Dysfunctional School Aid

School financing in New Jersey is like a dysfunctional family’s Christmas. Everyone wakes up early, runs downstairs, and anxiously divvies up what’s under the tree. Some favored children get a big pile of shiny new toys; others get socks. No one knows why, and everyone knows next year will be different; it all depends on Daddy’s mood the night before (and how deep he got into the eggnog bowl).

Here in Jersey, “Daddy” is none other then Chris Christie, and the “gifts” he hands out are school aid. Yesterday, superintendents, school boards, educators and parents perused spreadsheets released by the NJDOE, anxiously peering to see what presents Chris Chringle left under their schools’ tree.

Apparently, the governor thinks some districts have been naughty: 97 districts are losing aid. Among them is Newark, which is losing population to charter schools, despite the fact that ACTING Commissioner Cerf still hasn’t released the long promised report (nearly a year) on charter schools effectiveness.

I’ve not had a chance to analyze the entire allocation proposal yet, but one thing is clear: there is something fundamentally wrong with this entire system:

Figures flow from Jennifer Cavallaro’s memory as she recounts her futile crusade for an extra million bucks for her son’s school district in Gloucester County.

Nine: That’s how many Gov. Christie town hall meetings the 35-year-old mother of two attended. She always arrived five hours early to ensure a front-row seat, and the governor called on her to speak eight times.

Fifty: That’s how many supporters joined her at the Hammonton town hall last March, when Christie himself encouraged Cavallaro to push for legislation to supplement funding for the Swedesboro-Woolwich School District, which spends only half as much per pupil as the state average. “I will help you,” the governor told her.

And 4 p.m.: That’s the time she got a call one day last month from an apologetic governor’s aide, saying Christie would veto the bill she had shepherded through the Legislature at his suggestion.

“I was devastated,” Cavallaro said.

On Tuesday – day 612 of this quest for more money for a handful of Gloucester County districts struggling with skyrocketing enrollment – Cavallaro will head to state Assembly chambers to watch Christie deliver a budget address that, she hopes, will offer a solution.

She won’t be the only one hanging on the Republican governor’s words. Interest groups of all sorts – along with taxpayers, mayors, and school superintendents in poor and wealthy towns alike – will wait to hear how the fiscally conservative governor chooses to allocate about $30 billion in state funding.

We now have a school funding system in the state where parents need to organize to lobby the governor – and hope he decides to listen – to get adequate funds for their children’s schools. The New Jersey public education system – in many ways, the crown jewel of this state – is now at the mercy of one man, who coincidentally has made war with the teachers union. Something is very wrong here.

As of today, 465 of the over 600 districts in New Jersey have voted to move school elections to November. Why? Because as long as they stay under the 2% tax levy cap, they can count on being able to pass their budgets without worrying about whether the governor decides to take out his anger at teachers by calling for the defeat of local district budgets – just like he did in 2010.

These districts are willing to live under the cap if they can get some guarantee of stability in their funding. As this BOE President in Lacey says:

“It takes the issue of the school budget off of elections, which is the only budget that voters are allowed to vote on in the realm of federal, state, county, municipal and school budgets,” Martenak said.

A budget referendum will only be necessary if the board’s budget exceeds the 2 percent tax levy cap. The move allows for more planning without the concern of a budget outcome, Martenak said.

This is directly contradictory to the current state aid process, which only serves to further politicize school funding. When the governor – particularly a partisan showboat like Christie – holds the purse strings, you can be sure he’ll manipulate the system to his advantage. Why else would he claim to increase education spending by $850 million when what he was really doing was restoring his previous cuts – and then, only after a court order he fought?

Of course, the administration will deny politics has anything to do with all of this:

Acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said the aid changes reflected a move back toward the state’s 2008 funding formula: Wealthier districts lost all aid, or huge portions of it, in cuts announced two years ago, so they stood to regain a higher percentage.

“It’s not the case that anybody sat around and said, ‘Let’s send more to wealthy Republican districts and less to poor districts or Democratic districts,’Ÿ” he said.

Yeah, right. Because Chris Christie is such an apolitical guy:

The biggest loser was Camden, the state’s poorest city, where aid decreased $5.5 million, to $276 million – a decrease of $394 per student. An Education Department spokesman said Camden lost that aid mostly because it got much more than the funding law calculated was necessary to provide an adequate education for students with its characteristics.

Some districts lost aid due to enrollment declines.

Representatives of suburban schools expressed delight, however.

“It really does look like the governor has recognized the suburbs have been left out of the loop for quite a while in state aid, and they need it,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “It’s been a long time coming, but we’re glad it’s showing up now.”

Make no mistake: this has everything to do with politics. It has everything to do with playing to your base. Why else would Regis Academy – the only charter school approved last year that was not in an Abbott district – get the nod from the state, despite overwhelming community disapproval? Could it be that Cherry Hill is a “Democratic stronghold“?

This is not a problem specific to a particular governor; it is a systemic problem. New Jersey’s schools need a stable and adequate source of funding, free of the vagaries of politics. Our current system is simply inadequate to the task.

Comment (1)

  1. Stacygk

    “Why else would he claim to increase education spending by $850 million when what he was really doing was restoring his previous cuts – and then, only after a court order he fought?

    . . . Yet he is being touted as creating the largest increase in school aid in our state’s history. The newspapers seem to forget this; those of us whose schools lost nearly all of our state aid — hopefully — remember.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *