Christie’s school aid overhaul: Equal funds for all students, even in ‘Abbott’ districts
HILLSBOROUGH — Gov. Chris Christie wants to entirely overhaul New Jersey’s school funding formula, providing every district the same amount of aid per student — which would be unconstitutional at present.
Christie Tuesday afternoon unveiled what he calls a “Fairness Formula” in remarks at Hillsborough High School, in a district that could see its state aid jump by around $8 million if the idea of giving every district $6,599 per regular-education student were to be enacted. That’s equal to almost 10 percent of the township’s school tax.
"A funding formula that puts a higher value on one child over another is morally wrong and it has been economically destructive. We cannot let it continue," Christie said.
"No one should be denied an education because of where they call home," said Christie, who said urban schools would innovate like charters have if their funding were reduced. "And no one should have to sell their home because they can no longer afford the property taxes caused by a perverse school funding formula."
Christie first teased the idea of a new state plan to lower property taxes on New Jersey 101.5's Ask The Governor in April — but even a month later, wouldn't say how:
Christie returns to New Jersey 101.5 for the next edition of Ask The Governor Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
About 75 percent of New Jersey school districts would see more aid under such an approach because disproportionate funding goes to high-poverty districts formerly known as Abbott districts, so named because of the long-running litigation that prompted the state Supreme Court to order extra funding.
Christie's plan depends on a constitutional amendment to render that Supreme Court ruling moot. He would like the Legislature to put the question on the 2017 ballot.
"I think, since the Legislature has shown such a free and easy desire to amend the constitution that we should amend it to take this out of the court's hands," Christie said.
Democratic legislative leaders were quick to condemn Christie's proposal as unfair and unjust because it doesn't account for economic differences between municipalities.
"Gov. Christie’s idea is unconstitutional and harmful to our most vulnerable children," said Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson. "... If Gov. Christie truly wants to undo the damage caused by his policies, he must acknowledge his responsibility by working with legislators to finally fully fund the existing – and constitutional - school funding formula.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, in a joint statement issued with Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said "this plan is unfair, it is unjust."
"Children do not choose their ZIP codes, and this proposal decimates educational opportunity, resulting in more poverty and increased income inequality. It is a divisive plan that’s not fit for New Jersey," they said.
Many Republicans were quick to support Christie's proposal. Among them were a few attending his announcement: Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean Jr., Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who lives in Hillsborough.
"This conversation is long overdue, and this today jump-starts a very important discussion that we need to have in New Jersey. This is the key to the property tax crisis," said Ciattarelli, a potential 2017 candidate for governor.
In the upcoming school year, $5.1 billion of the $9.1 billion in direct aid the state sends to school districts will be given to the 31 districts who receive additional funding as a result of the Abbott lawsuits. That's 56 percent, to districts that educate 23 percent of students.
Christie said the 31 districts have received $97 billion in state aid over the last 30 years, while all the other districts have received $88 billion.
"Where did the money go? And what did you get in return for it?" Christie said. "But an even more important question than what did you get in return for it: What did those children and their families get in return for it?"
The school funding formula currently in effect, at least nominally, calculates an adequacy budget for every school district, based on the number of students in elementary, middle and high school grades, with additional funds for students from low-income homes or with limited ability to speak English.
The amount is then altered to reflect special education populations, then further adjusted for costs related to geography within the state. Then categories of aid are determined based on the income and property wealth of a municipality.
But the school funding formula adopted in 2008 hasn’t been followed in years, since the state’s tax revenues plunged during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. This year’s formula aid of around $8 billion is 12 percent, or $956 million, short of what would be provided if the formula was followed.
Democratic lawmakers, including Sweeney, have proposed creating a commission that would take a year to study modifications of the existing formula. That panel’s ideas would then get an up-or-down vote in the Legislature, without any amendments or horse-trading.
"I don't oppose Steve's idea, I just think it's too small," Christie said. "I just think we need to think bigger on this, and we need to solve the problem."
On average, 52 percent of property taxes statewide are spent on school taxes.
Special education funding of roughly $770 million would not be affected by formula changes that Christie envisions.