By David Sciarra
At the end of June, the New Jersey Legislature passed the FY19 State Budget and several other bills impacting the state’s 1.4 million public school students.
Over the last eight years, lawmakers did little to prevent former Governor Chris Christie from cutting school funding; imposing PARCC exams as the high school exit test in violation of state law; and rapidly expanding charter schools, depleting resources and fueling student segregation in Newark, Camden, Trenton and other districts.
With Governor Phil Murphy’s election, legislative leaders had the opportunity to reverse course by taking bold steps to restore equity, adequacy and opportunity for public school children, especially those at risk and with special needs.
So did legislators heed the call for change?
Here’s a recap of the major actions taken by the Legislature on public education:
- School Funding: The FY19 Budget contains a $340 million increase in K-12 funding, with much of those funds allocated to districts spending below their constitutional level of adequacy under the SFRA funding formula. Yet other districts, including many below or slightly above adequacy, will have their state aid reduced by a total of over $600 million in seven years under changes to the formula pushed by Senate President Stephen Sweeney. While some last minute changes may mitigate the full impact of the cuts, many districts are facing the grim prospect of laying off teachers and support staff and eliminating needed programs as the reductions in state aid accelerate in the coming years.
- Preschool: The FY19 Budget includes $57 million in SFRA preschool education aid, providing the first increase in per pupil funding for existing preschool programs since 2013-14. It includes $32.5 million to address years of flat funding and adds $25 million for expansion of high quality preschool to low-income students across the state, as promised in the SFRA formula.
- School Construction: In passing a bill to authorize $500 million in school construction funds targeted to county vocational school districts, lawmakers did nothing to address the urgent need for school construction funding in all other school districts across the state. Legislators turned a blind-eye to the stark fact that the state school construction program has run out of money for 381 health and safety, capital maintenance and major projects recently identified by the NJ Department of Education for urban districts, as well as for grants for needed facilities improvements in hundreds of “regular operating districts.”
- Camden Charter School Expansion: Lawmakers bypassed the education committees in both chambers to rush through a bill to allow three out-of-state charter chains – KIPP, Uncommon and Mastery – to continue to expand across the city and, in the process, pave the way for these private charter operators to close and replace most or all of Camden’s public schools.
- Private School Vouchers: Legislators decided to table a bill to use public funds to pay the salaries of science and math teachers in private schools. The bill would have added millions more to the over $110 million in public funds already allocated to private schools for textbooks, security, nurses and remedial programs. Lawmakers failed to take action to reduce the millions in taxpayer dollars diverted to private schools and to redirect those dollars to the state’s chronically underfunded public schools.
The Legislature completely avoided other pressing issues, such as the looming high school graduation testing crisis, the need to reform the state’s charter school law, and the consolidation of K-6 and K-8 districts into unified K-12 districts across the state.
The scorecard on the Legislature’s actions on public education is decidedly mixed. But one lesson is clear. Advocates for our public school students and their schools must redouble efforts to hold elected officials to account for advancing, and not threatening, the right of all children to a thorough and efficient education, as guaranteed under our state constitution.
David Sciarra is the Executive Director of Education Law Center and lead counsel for the plaintiff school children in Abbott v. Burke.
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