by Linh Tat
in Politico New Jersey on Thursday, June 9, 2016

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and other Democratic lawmakers on Thursday outlined an initiative to change how New Jersey doles out money to schools in order to ensure that all districts receive their fair share.

They announced legislation calling for the creation of a State School Aid Funding Fairness Commission, whose task would be to develop a five-year plan to fully fund all districts. That proposal would be voted on by the Legislature next summer.

Additionally, the state would allocate $100 million more each year for five years to help schools reach full funding, Sweeney said.

“We need a plan to restore fairness and equity in the New Jersey school funding aid formula,” Sweeney said during a statehouse news conference. “We need a plan to ramp up school funding … We should not leave in place a school aid formula that has the property taxpayers of some towns subsidizing the property taxpayers of other towns.”

When the state adopted the School Funding Reform Act in 2008, which established a new funding formula, certain districts received “adjustment aid” to buffer them from the impacts of a sudden decline in state dollars. The idea was to phase out that aid over several years, but that did not happen.

Instead, over the past eight years, other districts have experienced overall enrollment growth or spikes in English learners, special-needs or low-income students, while state aid has remained relatively flat or not kept pace with district expenses. Conversely, some districts have seen their enrollment drop, yet the amount they receive from the state continues to reflect an era when they had more students to educate.

Over the past few months, scores of parents and school administrators, particularly those who feel their districts have been shortchanged, have testified during state budget hearings that the way the state funds schools is unfair.

Sen. Jennifer Beck, a Republican who previously said she was working on legislation with Sweeney to address the issue, did not respond to a message seeking her reaction to Thursday’s announcement.

Sweeney’s office declined to comment about Beck’s bill.

But the Senate president said during the news conference that legislators from both parties have offered ideas for fixing the funding issue and that Gov. Chris Christie has ideas of his own.

“That’s why we need to work together on a bipartisan basis,” he said in announcing the formation of the commission.

Assemblymembers Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling, who represent the same legislative district as Beck, are sponsoring the bill along with Sweeney. It is also co-sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz.

Under the proposed legislation, the new commission would consist of four individuals with a background in public school finance or state budgeting and finance. Two commissioners would be appointed by the governor, one by the Senate president and one by the Assembly speaker.

He acknowledged that whatever new funding scheme is adopted will result in winners and losers, with some districts receiving more while others will receive less than they do today — a function of re-balancing the aid.

“The goal at the end of the day is to get to 100 percent funding for everyone. And how can anyone complain if we’re all getting the same funding?” he asked, noting that some districts are currently receiving three times what they should be getting while others are getting a third of what they’re owed.

Under the proposed legislation, the commission would hold public hearings as they weigh what to do, but ultimately, whatever new funding scheme they recommend would be voted on in the Legislature without first going through committees and without amendments.

Downey said the purpose is to remove the politics from school funding.

“We don’t have room for politics or gamesmanship,” she said. “This commission can give us honest answers to hard questions.”

Several education groups said they welcomed the review of school funding.

The New Jersey Association of School Administrators said it expected “a more equitable system” of funding to come out of the review. The advocacy group JerseyCAN applauded the “bold leadership” demonstrated by the bill sponsors.

“For students across New Jersey and the long-term economic well-being of state, it is imperative to undertake real reforms that move us towards a sustainable and fairer system for school funding,” JerseyCAN executive director Janellen Duffy said.

The New Jersey Education Association, meanwhile, said the solution should “not harm students in some districts by simply reallocating already inadequate funding.” It also said that any conversation about education funding should include discussions about the financial impacts of charter schools on traditional schools.


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