The February 23 release of proposed school aid for 2012-13, backed by Acting Commissioner of Education Chris Cerf’s “Education Funding Report,” has now made it clear: Governor Chris Christie is attempting to do an end run around the Legislature in order to impose reductions in school funding for the third year in a row.
As outlined in the Cerf Report, the Governor’s proposed FY13 Budget, if adopted by the Legislature, would implement major changes in NJ’s school funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) – that will trigger substantial cuts in funding for districts across the state in 2012-13. The Governor has made clear that he intends to impose these changes to the SFRA formula not just next year, but for the following four years. Put simply, the Governor intends to use the annual budget bill to make these changes permanent, bypassing the legislative process of amending the SFRA formula law.
What is also clear is that the changes proposed by the Governor would radically alter the SFRA formula from what the Legislature adopted in 2008 with bipartisan support. These changes include substantial reductions in funding for low income (at-risk) students, high poverty districts and charter schools, and English language learners (ELL). In addition, the Governor is proposing to change the method of counting students for school aid from the current enrollment method to “average daily attendance,” a widely discredited methodology that would cut funding to the state’s high need districts and charter schools.
For a detailed explanation of the Governor’s proposed SFRA formula changes, see this PowerPoint presentation prepared by ELC Research Director Danielle Farrie.
An End Run Around the Legislative Process
The Governor’s attempt to use the budget bill to impose these changes also does an end run around the mandate in the SFRA law for revising the formula every three years. Under the SFRA statute, the Commissioner of Education must evaluate how the formula has worked over the last three years and recommend to the Legislature any adjustments to the costs of educating NJ schoolchildren, including the extra costs for at-risk students, ELL students and students with disabilities. The Legislature, in turn, has three months to accept or reject the Commissioner’s recommendations, and if the Legislature does not agree with any or all of the recommendations, lawmakers can provide their own adjustments to the formula. The final adjustments then must be used to set school aid levels for districts over the next three years.
In testimony before the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees during public hearings on the FY13 budget, Education Law Center noted that the proposed budget “is nothing more than a bald usurpation of the Legislature’s authority as a co-equal branch with the Executive and must not be allowed to stand.”
Students with Disabilities
The Cerf Report also fails to address glaring problems with the funding mechanism in the SFRA formula for students with disabilities. In testimony to the Assembly Budget Committee, the New Jersey Coalition for Special Education Funding Reform, of which the Education Law Center is a member, noted that the Acting Commissioner failed to implement the funding mechanism recommendations called for by the school finance experts at Augenblick Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based firm hired by the NJ Department of Education to review New Jersey’s census-based methodology for special education funding.
The Coalition underscored that Augenblick Palaich called for a “sweeping overhaul of the way in which the State distributes aid” and a “[r]eturn to a system that funds special education based on actual enrollment, not a statewide census.” But, in his report, Acting Commissioner Cerf failed to even mention, let alone address, this critical issue affecting students with disabilities across the state.
Advocates are now urging Legislators to reject the Governor’s blatant attempt to circumvent the legislative process by developing their own education aid budget using the research-based costs and other parameters in the current SFRA formula. It is now up to the Legislature to stand up for NJ schoolchildren and ensure adequate funding through the SFRA formula – a formula carefully developed over six years and one that serves as a national model of education equity.
Policy and Outreach Coordinator
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications