NJ School Funding Formula Collides with Reality

Both NJ Spotlight and the Star Ledger cover the discrepancies between  Gov. Christie's actual school district state aid, per his budget,  and state aid calculated by the formula within a piece of legislation called the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008. The numbers were released after a complaint filed by Education Law Center.

A little history: the SFRA was an attempt by the Corzine Administration to move past the State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which allotted compensatory aid to 31 poor districts that lacked the tax base to provide equitable school funding. When the Legislature came up with SFRA,   Education Law Center tried to block it. The court's Special Master ruled for the State on the condition that the formula be strictly observed.

SFRA differs from Abbott funding in that state school aid is based not on a town’s degree of poverty but on individual student need.  After all,  sometimes  poor children live in wealthier districts and sometimes poor districts become wealthier. (Think Hoboken, for example, which is still labeled as an Abbott district.)

But the primary driver for SFRA was liability. At the time, a separate law suit was working its way through the courts called the Bacon cases, which argued that some South Jersey suburban towns were equally poor as Abbotts but were receiving less aid. So  SFRA intended to render Abbott and Bacon litigation moot by providing school aid not by zip code but by child.

One flaw in SFRA: there’s no adjustments allowed for economic malaise or fiscal solvency. One could argue that there should be no latitude; after all, this is public education and, as such, should be immune from outside forces.

Then there’s reality. No governor has been able to fully fund SFRA since its first year of existence.  The discrepancy between Christie’s 2015 budget and the formula approved by the courts is close to $1 billion dollars. Spotlight has a handy widget that lets you see how much your district was short-changed.

From Spotlight:
"The aid notices issued today confirm what every public school parent and educator knows: Gov. Christie has decided not to follow the law and provide our public schools with the essential resources students need to be successful," said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director.
"Our legal action has forced the Governor to disclose the full extent of his failure to properly fund schools across the state," Mr. Sciarra said. "The Legislature now has the formula calculations required to evaluate the Governor's inadequate proposal and to formulate a final budget that better responds to the needs of our students and schools."

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