Acting Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf and area legislators visited two Monmouth county school districts last week: Red Bank and Freehold Borough. According to a press report, educators raised concerns over the State’s failure to fully fund these districts under the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), NJ’s school funding formula.
Local leaders, Senator Jennifer Beck and Assemblywoman Carol Casagrande, outlined to Mr. Cerf the serious difficulties facing their schools: growing student enrollment, especially of poor and limited English students; overcrowded and inadequate facilities; large class sizes; and a need for expanded preschool.
In the past decade, enrollment in both districts has increased by over 20%. Freehold has doubled and Red Bank tripled its Latino population, and both are now majority Latino. Low-income students, those eligible for free and reduced lunch, have increased by about 60% in both districts. Currently, 26% of Red Bank students and 14% of Freehold students have limited English proficiency.
So how did Mr. Cerf, Senator Beck and Assemblywoman Casagrande respond to complaints of inadequate state funding for these districts?
Mr. Cerf blamed the SFRA funding formula, claiming that there are “downright oddities in how we fund schools.” He did not explain what those “oddities” might be.
Assemblywoman Casagrande said a new “grant program” is necessary to provide more funding for Red Bank and Freehold Borough. She offered no details about her proposal.
Neither Mr. Cerf nor the legislators, however, acknowledged the core problem: Governor Christie’s cut in state aid under the SFRA formula in 2010, and his veto of the State Budget passed by the Legislature in late June, which would have restored those cuts in the current school year.
They failed to mention that Red Bank and Freehold Borough are among 221 “under adequacy districts.” These districts, predominately in moderate- and middle-income towns, are funded below the level determined by the State as “adequate” to deliver NJ’s core curriculum to all students.
And they ignored the fact that, as a result of Governor Christie’s budget veto, Freehold Borough is now $4.4 million, or 33%, below the amount of state aid the district should receive under the SFRA formula. Red Bank is currently being shortchanged $1.4 million in state aid, or 41% less than the required SFRA level.
Freehold is still waiting on state funding to expand the district’s preschool program. Under the SFRA, Freehold is identified as a “universal” district, meaning it should provide all three- and four-year-olds with free, full-day preschool. In 2010-11, there were 314 eligible students and space for only 35.
The real school funding problem in Freehold Borough and Red Bank is not some “oddity” in the SFRA. And the districts don’t need yet another “grant” program layered on top of the formula.
Rather, what Freehold Borough and Red Bank students need is simple: full state funding under the SFRA formula. This includes funding for the required phase-in of preschool for all three- and four-year-old children in Freehold Borough.
The SFRA formula was carefully developed to provide fair, predictable and equitable funding for all students, especially low-income, or “at-risk” students, regardless of zip code. In fact, the SFRA, passed with bi-partisan support in 2008, was specifically designed for Red Bank and Freehold Borough, districts that had been underfunded in the past and have growing numbers of at-risk students, English language learners and students with disabilities.
In other words, the formula is carefully constructed to deliver state funds based on student need and district enrollment.
Now all that’s needed is for Mr. Cerf and those legislators representing under adequacy districts, like Red Bank and Freehold Borough, to support the formula and make a commitment to fully funding the SFRA in next year’s State budget. The students in Red Bank, Freehold Borough and other similar districts across the state are still waiting.
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications