The Christie administration’s proposed changes to the school-funding formula have been removed from the Senate version of the budget bill, setting the stage for a funding formula debate in the fall.
But the actual state aid to schools won’t change, meaning the first round of proposed cuts will still take place, costing affected districts about $300 million, according to a state Office of Legislative Services review of Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget. Local districts that lost aid include Atlantic City, Lower Cape May Regional, Upper Township, Vineland and Millville.
Opponents of the changes said while it is disappointing that the aid itself will not be restored, the proposed policy changes were a far more important and far-reaching issue.
“This is probably the best we can expect given the forecast for state revenue,” said Julia Sass Rubin, a spokeswoman for Save Our Schools, which has been lobbying heavily against the proposed formula changes. “The proposed changes would have been phased in over five years and the impact would have been devastating.”
The proposed changes reduced the amount of extra aid schools received for at-risk students and those who do not speak English. It also based aid on average daily attendance in schools, with districts losing aid if their attendance rate dropped below 96 percent. Critics said while a majority of districts would have been hurt by the changes, the hardest hit were low-income, shrinking and rural schools.
Representatives of educational advocacy groups said any changes to the formula should be done through the Legislative process, and not in the budget.
“This is saying to the governor that we (the Legislature) will be involved in any changes,” said Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, whose school districts were especially hard hit by the changes, said he would have liked to restore funding for his districts, but will continue to work to address funding inequities. He said he has already talked to other legislators about removing the geographic adjustment in the school funding law that provides less aid to districts in South Jersey under the assumption that education there costs less.
David Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, which represents children in urban schools, said they have been pushing hard to make sure the final budget did not include the proposed changes, but it took time for Legislators to understand exactly how the changes would affect their school districts. He said they would have at least liked to see the 90 districts that lost aid get their funds restored.
“But it is key that the formula remains intact,” he said. “The governor is not getting the changes he proposed.”
A national report issued by the Law Center on Thursday found that New Jersey is among the best states in the nation for school funding equity. Sciarra said the current formula supports that equity, but must be maintained. He said it will be crucial for advocates to monitor the issue for next year so the same cuts don’t happen again next year.
The state Department of Education is expected to file a report on the school funding formula in September, which would likely include the administration’s proposed changes. The Legislature could then hold hearings and vote on the proposals, or offer their own proposals.
“This forces the governor to follow the law and the process,” Sciarra said.
Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said school tax rates for 2012-13 had to be set by May 19, so to revert back to the existing funding formula and recalculate every district’s aid would be chaotic.
“Once the tax rate is struck, it is difficult to make more changes to the budgets,” he said.
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