By David Cruz
The governor made it sound very seductive to suburban taxpayers.
“Let’s go to Cherry Hill,” he said, ticking off the list of suburban school districts. “An increase in aid to Cherry Hill of 411 percent and a drop in property taxes of over $1,700.”
More school aid for your local district, less real estate taxes for you — music to the ears of suburban lawmakers who have railed against what they see as the tyranny of a tax system that funds urban schools at a rate sometimes three times their own. In the final stretch of his term, the governor intends to finally put their angst into a plan, calling for spending $6,600 per student across the board, a plan he calls the Fairness Formula.
“Fifty-eight percent of the aid from state taxpayers goes to 5 percent of the school districts, while 42 percent of the aid goes to the remaining 95 percent of school districts,” he said. “This is absurd; it’s unfair; it’s not working, and it hasn’t worked for 30 years.”
But, almost as soon as the governor’s speech was over, the critics pounced. “A direct attack on the core principles of equality,” said the Senate president. “Unfair … unjust … blatantly unconstitutional,” added the Senate Education Committee chair.
“It’s easy to give a quick answer; that sounds great. We’ll give everybody the same thing and that’s it,” shrugged Wendell Steinhauer, president of the NJEA. “That’s a great balance sheet answer; that’s not a human answer.”
What the governor doesn’t acknowledge, say critics, is that the real estate taxes schools rely on are in shorter supply in urban districts, while the kids there face a myriad of other challenges that their suburban counterparts just don’t. Crime, poverty, aging schools and challenges at home that would shock some suburban families and put urban schools behind the eight ball before the school bell even rings.
“I was stunned and it seems to be trying to pit the cities against the suburbs and that’s been the Republican way to say ‘they’re trying to steal our money’ instead of we’re trying to raise up every child,” said Democratic Assemblyman Tim Eustace.
Even as Democrats insist the plan will never see the light of day, Republicans say they will push for a statewide referendum that reflects a new reality.
“The Supreme Court determined many years ago there was disparity between the school districts,” countered Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick. “That disparity is not what it was 25 years ago.”
Unless there is some grand bargain being worked on behind closed doors, the governor’s proposal appears to be dead on arrival. Still, Christie says he’s going to hit the road to promote the plan, hoping perhaps that suburban voters can convince their lawmakers to get on board.