Report suggests changes to state’s school funding formula

One of the most controversial laws in New Jersey, the School Funding Reform Act, or SFRA, is now 10 years old. Passed under former Gov. Jon Corzine in 2008, it restructured the way New Jersey funds its schools. Enter a new governor — and a recession — and the formula was shelved. Now, a decade later, a report looks at how the law has impacted New Jersey schools.

“We had the economic meltdown, we had the freezing of the formula, we had 5 percent cuts, restoration of those cuts, and the number for distributing aid to the districts just not being run through the formula for several years thereafter,” said Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University.

Baker authored the report from Rutgers University and New Jersey Policy Perspective.

“What we have in the aftermath of that is a number of districts, especially high-need districts, that are well short of the funding that they would need to even meet what the formula laid out for them several years ago,” he said. “Now, at the same time we’ve raised the bar for what kids are supposed to be achieving, despite the fact that we’ve not even provided the funding they needed to achieve what had been the lower bar.”

So, does it all come down to money? In short: yes, according to the report. It says graduation rates and test scores are consistently higher in districts with adequate funding. In his first year, Gov. Phil Murphy went back to the formula and increased aid by $300 million.

“Last year, we worked with the governor, under the leadership of Senate President Sweeney, to make changes to it. To begin to move some of the resources, some of the school funds from districts that were over-funded to districts that were extremely underfunded,” said Sen. Paul Sarlo.

In total, 172 towns saw decreased funding. Eight of those districts — including Brick, Jackson, Toms River and Freehold — have now sued the state.

“It was a deeply flawed program to start. And even the reforms last year, while they started to shift a little bit, didn’t go far enough. The Senate Republican Caucus has a bold proposal where every child counts, where we fully fund special education,” said Minority Leader Sen. Tom Kean, Jr.

The Republican’s plan would change the allocation for special education students, an area that Democrats agree needs to be addressed.

“One thing that we continue to lag behind is special education,” Sarlo said. “We do a much better job in the state of New Jersey than any other state across the county, but that also means many folks are moving here in regards to the needs of their children.”

The good news in all of this? New Jersey’s schools consistently rank among the top in the nation, even when you compare high-need districts in New Jersey to those in other states. The governor’s proposed budget increases state aid this year by close to $300 million, but that’s still a billion dollars short of fully funding the formula.