NJ Spotlight Founder: Chance of School Aid Increases

New Jersey spends more money on education than any other arena. Poor urban school districts get extra funding and rural districts also get additional aid under what’s called the 2008 Bacon Decision. Those districts contend Gov. Chris Christie has underfunded them and have fought for years in court. Last month, a Superior Court judge ruled against them, reportedly not on the merits, but on a technicality. NJ Spotlight founder and education writer John Mooney told NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams there may be a chance that schools will receive additional aid in the state budget, but it won’t be much of an increase.

Mooney said that Bacon vs. New Jersey Department of Education has to do with a handful of mostly small, rural South Jersey districts that have sought protections to get additional funding. He said that those districts feel that given the disadvantages that they have, additional resources are needed. He said those districts went back to the court saying that Christie had not fully met the mandates of the 2008 decision and they had been cut like many districts were in 2010. He said that they went back to court and the judge didn’t necessarily disagree with the argument of the districts, but dismissed it because there wasn’t strong documentation making their case. Mooney said that doesn’t mean that it’s the end of the issue, but it slowed down the momentum.

School funding is the biggest slice of the state budget. When asked if there will be more money available for school districts in the form of state aid given pension funding and the Transportation Trust Fund issues, Mooney said, “I think politics does strange things and there may be a shot that schools will get some additional money but it can’t be much. I mean there is so much pressure on our state budget now and, as you said, schools are the largest slice of it. Gov. Christie has gotten away with giving very small increases the last couple of years that have slowly helped things creep back up a little bit. But to give them a large slice, it’s got to come from somewhere and I don’t know where that somewhere would be.”

As for the the new PARCC exam, Mooney said that time will tell if the state’s schools and students were ready for it or not because there is great uncertainty about that. He said there is a lot to consider because it is an online test, which New Jersey has never done before so there are big technology questions. He said it is also a different kind of testing that involves different standards than the standards that have been used in the past, so another question is if teachers are ready for that. He said in terms of the students, the test is going to be longer. Mooney said that he is not saying that New Jersey isn’t ready for the test but there is going to be an adjustment period, which he thinks is going to hit schools pretty hard. He said that it might also hit the results of the scores pretty hard. He said it will be interesting to see public reaction if scores dip or fall significantly.

The scores will affect teacher evaluations. When asked if that will cause backlash from the teachers or the New Jersey Education Association, Mooney said, “There was a big backlash which caused Gov. Christie, or prompted at least Gov. Christie, to scale back the impact of the test for some teachers at least in the first couple of years. So I think there certainly will be some rumbling about it. Whether it moves a teacher from being effective to ineffective, that kind of thing, I don’t think the stakes will be that high. But it is a very volatile time right now in New Jersey schools and there’s all kinds of reactions around the tests and the impact of them. I was at a hearing just today with families and even a few kids were talking about not taking the test at all — opting out. It’s a very small, but it’s a growing movement and I think that’s going to have some reverberations as well.”

One person who is under performance review right now is Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson. Anderson testified yesterday and got a tongue-lashing in Trenton. Mooney said that he was there for that and he thinks the intent of the hearing was to give her a tongue-lashing. He said that Anderson has faced a lot of protest and controversy in Newark, a state controlled district. He said that she was appointed three years ago by Christie and she hasn’t really been popular from the get-go and yesterday legislators let her have it. He said he doesn’t know if it had a big impact or not, but it’s not the type of press she is looking for. The main person Anderson needs to care about is Christie and he has not indicated at this point that he is going to abandon her, said Mooney. He said that now that Christie is likely to run for president, he does not see Christie pulling back either.