Understanding New Jersey’s school funding plan for next year

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

Last week Gov. Christie proposed a $32.9 billion budget for 2014.  He prefaced his formal address with promises of “fiscal sanity” and “fiscal discipline,” and then dropped the biggest ticket item: $8.9 billion for public schools, an increase of $97.3 million over 2013.

About 200 districts have the same amount of state aid as last year; the majority, 378, will see small (in some cases tiny) increases. (Here’s the NJ DOE spreadsheet.)

 In general, stakeholders were assuaged.  

A typical reaction from school officials was this from Antoinette Rath, Superintendent of Cherry Hill Public Schools: “In this economic time, flat funding is better than a decrease in funding. It would have been nice to see an increase, but we are happy the funding is stable.”

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Her relief was echoed by Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, who said that his group is “very pleased to see an increase in funding,” and grateful for no big reductions.

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, told NJ Spotlight, “[w]hat we need and hope for is at least stable funding so that schools don’t fall backwards. We hope for some increase, but we are not speculating beyond that,” she said. “We’re realists. But we certainly don’t want to go backward and don’t think we can afford to.”

New Jersey School Board Association was appropriately circumspect. From its press release: “We appreciate the overall increase in state funding.  NJSBA will examine the details of the proposal and, if necessary, will call for adjustments during legislative hearings.  After all, maintaining state support for our public schools is critical in light of districts’ current financial circumstances, including the strict 2 percent limit on growth in property tax revenue.”

The largest increases went to Abbott districts, per the 21 State Supreme Court rulings on equalizing state school aid among wealthier and poorer schools. Elizabeth, for example, will see an increase of $7,559,176; Bridgeton will get $3,159,226; Passaic will get $3,056,727; and Camden (in spite of dropping enrollment) will get an additional $3,644,589. 

The proposed budget also includes $5 million to reward low-performing districts that improve student achievement, $16.8 million for a new category called “Under-Adequacy Aid” intended for districts that spend 10% or more below state recommendations, and another $16 million for N.J.’s Interdistrict Public Choice Program, which allows students to attend school outside district boundaries.

But don’t stick a fork in it yet. This, after all, is politics. While $9 billion may seem like a lot of money to some people, to others it seems like bupkis.

Both NJEA, N.J.’s primary teachers union, and Education Law Center, primary advocates for Abbott districts, issued angry statements decrying the Governor’s parsimony.  

After all, the total package, even factoring in those large increases to poor urban districts, is below the threshold required by the School Funding Reform Act, the Corzine Administration’s legislative remedy to the lack of educational equity among N.J. school districts. Anything else and Christie’s a skinflint.

Here’s NJEA President Barbara Kershishian,  “Gov. Christie’s budget rehashes, reheats and repackages the same failed policies and priorities that have stunted economic growth in the Garden State while others in our region have begun to recover. We are very disappointed that the governor once again failed to comply with the law and fund New Jersey’s schools at required adequacy levels, compounding the harm of his previous budgets.  Flat funding for nearly 200 districts hurts those schools and their students.  And minimal increases for others will not be enough to keep up, much less invest in the future.”

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, fumed, “The governor’s aid proposal does almost nothing to meet the needs of students in hundreds of underfunded schools throughout the state.”

Both Keshishian and Sciarra are correct: the school aid proposed by Christie falls short of the larger increases for poor urban school districts imbedded in the School Funding Reform Act. (I’m not sure how much that would be, and I haven’t seen any estimates.) 

But is there any point — amidst recession, hurricane, sequester — that “this much” is “too much?” Is there any limit to a government’s obligations within a sky-high priority area like public education? What happens when economic reality collides with aspirational judicial and legislative activism?

I guess we’ll find out.________________________________________________________

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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