Frustration Builds in N.J. Funding Debate
Districts increase push for revised aid formula, amid continuing delays.
Fed up with five years of flat funding and aid calculations they see as unfair, school districts across New Jersey are pressing education leaders to rewrite the state’s school funding formula. The governor has called repeatedly for a better aid plan. But the timeline for its completion has grown only longer.
Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat, hoped to have a new funding formula in place for the 2007-08 school year, but that has been delayed until 2008-09 while policymakers and advocates debate the figures and factors that should shape the aid framework. In the meantime, frustration is mounting in the districts.
“We need a school funding formula and we need it, like, yesterday,” said Lynne Strickland, the executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which says that its members, middle- and upper-income districts, have been forced to rely on local property taxes for up to 90 percent of their budgets because the state’s share of school funding—37 percent on average—is insufficient.
The discontent is not restricted to districts in wealthier areas. Advocates for 31 of the state’s poorest urban districts fear that the figures the state ultimately comes up with will fall far short of the $12,000-plus per student that they’ve been receiving. Because of a court case known as Abbott vs. Burke, those districts are guaranteed state funding equal to that of New Jersey’s wealthiest districts. Any funding formula that falls short of those court mandates could be challenged in court.
The state’s cost study, released in December, suggested a base aid level to districts of $8,500 per student, with adjustments for higher-need students such as those from low-income families. Advocates for Abbott districts contend the base aid and adjustment levels are too low because they rely on outdated costs such as staff salaries and overlook the true cost of academic programs that best serve underprivileged children.
“The work is extremely flawed. It’s a very serious underestimation of what’s needed,” said David G. Sciarra, the executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center, which represents the schoolchildren plaintiffs in the Abbott case.
Commissioner Lucille E. Davy said that any upset over the study is premature. She and other department officials are meeting with lawmakers and activists all over New Jersey to solicit feedback on what factors should shape the aid distribution formula.
“People are jumping the gun,” she said. “There is no formula yet. It’s only a number, and there is more to it than that.”
The Push for Change
The push to rewrite the aid formula comes largely from growing anger at the Garden State’s property taxes, which at nearly $6,000 on average per household are the highest in the nation, and at inequity in spending among school districts. A recent state report shows that some districts spend tens of thousands more per pupil than others. In a special session on property-tax reduction last year, legislators recommended scores of ways to improve the state’s fiscal health. Some, such as property-tax credits of 10 percent to 20 percent, were approved. Others—the school-funding formula chief among them—are works in progress.
New Jersey currently calculates aid for the Abbott districts according to court-mandated levels, and gives annual needs-based adjustments to the rest. Echoing a call from Gov. Corzine, the special-session committee on school funding recommended revamping distribution of aid so it is based on the same factors for all 1.4 million schoolchildren, regardless of where they live. Those factors would be based on children’s needs and the cost of educating them. ("N.J. Panel Eyes Changes in School Funding," Nov. 29, 2006.)
Gov. Corzine pursued some of those goals in his proposed fiscal 2008 education budget, gearing the amount of aid increase to a district’s wealth.
The least affluent non-Abbott districts would get increases averaging 10 percent, and the wealthiest closer to 3 percent. Also, for the first time, the budget allots an additional pot of money for academic programs in moderate- or low-income non-Abbott districts, based on economic need. Districts with 15 percent to 20 percent low-income enrollment would receive $250 per child, and those with more than 20 percent would receive $500.
Many education advocates, however, view the governor’s proposed budget as insufficient.
“We’re glad to have a meaningful increase in state aid, but it doesn’t make up for five years of flat funding,” said Frank Belluscio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.
He cited a recent Rutgers University study by school finance expert Ernest C. Reock Jr., who found that by the 2005-06 academic year, New Jersey schools were losing out on $846 million in funding each year because the state has not fully funded its 1996 school-aid formula, known as CEIFA, since 2002. That shortfall forced districts to rely more heavily on property taxes, and drove them upward, the report said.
Commissioner Davy has said she hopes to present a formula to the legislature in the late fall. If it is to be used for the 2008-09 year, it must win legislative approval by the end of December, activists said.
That timetable worries Ms. Strickland. She noted that the entire state legislature is up for re-election in November, meaning a fall heavy with campaigning, followed by a lame-duck session.
“How district wealth is put into a formula, what aid children require, all those things are big items that take a big conversation,” she said. “We’re ready, and want to have that conversation. But we’re worried it may not happen, or that it will be something we’re not all comfortable with because of the hurried time frame.”
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