Senate due to vote on study of New Jersey school funding formula
TRENTON – A bill scheduled for a vote Monday in the state Senate would establish a task force to review school funding in New Jersey, including the impact of a contentious 2018 law that is reallocating school aid in a return to the long-ignored state-aid blueprint.
The funding formula was approved in 2008 but only followed for one year before being abandoned when money was tight during the Great Recession. It hasn’t been followed since, though the 2018 law known as S-2 has the state transitioning back to the formula in five years of steps.
Now, a School Funding Formula Evaluation Task Force would reevaluate whether the 2008 law needs to be updated – from special education to geographic adjustments to the extra weight applied for low-income or limited-English students.
“We need to make sure that New Jersey’s schools are the best in the nation, and that our system of school funding is equitable and affordable,” said Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth. “The School Funding Reform Act requires the formula to be evaluated every three years, but only certain provisions are considered. This legislation would require a fundamental reassessment of the funding formula to determine whether it still reflects the true cost of education in New Jersey.”
Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, wants it to go even bigger and look at tax abatements that some municipalities provide to encourage development. He said it can mean $7,000 yearly tax bills on million-dollar Hudson River high rises because they’re shielded from school taxes.
“Certainly, one thing that drives every resident crazy in New Jersey is unfairness and inequity and when people are gaming the system,” Doherty said.
That’s not required to be studied by the current bill, though the task force would have the ability to consider topics in addition to the ones specified.
Barbara DeMarco, a lobbyist for a coalition of for-profit child care facilities called New Jersey Early Childhood Education Advocates, said the task force should examine the impact on private providers of the shift toward universal public preschool.
DeMarco said the change is leaving child care centers only with infants and toddlers, who are more expensive to care for and whose costs are usually balanced out by tuition for older preschoolers.
“If you take the 3- and 4-year-olds out of the child-care center, you’re essentially causing them to close,” said DeMarco, who said almost 20% have already closed in the last few years, in part due to enrollment caps during the pandemic.
“We’re not saying don’t deliver it at the public schools,” she said. “But we’re also saying you need to consider the community-based, licensed, quality child-care centers as well.”
School taxes account for about 53% of the average statewide property tax bill, or $4,908 on the average bill of $9,284. That share can vary, though, exceeding two-thirds of the average bill in 79 municipalities.
The school tax levy statewide in 2021 exceeded $16.6 billion. This fiscal year, the state budget included $9.26 billion in formula aid to schools, part of a total of $18.1 billion in state spending on pre-K to 12 education, including the state's direct payments for teachers' pensions and health benefits.
Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said she supports the task though worries whether its seven members will be balanced by geographic and by urban, suburban and rural interests.
“Are we going to provide all of those areas with equal input?” Turner said. “Because the needs are different throughout this state. We really have two New Jerseys.”
The members would include the education commissioner or her designee, two each appointed by the Senate president and Assembly speaker and one each appointed by the Republican leaders in the Legislature.
They are required to have experience and expertise in education and municipal finance and school budgeting. Julie Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ, said that’s important.
“Please have somebody on this committee who actually has true expertise in education funding,” Borst said. “New Jersey has some really wonderful examples of that.”
Borst recommended Bruce Baker, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University, citing his expertise in special education funding.
Baker is the co-author of a New Jersey Policy Perspective report published this month calling for higher spending – especially in large, high-poverty districts – to account for more rigorous school standards put in place after the current formula was written 14 years ago.
“School funding formulas need to be calibrated with respect to the desired goals,” Baker said. “Put simply, it costs more to achieve more. The school funding formula was calibrated to goals and expectations of well over a decade ago. It's time to revisit the formula and recalibrate it for modern times and modern goals.”
UPDATE: The Senate passed the bill, 34-0, on Feb. 14, after which it was sent to an Assembly committee.
"The funding double standard resulting from the misguided SFRA has been a failure," said Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho, R-Sussex. one of the bill's sponsors. "Too many schools, especially in rural and suburban areas, are losing out on the money they deserve and desperately need."
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.