Debate Over School Funding Continues

By Brenda Flanagan

In the ongoing contest over school funding, Gov. Chris Christie threw what amounted to a Hail Mary pass when he asked the state Supreme Court to freeze state aid at current levels and let him break union contracts to enact reforms. The high court said no to both.

“The court basically rejected his attempt to freeze funding so that he could go back to the Legislature and get something new — that’s what he told the court. And the court said no,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

Sciarra said Christie can’t simply alter the state budget to impose his “Fairness Formula” with a the flat $6,600 per-pupil funding plan. The original State Funding Reform Act still stands.

“They’re now making it clear that that remains on the books. That’s the law. That’s going to have to be followed and in particular that will have to be followed in the upcoming state budget,” Sciarra said.

Meanwhile, teachers’ unions hailed the court’s direction that the governor needed to go through the Legislature to change union agreements, especially the last in, first out provision.

“Changing evaluation frameworks on us overnight, coming in and pretty much, you know, sandbagging the teachers, making their life as impossible as they can and then, coming in and finding them ineffective,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon. “They have no value for teachers. Their only concern is their bottom line.”

The AG’s office says it’s reviewing the court’s ruling. Christie, meanwhile, expressed frustration with the court.

“I’ve always said that I’m willing to listen to leaders of the Legislature and to work with them, but what we know is the current school funding formula does not work, it is inequitable, it is a patchwork put together by seven people in black robes who have no business doing what they’ve done, in my view,” he said.

“What the governor has wanted to do was basically get a uniformity and send a level amount to every student throughout the state. Which, that really doesn’t work. And that couldn’t be constitutional. We need to start putting aside these things of going to court and having the court make decisions. Let’s work together,” said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

Both Senate and Assembly committees are meeting around New Jersey over the next couple weeks, asking for input. The superintendent of Wallington told the Assembly Education Committee his enrollment’s boomed 10 percent. His district’s aid hasn’t kept up. In fact, the formula’s under funded by about $1 billion statewide.

“I think the state of New Jersey has to take into account the needs of different individual constituent districts in order to fund the formula in a way that benefits those districts,” said Superintendent James Albro.

Both Prieto and Senate President Steve Sweeney say they hope to agree on a school funding fix in time for the next budget. As one assemblyman here said they may not achieve equality but they will strive for fairness.