Why booting Christie from school-funding plan doesn’t excite NJ teacher’s union
The New Jersey Education Association's arch nemesis, Gov. Chris Christie, has been removed from a plan that could change how education is funded in New Jersey.
But that doesn't make the teacher's union any more enthusiastic about it.
The plan, being advanced by Democratic lawmakers, would arrange a vote in a year on changes to school funding recommended by a study commission. Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, the proposal’s chief sponsor, revamped the bill to remove the panel’s two appointees that would have been appointed by Christie, who has been touting more sweeping education funding changes than the study commission would contemplate.
Christie wants every district to get an equal $6,599 per pupil, with extra for special-education students. Sweeney wants to make modifications to a formula adopted in 2008 but keep its general philosophy in place — which means providing additional aid to districts that enroll more low-income students.
The proposal calls for a study commission to recommend changes by June 2017, which would then get an up-or-down in the Legislature, which wouldn’t be able to make changes.
“Gov. (Jon) Corzine’s school funding formula worked. The Legislature, through the legislative process that exists today, is what prevented its implementation. And isn’t that a shame that we didn’t do that the first time, because we wouldn’t be talking,” Sweeney said.
“The NJEA has said for a long time: ‘Run the formula.’ Well, the legislative process is what broke the funding formula. We know that. I don’t think anyone here can argue that,” he said.
The proposed commission would have six members – two appointed by Sweeney, two appointed by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and once apiece appointed by the Republican minority leaders in the Senate and Assembly. The appointees would include one from a teachers’ union and one from an education professional association.
The panel would hold public hearings in north, central and south Jersey both before and after it issues its report, which would be due by June 30, 2017. It would study the ‘hold harmless’ adjustment aid and enrollment caps in the current school-aid formula, as well as limits on tax levy growth, per pupil administrative costs and the income and home-value measures used to determine school funding.
At a Senate Education Committee hearing where the revised plan was advanced Monday, NJEA government relations staffer Osomo Thomas said that the union remains opposed despite revisions to the plan. He said the current formula is constitutional — but just not followed.
“If this law had been followed, we would not be talking about adjustment aid today, which is only a symptom of the disease we should be focusing on, the failure to run and fully fund the formula for over six years,” Thomas said.
“We should leave the formula alone, run it and fully fund it. And if there isn’t enough money to fully fund the money, prorate the aid,” he said.
Thomas said Christie could withhold the additional aid, estimated at $500 million over five years, which would be needed to implement the changes Sweeney would like to see. He said charter school funding must be on the table. And he said any changes should be considered by legislative committees, not sent straight to the Senate and Assembly for votes without the prospect for changes to be made.
“We acknowledge there needs to be a process to transition back to the formula, but a commission whose recommendations would bypass the legislative process is not the right path,” Thomas said.
Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, said the current formula hasn’t been followed since the year it was established. Fully funding it this year would have cost an additional $864 million.
“If it is something that deigns to be impossible, let’s look to another solution that creates some kind of equity. So we may not get to the finish line in the same direction, but I think this gets us to the finish line much quicker than just stalling and waiting to run a funding formula that since I’ve been here in nine years hasn’t been funded,” Ruiz said.
Sweeney said there’s a school system in his legislative district, Washington Township, that currently enrolls 2,300 students but receives aid as if it still had 3,500. Meanwhile another, Kingway Regional, receives less than half the aid the formula says it should get.
“They can’t wait any longer. They’re going to 33 or 35 children a classroom. And when you talk to people about, ‘Well, let’s wait for a new governor. Let’s do a new formula with a new governor.’ They can’t wait anymore,” Sweeney said.
“You can’t guarantee Gov. Christie does anything. But Gov. Christie’s got one more budget – one. And the big thing for us is if we get this done, it’s not going to be in place until the ’18 school budget. Well, we’ll have a new governor at that point,” Sweeney said.
The bill was advanced 3-0 by the Senate Education Committee. Neither of the panel’s two Republicans were present for the vote.
The bill is scheduled for a vote Thursday in the full Senate.
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