There will be more state aid for K-12 schools for 2013-14, but it will be a couple more days before local school districts find out if they will get any of it.
A new provision in Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget could also mean a little extra money for South Jersey districts.
And aid for the state colleges will also increase, but the extra funds are only expected to cover fringe benefits and not operational costs.
Christie’s budget, as proposed Tuesday, includes a $97.3 million increase in direct aid to the K-12 school districts. He said no district would lose any formula aid for the next school year. But just how the funds are distributed won’t be known until the Department of Education releases district aid numbers, expected on Thursday.
Total direct aid to K-12 schools will be just under $9 billion of the almost $33 billion budget. State-paid pensions and benefits adds another $2.9 billion, a $479.6 million increase for next year, and debt service on school construction projects is almost $523 million, a $93.7 million increase.
Of special interest in South Jersey is a revision to the geographic cost adjustment that reduces aid to South Jersey districts under the assumption that education costs less in the southern part of the state. The budget message said a new geographic cost adjustment will “smooth artificial differences between counties.”
State Sen. Jeff Van Drew D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, has been fighting to get the adjustment removed. He said Tuesday that the language in the budget looks promising, but he has not yet seen any specific numbers and will be investigating.
“I hope it means what we think it does,” he said. “It could mean more aid for our districts.”
An additional $16 million for the school choice program will benefit the dozen local districts in the program, including Ocean City, Mainland Regional, Hammonton and Lower Township plus a number of smaller rural districts. Statewide, 107 school choice districts will share $49.1 million.
A new category of aid will provide $17 million to 131 districts spending at least 10 percent below what the state considers adequate.
Some education advocates were pleased, others said the budget would not do much for schools.
“Considering all that is going on, this is a very positive budget,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association. He said with the uncertainty of federal funding in Washington, and the property tax cap, districts really need the state support.
David Sciarra, of the Education Law Center, said the proposal does almost nothing to meet the needs of students in hundreds of underfunded schools throughout the state. He said many districts are still reeling from the governor’s school aid cut in 2010-11.
New Jersey Education Association President Barbara Keshishian said Christie’s budget “rehashes, reheats and repackages the same failed policies and priorities that have stunted economic growth in the Garden State.”
Sciarra was particularly incensed over $2 million Christie included for a pilot voucher program to allow students in failing schools to attend private or other public schools. A bill in the Legislature that would allow business tax credits for a similar Opportunity Scholarship Program has been revised several times but remains stalled. Sciarra called the pilot program an illegal run around the Legislature that should be eliminated.
Christie also proposed a $5 million Education Innovation Fund to try new teaching models, including technology and online education.
Aid for state colleges would increase about 1.6 percent, to more than $1.4 billion, but most of the funds are expected to be allocated to employee fringe benefits, leaving the colleges in effect with flat funding for their operations. Local college officials said with other states seeing reductions in higher education funding, they are satisfied.
“Considering what is happening nationally, especially in states with Republican governors, this is a positive trend,” Richard Stockton College President Herman J. Saatkamp said.
Officials at Stockton and Rowan said the impact on tuition won’t be known until the budgets are finalized, but the state colleges have been trying to keep increases in line with the cost of living.
The proposed budget does increase Tuition Aid Grants for low-income college students by 5 percent to more than $341 million. Funds for the NJSTARS scholarship program will drop more than $3 million to $10.6 million, but the budget notes that amount is expected to cover anticipated costs.
Atlantic Cape Community College President Peter Mora said they developed the projected FY14 budget with flat funding in mind, and are pleased to see increase in the financial aid funds for students.
The budget also includes $1 million for independent private colleges, which had lost all of their state aid this year.
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