Christie’s final budget: ‘Fairness formula’ dead, but push for school aid change lives
Gov. Chris Christie appears to have given up on his "fairness formula," though not the broader goal of revamping how New Jersey distributes school aid.
Christie has called since last June to equalize per-pupil school aid across all districts, rather than give additional aid to districts with higher levels of poverty and homes where English isn’t the main language. Democratic legislative leaders declared it dead on arrival but are exploring other changes.
In his budget speech Tuesday, Christie reiterated his belief that the current aid formula, the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, is unfair, unaffordable and unworkable – a “disaster that fittingly caps decades of misguided educational funding experimentation by lawmakers and courts.”
He pledged he wants to work with the leaders of the Senate and Assembly to adopt a new funding formula by early June – not necessarily tied to his proposal, which he still favors.
“Everything is on the table. No idea should be out of bounds for discussion from any of the five of us,” Christie said. “I’m willing to work with you to solve this problem without any preconditions on the ideas that are brought to the table.”
“No phony task forces. No stupid blue-ribbon commissions. No delays until next year. We get in the room, starting next week, and you get this done with me,” Christie said.
Democrats who control the Legislature said they want to work with Christie and are glad he’s moving past his equal-aid proposal. But they say the SFRA law Christie savaged is a good formula that needs to be tweaked – then, most importantly, actually followed. It hasn’t been since its first year.
“We’re not doing a new formula,” said Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester. “At least to my mind, the formula is something that we would base fixes off. But there’s nothing wrong with the formula.”
The Senate and Assembly have held a series of hearings over the past two months to explore the concerns with the current formula, such as problems with special-education funding.
“The one thing we do know is we have a formula that works if we fund it,” Sweeney said. “Everyone that’s involved in education agrees the formula – except the governor – that the formula is good.”
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, disagreed that the current formula is broken and said it should be “the basis and the skeleton” for funding going forward.
“I’ve never said that the funding formula we have, SFRA, is unfair or is broken. It’s been underfunded,” Prieto said. “Does it have things that it needs to be tweaked? Absolutely. But it’s something that was deemed constitutional. I think along those bases we can work.”
Prieto says 76 percent of school districts are getting less school aid than they were in fiscal 2010, the final budget adopted under Gov. Jon Corzine. That included just over $1 billion in federal stimulus funds, at the height of the last recession.
No school districts are slated to receive less aid for the 2017-18 school year, state Treasurer Ford Scudder said. Aid notices will be sent to districts by Thursday, though it appears most will get the same amount as this year, as total direct aid statewide is up 0.2 percent, mostly to help with debt service.
Direct aid totals $9.2 billion. Add in state spending on teachers’ pensions and Social Security contributions, health benefits for retired teachers and debt payments on pension bonds and school construction and total K-12 education spending tops $13.8 billion – almost 40 percent of the $35.5 billion state budget plan.
Christie said his one requirement for the school-aid compromise is that it be completed in 100 days, which would be around two days after the June 6 primary in which candidates for the gubernatorial election in November will be selected.
The governor sought to fend off the waning influence associated with the waning months of his tenure by warning vaguely that he’ll make education changes without the Legislature if they can’t reach a deal.
“I want to act with you. But if forced, I will act alone,” Christie said. “But it will be fixed – it will be fixed – before I leave this town.”
Lawmakers didn’t know what he had in mind with what Sweeney dubbed “a veiled threat.” Prieto did not read much into it.
“Listen, I don’t work very well with threats. So I didn’t take it as a threat,” Prieto said. “He challenged us, is the way I would look at it.”
- Counts on $125 million in additional changes to public workers’ health benefits.
- Proposes spending an additional $400 million in the next 100 days on bridge, road and NJ Transit projects, funded through the gas-tax hike that took effect four months ago.
- Wants to create a new fund into which Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the health insurance company that covers more than half of New Jerseyans, would pay $300 million a year from its surplus. In the coming year, that money would go toward expanding drug treatment.
- Plans to close the satellite wing of the Bayside State Prison located at Ancora Psychiatric Hospital, due to a 22 percent drop in the state’s prison population since 2010.
- Proposes transferring the New Jersey Lottery to the pension plans for 30 years. By boosting the pension funds’ assets, state payments into the funds would be reduced and, presumably, that money would be redirected to the programs now funded through lottery profits.