budget approved by the Legislature and signed by Murphy last month includes a fine-print provision on its final page that says the state will indeed provide additional funds if it was found to be falling short of certain requirements under the massive federal American Rescue Plan.

‘Maintenance of equity’ violations?

Those so-called “maintenance of equity” requirements in that federal rescue plan mandate that the state maintain its existing funding to schools and other programs and not make any disproportionate cuts to high-poverty districts.

“In addition to the amounts herein above appropriated [in the state budget], there are appropriated such additional amounts, subject to the approval of the Director of the Division of Budget and Accounting, as are determined to be required to satisfy federal maintenance-of-effort and maintenance-of-equity requirements pursuant to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021,” reads the budget language.

Some advocates have claimed the state is violating those clauses in the 2022 fiscal year budget, in which state aid is being reduced in nearly 200 school districts deemed as receiving too much state support under the School Funding Reform Act.

The cuts range from a few thousand dollars in dozens of districts to more than $60 million in Jersey City. One analysis estimated that more than $170 million in additional funds would be required to bring more than 80 districts even with last year’s funding.

‘Clear conflict with federal law’

“Given the clear conflict with federal law, the Legislature should not have made these funding cuts to high-poverty districts in the budget,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, one of the advocates contesting the cuts to the federal Department of Education.

‘The Legislature should not have made these funding cuts to high-poverty districts in the budget.’

“Since they did, we’ll take our case to the Biden Administration,” he said.

Jersey City advocates already have done so, and two of their leaders said the budget language indicates their argument shouldn’t come as a surprise to New Jersey lawmakers.

“This clause in the state budget reveals that New Jersey is prepared to uphold ‘maintenance of equity,’ but only if they are compelled by the federal government,” said an emailed statement from Nancy Pokler and Dana Patton, two parent leaders with New Jersey Together.

“This makes it all the more important for [U.S. Education Secretary Miguel] Cardona and the US Department of Education to act today and protect some of our state’s most vulnerable students,” they said.

How much the argument will resonate with federal education officials is yet to be seen. New Jersey has filed its application with Washington for nearly $2.7 billion in relief money for schools, more than $2.4 billion of which would go directly to districts for COVID-19-related programs such as extra tutoring, mental health support and building improvements. That application is pending.

What US education secretary said

Murphy administration officials said they were awaiting further guidance from the federal government.

“Yes, the general provision language does provide us with the ability to appropriate additional funds to support the ARP’s Maintenance of Equity requirements,” said Danielle Currie, a spokesperson for the state Department of Treasury.

“However, because this is a new federal requirement and initial guidance was not released until mid-June, we are waiting on additional information from the US Department of Education before taking action.”

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was in New Jersey visiting several Camden County schools on Friday and spoke on the topic, saying his department was “working with” New Jersey and other states to address the equity provisions.

“We put those provisions in place to make sure the funds from the federal government are adding to the experience for the students and providing them support post-pandemic,” Cardona said.

“But we are also working with the states to make sure we’re clear on what the expectations are … and at the end of the day, the provisions that were put in place are being followed.”

When asked specifically whether he was aware of New Jersey’s situation, Cardona kept it general: “I’m aware … We are working with all states [on these provisions], not just New Jersey.”

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