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A PRO-PUBLIC EDUCATION AGENDA FOR THE NJ LEGISLATURE IN 2019

By David Sciarra

In the FY19 State Budget, the New Jersey Legislature passed the first significant increase in school aid for many districts since former Governor Christie took office in 2010. The Budget also allocated an additional $25 million towards fulfilling a mandate in the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA) – New Jersey’s landmark school funding formula – to expand high quality preschool statewide.

But lawmakers also cut state funding to 172 districts, the first of a multi-year cut under Senate Bill 2 (S2). The cuts will erode district adequacy budgets, the spending level required for a constitutional “thorough and efficient” education under the SFRA and will force districts to reduce staff and programs over the next six years.

Now that the page has turned on the Christie years, 2019 offers legislators the opportunity to advance bold reforms to strengthen New Jersey’s public education system and provide measurable benefits to the over 1.1 million students across the state.

Here’s a short list of progressive legislative priorities for 2019:

  • Fund the Formula: The SFRA remains deeply underfunded, despite last year’s increase. Another boost in state aid in the FY20 State Budget is needed, targeted to districts spending below adequacy under the formula. The budget should also nullify any further aid cuts under S2 to districts spending at or below adequacy and provide another increase for preschool expansion. To help pay for the increase, lawmakers should begin a multi-year phase-out of the $120 million spent on private schools and redirect those funds to public school districts.
  • Eliminate Special Education Census Funding: The SFRA should be amended to reinstate a weighted categorical funding system for special education based on student need. Seven years after a state-funded independent study called census-funding into question, district special education funding is still linked to the average statewide classification rate and average per pupil costs, not to each district’s actual number of students with identified disabilities.
  • Increase School Construction Financing: The State has exhausted funding for school facilities, leaving students stuck in unsafe, overcrowded and inadequate buildings. After years of inaction, the Schools Development Authority (SDA) is now working on a new statewide strategic capital plan. Once completed, the Legislature must quickly approve an increase in bond financing to continue modernizing our school facilities infrastructure.
  • Revise High School Graduation Testing Policies: In the wake of a recent court ruling declaring the PARCC-based graduation test rules invalid, the Legislature must reconsider the testing requirement for a high school diploma. Pending bills – Assembly Bill 672 and Senate Bill 558 – would allow standardized testing to continue for accountability purposes, including compliance with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), while suspending the test requirement for a diploma as New Jersey transitions to a new assessment system.
  • Fix Lakewood’s School Budget: The flow of funds from the Lakewood public school budget to private schools is no longer sustainable. The district is over $45 million in debt, collapsing under the weight of diverting over $14 million to subsidize the growing cost of private school transportation. A three-year pilot program to reduce private school transportation costs racked up $3 million in debt in the first two years. The pilot expires in June, and a new law is needed to relieve the district from paying for private school transportation. The law should place on the State the full cost of busing over 20,000 children to Lakewood’s private schools.
  • End State District Takeover: After four decades, there is no debate that State takeover of school districts doesn’t work and is no longer needed to ensure accountability. The takeover law should be repealed and local control promptly restored to Camden, the last State-occupied district.
  • Restart District Consolidation: The existing CORE law needs revision to jumpstart consolidation of K-6 and K-8 districts into unified K-12 districts statewide. This reform advances multiple goals: K-12 curricular alignment, a broadening of the local tax base, and the creation of opportunities to reduce the intense racial and socio-economic segregation of students in New Jersey.

In tackling these pressing issues, the Legislature must change the way bills are considered. Too often, proposals impacting public education were approved with little or no opportunity for public input. Bills should not bypass the education committees or be sent directly to budget committees on short notice for what amounts to perfunctory approval. All bills, absent an emergency, should be heard in both education committees with ample notice and meaningful opportunity for public input before they are acted upon.

New Jersey’s public education system is among the highest performing and most equitable in the nation. But like any dynamic system, it requires continuous improvement to ensure success for all students, especially those at-risk from poverty, disability or the need for English language proficiency. The Legislature plays a pivotal role in responding to the constitutional call of maintaining a thorough and efficient system of public schools. In 2019, we look forward to working with our many partners across New Jersey to advance an agenda of progressive, pro- public education reforms.

 

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
skrengel@edlawcenter.org
973-624-1815, x 24