Don't Rethink School Funding Cuts. Help Districts Cope
We feel the pain of those school districts that are losing state aid next year and face the grim prospect of laying off teachers and other staff. Their recent protests underscore the need to find ways to help them adapt, to limit the damage.
But they are dead wrong to try to reverse the sensible agreement struck by Senate President Steve Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy. Their plan increases total state aid to schools, and brings greater fairness and rationality. Those districts that will lose money were getting more than their fair share, thanks to political meddling.
The overall boost amounts to more than $206 million, a big win after state funding was frozen for years under former Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy and Sweeney are putting us on the path to full funding by about 2025, which will help both students and property tax payers.
Their plan gradually returns us to the original funding formula approved by the State Supreme Court in 2008, which had bipartisan support. This takes into account factors like the number of poor, more costly-to-educate kids in a district, its local tax wealth and enrollment.
It also removes the add-ons from a meddling Legislature that meant certain political winners didn’t lose state money even when their student enrollment plummeted, like Toms River, or when their tax revenue exploded in a surge of new development, like Jersey City.
Now, Murphy is phasing out that undeserved extra aid and redistributing it to the losers, like Woodbridge, that were shortchanged for years as their student populations boomed.
Of course this is unwelcome news to districts that were long sheltered from cuts. Those that will see the biggest reductions have assembled a coalition called “Support Our Students,” that includes the teacher’s union, School Boards Association and Education Law Center, to urge Murphy to reconsider.
He shouldn’t. Districts that were underfunded for at least a decade sorely deserve this increase in aid, and the state has a finite amount of money. The justice of it is undeniable.
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That’s not to say we don’t sympathize with the plight of these protesting districts. For years, the state gave them undeserved money and encouraged them to build up their budgets as they were negotiating teacher’s contracts. They will need time and help to adjust.
This plan phases in the cuts over seven years, a good start. And the Senate budget committee plans to explore other solutions in a hearing this week.
One enticing idea is merging the school employees’ health insurance plan into the state health benefits plan. Overall, this would save both teachers and taxpayers substantial money. Other unions have jumped at that kind of opportunity.
Lawmakers should also consider allowing districts to raise money on their own, through a payroll tax, hotel tax or local sales tax, or by lifting the cap on property taxes. Local voters could also do it themselves in a referendum.
And the state could find ways to pick up more of the tab for special education. It currently assumes about 14 percent of kids in each district need special ed under its formula. It doesn’t distribute this aid based on the actual number of kids who do, for fear it would incentivize districts to enroll too many students in special education programs.
As a result, districts that were getting too much state aid based on their declining enrollment are still getting shortchanged in this category. Keansburg, for instance, has a special ed population of as much as 30 percent. We don’t want districts with reputable programs that attract more expensive-to-educate kids to be penalized for doing a good job, so the state needs to chip in more.
The governor and Legislature must do everything they can to help districts cope and catch up. But the fact remains that to support all our students, we need to redistribute aid in a more equitable way.