NJ Lawmakers Kick Off Debate Over School Funding

TRENTON — New Jersey lawmakers heard from numerous education stakeholders about the state's school funding disparities this week, but the only real consensus from the school officials is that more money is needed and that Gov. Chris Christie's proposal would cause chaos.

The Assembly Education Committee held the first of several planned hearings on the issue on Wednesday, and the Joint Committee on Public Schools held a hearing Tuesday.

At issue are the hundreds of school districts receiving less state aid than called for under the 2008 funding formula, while a select few are receiving more aid than what the formula recommends.

Although lawmakers universally agree that the disparities must be addressed, Senate and Assembly leaders have been at odds over the best route to a fix.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd of West Deptford, has called for fast action to boost overall education funding and redistribute existing aid so that all districts are adequately funded. He has scheduled a Senate Select Committee hearing on the issue on Jan. 27 at Kingsway Regional High School in Woolwich, Gloucester County.

"We have to look beyond politics of school aid and do what's right for education and the taxpayers, and there are no good reasons for not doing it now," Sweeney said in a statement. "Further delays are the enemy of fairness and equity."

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-32nd of Secaucus, has resisted Sweeney's plan, claiming it creates a "predetermined" outcome. He wants lawmakers to study the issue before coming up with a plan.

"I want to make very clear that I have not predetermined what I think our education funding formula should be going forward," Prieto said. "I want us to hear from the stakeholders and then determine how we believe we should proceed."

The issue is particularly thorny, in part, because state aid to schools is one of the biggest factors that influence New Jersey's notoriously high property taxes.

Adding to the intrigue is the possibility that Christie might try to implement his own proposal to scrap the formula and redistribute all aid based on a flat per-pupil amount.

At the onset of Wednesday's meeting, Assembly Education Committee chairwoman Marlene Caride, D-36th of Ridgefield, said the current status quo is unacceptable.

"The goal is to fully fund all school districts throughout the state, no matter their location or their economic situation,” Caride said. “Today’s status quo is unfair and unacceptable.”

Among those who testified, most said that the formula, which divvies up aid based on enrollment, wealth and population of poor and special needs students, was sound, and that the funding discrepancies that exist are the result of the state's inability to find the revenues needed for full funding.

"We have the most fair and equitable funding formula of any state," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which advocates on behalf of districts with large populations of impoverished students.

"The problem with our formula is it hasn't been funded," Sciarra said.

About $1 billion more state aid would need to be distributed to award all districts with the sums recommended by the formula, officials said.

The funding disparities have been created because districts' aid has not kept up with enrollment increases and demographic changes. At the same time, some districts that have had significant enrollment losses have continued to receive large sums of extra money, called "adjustment aid" or "hold harmless aid," in order to ensure no districts lost aid because of the formula. Some of those districts have also received aid increases in other categories created by the Christie administration.

Sciarra and other officials warned that redistributing the approximately $600 million in adjustment aid that the Department of Education has distributed needs to be done carefully, as many of the districts that receive it are still spending below recommended amounts on education.

Sean Spiller, secretary and treasurer for the New Jersey Education Association, the state's powerful teachers union, echoed the call for appropriating more aid to schools.

"There is no easy solution to this. It's a matter of finding funding," Spiller said.

But since a large influx of additional money for education seems unlikely given budget constraints, lawmakers asked if the state should pursue divvying up all available school aid strictly according to formula and without adjustment aid.

The idea was supported by the teachers union and some school administrators who testified Wednesday, but some lawmakers expressed reservations.

Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, cited an Office of Legislative Services study that found that at least 20 school districts in Burlington County would receive less aid if all existing school funding was prorated solely according to the formula. Some districts like Beverly, Burlington City, Pemberton and Willingboro would lose considerable amounts of aid and force those communities to either drastically raise property taxes or make significant cuts to school programs.

"I can't believe that's what we really all want. We have to find a way to come up with the resources needed," Singleton said.

One area where there's plenty of agreement among educators is that Christie's proposal to distribute aid equally based on a flat per-pupil amount should not be implemented. Doing so would likely boost aid to many underfunded districts but drastically cut aid to urban districts.

Sciarra called it "radical," and said it would devastate the finances of many districts that can least afford to lose it.

Representatives of suburban school districts also said they were opposed to the governor's plan.

"It doesn't matter if you're a high-performing, high-wealth district or a (poor) district. It would just be chaotic," said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which is calling for a gradual fix to the funding disparities.

"We didn't get here quickly. We can't fix it quickly," Ginsburg said.

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