By David Sciarra
After nearly a decade of flat state school aid under former Governor Christie, the State took a small first step towards adequate funding for all New Jersey public school children in the FY18 Budget. That progress needs to continue.
Last July, the Legislature and Governor approved an increase of $131 million through New Jersey’s school funding formula. The increase was mostly directed towards 154 districts spending below the level of funding deemed adequate under the formula, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA).
However, $31 million of that increase came from cutting aid to 119 districts receiving SFRA transition aid, known as adjustment aid, causing 14 of those districts to fall further below funding adequacy. Twenty-seven districts that were cut appealed to the Commissioner of Education, who subsequently restored aid in 23 districts and provided loans to three districts.
The FY18 aid increase moved many districts a bit closer to the primary objective of the SFRA formula: adequate funding for all students to provide them with the opportunity to meet state academic standards and obtain a “thorough and efficient” (T&E) education. But the cuts in aid caused other districts to move further away from that core objective.
Despite claims by some, the SFRA is not broken, and it remains intact in law. It is a national model for funding schools based on student need.
In debating state school aid in the upcoming budget, Governor Murphy and lawmakers must recognize that “adequate” funding lies at the heart of the SFRA. The centerpiece of the formula is each district’s “Adequacy Budget,” based on the cost of educating all students and the additional cost of programs for disadvantaged students – low-income (at-risk) students, limited English proficient pupils, and students with disabilities.
In 2009, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the SFRA as constitutional for all students statewide. The Court ruled that, when properly implemented and fully funded to each district’s Adequacy Budget, the formula delivers the essential resources – teachers, support staff, programs and services – necessary for all districts to provide their students a T&E education.
Governor Murphy has pledged to fully fund the SFRA. As we approach the Governor’s first budget, there are an estimated 184 districts with budgets below the T&E level, or below adequacy.
To begin to deliver on the promise of fully funding the SFRA, students in below adequacy districts must be the prime focus. They need a budget that adds resources by increasing aid, moving their districts and schools towards adequate funding. That means strategically targeting aid increases where they are most needed to provide relief to the many districts across the state whose concerns – including unfunded enrollment increases, changing student demographics and/or additional state mandates – have been ignored for the past eight years.
The false choice between providing increases for some students at the expense of other students’ constitutional entitlement to adequate funding helps no one.
David Sciarra is ELC Executive Director and lead counsel in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case.
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