Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Showdown Looming over School Funding Formula

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Showdown Looming over School Funding Formula

Article excerpt

Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto lobbed news releases back and forth this week urging each other to get serious about reforming the state's school funding formula.

In the meantime, they announced separate, uncoordinated Senate and Assembly hearings to collect testimony that would form the basis for legislation to fix the current system, which is widely acknowledged to give unequal treatment to students and taxpayers in different parts of the state. Assembly hearings begin Wednesday; Senate hearings begin Jan. 27. The cost of public education accounts for the largest portion of property tax bills and roughly a third of the state budget.

As the Democrats bicker, time is running out before Gov. Chris Christie holds his annual budget address on Feb. 28. Barring a compromise solution, the governor could try to implement a plan he has been touting around the state to give districts a flat sum of $6,599 per student, no matter where the student lives or the area's income level.

Christie's plan is anathema to Democrats and would likely face a legal challenge if implemented. But the ensuing confrontation between Christie and the Legislature could be messy and could throw local school districts into turmoil as they try to write their annual budgets without certainty over how much funding they would get from the state.

The battle over school funding in New Jersey goes back decades. In 1981, the Newark-based Education Law Center sued the state on behalf of urban children, challenging how public schools were funded.

The Supreme Court ruled in Abbott v. Burke that the state must give high-poverty districts enough aid so they can spend the same per student on basic education as the richest districts, plus additional aid to pay for special needs of poor students. The "Abbott" districts got more funding starting around 1998. But another legal challenge led the state to adopt the School Funding Reform Act of 2008, which uses a weighted formula to steer more money to school districts based on their number of high-need students and not on whether they are Abbott districts alone.

The change was supposed to help non-Abbott districts with large or growing numbers of poor students, but Christie has not fully funded the schools under the formula in the face of other budget concerns. …

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