ELC Calls on Attorney General to Clear up Confusion for Legislators
On February 23, Acting Commissioner Christopher Cerf issued a report on New Jersey’s school funding formula, the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). In his “Education Funding Report,” the Acting Commissioner recommends to the Legislature specific changes and adjustments to the per-pupil amounts and other components of the SFRA formula to begin in the coming school year. These recommendations are mandated by the SFRA, and the law gives the Legislature 90 days to object to these recommendations or they automatically take effect for the next three years.
In addition, in ruling on the constitutionality of the SFRA formula in 2009, and again last May in the landmark Abbott case, the NJ Supreme Court expressly ordered the State to review how the formula is working and “to adjust the formula as necessary based on the results of that review,” as required by the SFRA law.
The mandate to review and adjust the formula is clear and straightforward. But it now appears that the Acting Commissioner has quietly informed legislative staff that his “Education Funding Report” is not intended to comply with the legal requirement to recommend adjustments to the formula to begin in 2012-13. This development has put State Legislators in an uncertain position. Do they do nothing, only to risk having the Acting Commissioner’s adjustments automatically take effect for the next three years? Or do they seriously examine the recommendations and, if necessary, consider enacting a concurrent resolution rejecting those that would undermine fair and adequate school funding for New Jersey’s 1.3 million public school students?
This dilemma is not a trivial matter. Among the formula adjustments recommended by the Acting Commissioner is a significant lowering of the extra funding – called “weights” – provided to ensure adequate resources for “at-risk” (low-income) students, students in high poverty districts, and English language learners (ELL). If these changes take effect, they will result in significant reductions in state school aid over the next three years to students with special needs, and they will impact all school districts, but with the most dramatic reductions in New Jersey’s poorest districts.
To clear up the confusion over the Report, and to clarify the Legislature’s responsibilities under law, Education Law Center (ELC) has sent a letter to Attorney General Jeffery S. Chiesa asking for an immediate explanation of the Acting Commissioner’s purpose and intent in issuing recommendations to the Legislature for adjustments to the amounts, weights and costs in the SFRA formula to begin in 2012.
In the letter, ELC Executive Director David Sciarra requests that the Attorney General “promptly” advise ELC and NJ legislators whether the February 23 Report has been issued by the Acting Commissioner “to fulfill the State’s obligation to review and adjust the SFRA formula,” as required by the SFRA law and the Abbott rulings. If the February 23 Report “is not intended to comply with this mandate,” Mr. Sciarra writes, but is only informational, “then please advise when the Acting Commissioner will issue the legally mandated recommendations for adjustments to the SFRA to guide implementation in future years.”
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