Dem Consensus: Any Plan But Christie’s Plan For School Funding

By David Cruz

When Gov. Chris Christie offered his so-called “Fairness Formula” funding plan for state schools it sent a shock through the state’s districts. Some suburban districts welcomed the increased funding their schools would receive and the tax relief that would come with it. Other urban districts called it Armageddon for their schools. But the proposal set fire to the debate among stakeholders and lawmakers over how to fix what everyone agrees is a flawed system. Today, the Assembly Education Committee picked up the conversation in the first of what will be a series of public hearings around the state.

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

But what’s fair and what’s full is open to debate. Senate President Steve Sweeney, who has scheduled a series of Senate hearings to begin next week, has been pushing his own proposal that he says will correct some of the inequities that still exist, which leave some districts over-funded and others chronically short.

A lot of stakeholders testifying here today, with a lot of different opinions on how to fully fund the state’s school systems. One thing they all can agree on, however, is that the governor’s funding formula is a non-starter.

“The governor’s formula is dead in the Legislature because legislators on both sides of the aisle recognize that that formula will devastate their districts in different ways, so a lot of districts are going to lose a lot of money, massive layoffs,” cautioned David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. “Other districts are going to get money but they’re not going to be able to use it in the schools. They’re going to have to pass it along to property tax relief.”

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he’s not advocating any plan over another, except, he said, “The governor’s plan of uniformity across the board is … not a good plan. It’s not a constitutional plan because one size fits all for education is a plan, that some of you already know, doesn’t work.”

“What I think is a good idea is the formula that we have today,” he said. “It just has not been fully funded.”

The School Funding Reform Act of 2008, to which Prieto is referring, provides relief for districts that have seen population spikes and attempts to otherwise equalize funding disparities that affect the so-called Abbott districts. The governor has short-changed this formula by over $1 billion a year, say critics. But supporters of the governor’s plan, like Bergen County Republican Robert Auth, say Democrats are protecting large districts like Newark and Jersey City, where he suggests bureaucracies are fat and slow.

“I would say this. There are managerial issues that go along with some of the urban areas, high levels of administration,” said Auth. “They need to re-examine that. They need to look closely and see how much money is actually being sent into the classroom as opposed to administration and all sorts of ancillary positions that are created to support certain political activities and so on throughout their systems.”

The governor could surprise everyone and force the funding issue by budgeting schools to fit his formula, but the consensus is that he would face a legal challenge, which means, like many big issues facing the state, lawmakers may decide to tread water — and hold hearings — until they get a governor that they can work with.