A report submitted this month by the state Department of Education to the Legislature is likely to set the stage for another school-funding debate next year. For many local districts, the outlook is not good.
The Educational Adequacy Report repeats many of the proposals suggested last year by Education Commissioner Chris Cerf. If accepted by the Legislature, they would reduce extra funding districts receive for low-income, bilingual and special-education students.
Advocates for those students already are gearing up to lobby the Legislature in January to reject the report. Lawmakers have 90 days to make a decision, or the proposals take effect.
The report also again recommends eliminating so-called adjustment aid over five years, which would reduce aid to many districts in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties. According to state data, adjustment aid for 2012-13 totaled $36 million in Vineland, almost $15 million in Pleasantville, nearly $14 million in Millville, $8 million in Atlantic City and $6.5 million in Lower Cape May Regional.
Because adjustment aid is based partially on enrollment, almost every district in Cape May County, which has lost students, could lose adjustment aid.
Cerf’s report focuses on funding, saying the state’s efforts at education-finance reform have not generated academic results, and that the academic achievement gap between low-income students and those who are not economically disadvantaged is still wide.
“New Jersey cannot spend its way to educational success,” Cerf states as the thesis of the report. He adds that the state has spent billions of dollars in the former (urban) Abbott districts only to see large portions of those districts’ students continue to fail. Cerf states that how well money is spent matters as much as, if not more, than how much is spent.
The report has been criticized by Rutgers Graduate School of Education professor Bruce Baker, author of the schoolfinance101 blog, who notes that New Jersey’s achievement gap is in line with its income gap. In a lengthy blog post, complete with charts, he shows that New Jersey has the second-widest income gap in the nation, after Connecticut, and says it is reflected in student performance. He adds that while money is not everything, nothing can be achieved without it.
David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which has represented children in the state’s poorest districts, said the organization’s first goal will be to convince the Legislature to reject the report.
The Legislature did reject the proposals last year, but the state aid proposed by the governor included the changes, and the final state budget did reflect a loss of aid to some districts.
Sciarra also disputed Cerf’s efforts to make the debate about money, saying the Abbott v. Burke Supreme Court decisions did not just allocate more money to urban districts, but required that they use it to develop specific programs, such as preschool. He said some achievement gaps have narrowed, and New Jersey schools overall do well.
“To say simply that all we’ve done is spend money is absurd,” Sciarra said. “And the court was very clear that the state had the responsibility to make sure districts are using the money effectively.”
Lynne Strickland, of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, which is made up largely of suburban districts, said they are concerned about the proposal that would raise the cost threshold at which districts could request extra funds for special-education placements. The current threshold is $40,000 for public placements and $55,000 for private placements. The proposal would raise each threshold by $5,000.
Strickland said that could make a big difference for districts that are on the border, and would lose all extra funding. She noted that private schools for the disabled do not have to cap their budgets as do public schools, creating tension when districts are creating their budgets.
She said her biggest concern is the status of state of revenue, which will determine how much money overall there is for education aid.
“Between the economy and Hurricane Sandy, funds are tightening up,” she said. “That will set the stage for the state budget and state education funding.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, agreed. He sits on the Senate Budget Committee and said Sandy is going to affect next year’s spending plan. But he said he would fight to help his districts with education funding.
“I have the same concerns as last year,” he said. “But there will be a revenue squeeze this year. We’ll have to try to find some middle ground.”
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