Everyone wants to do something about school funding … but will they?
Democratic legislative leaders each say they want to tackle school funding in the months ahead – though outside of opposing Gov. Chris Christie’s approach, they appear to be at odds on how to proceed and will do so separately.
The Assembly Education Committee begins hearings Wednesday in Trenton. The Senate voted – unanimously, it should be noted – to create a special committee that will conduct hearings around the state, starting Jan. 27 in Woolwich in Gloucester County.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson said school funding is “at the forefront” of issues for 2017.
“Seventy percent of districts today are getting less money than they were in 2010. So that’s a priority. That is a direct correlation to property taxes,” Prieto said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, has been pushing Prieto to take more immediate action. He said that if the Legislature voted to remove enrollment caps and hold-harmless aid from the school funding formula adopted in 2008, more than 80 percent of districts would benefit – and that all districts would reach 88 percent of full funding, even if no state funds were added to existing overall aid.
“We don’t have to do a whole lot of anything but just undo what the Legislature did in 2008 with the promise that it was going to end in 2010,” Sweeney said.
“We don’t have to do one more hearing. We don’t really have to do much more than pass one bill that undoes what the Legislature did and end the games that are being played with this thing,” he said.
Some districts would lose aid, particularly those with declining enrollments.
But Sweeney said the 2008 funding formula was found constitutional by the courts and that returning to it should be the goal.
“This was a legacy issue for Jon Corzine, and he hit this one dead-on,” Sweeney said.
It’s unlikely Republicans would want to return to the formula, though. They’d prefer a formula that distributes more aid to suburbs, not tied to socioeconomic factors such as poverty.
Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, who is on the Senate special committee, said in a recent interview Republicans’ best chance of success in the 2017 elections is a narrow focus on Christie’s aid plan.
“We need to have an election in New Jersey on the fairness formula because 80 to 90 percent of the districts are being disadvantaged on school funding, and it’s really built on a mound of corruption,” said Doherty. “It goes to the heart of high property taxes.”
Assemblywoman Patricia Egan Jones, D-Camden, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, doesn’t support Christie’s plan but says the funding formula needs to be made more fair.
Jones and Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, in a Jan. 3 letter to legislative leaders, said Jersey City receives $122 million more in state aid for its schools than it would if not for tax breaks given to developers, and she said discussion of the school-aid formula needs to take that into account.
“We certainly need to make sure that the disparity we’re seeing today is eliminated. And we can’t do that unless we sit down and talk about how we’re implementing something that was put together, what, in 2009 and just ignored,” Jones said.
Prieto would seem unlikely to go along with changes that could hurt Jersey City, the state’s second-largest city and the biggest in his home county.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said Democrats would need to redistribute school funding if they want to deal with property taxes but doesn’t think they’re willing to do what’s needed.
“It would be hard for me to believe that the Democrats are going to seriously change or significantly change the way school funding is distributed in this state,” Bramnick said. “I think it’s too much of a hot political potato in their caucus.”
The focus on school aid could get pushed up a few notches next month if Christie moves to implement his funding formula, despite not having support from the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
Sweeney worries that he will. The governor delivers his budget speech Feb. 28, and his Department of Education will inform schools of their expected state-aid figures a day or two later. If Christie were to base those figures on his plan, districts could be in limbo – knowing they couldn’t count on lawmakers to agree to that approach, but also needing the Christie administration to sign off on their budget plans.
“I publicly said what my concerns are, that he’s going to wait until the very last minute and say, ‘Here’s your numbers, schools’ and create a constitutional crisis. I hope I’m a thousand percent wrong on it, and everyone can say I was wrong,” Sweeney said.