Commissioner of Education David Hespe appeared before the Senate Budget & Appropriations Committee April 28, fielding a series of questions on the state aid to districts, PARCC, and the superintendent cap. Hespe indicated that the school funding has grown for the fifth straight year under the Christie Administration.
At a hearing of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee in the statehouse, lawmakers grilled Hespe on the department’s funding, noting that Christie’s $33.8 billion proposed budget, $12.7 of which earmarked for education, again flat funds the state’s school funding formula, adopted in 2008. The administration has only once provided full funding of that formula, said state Senator and committee chairman Paul Sarlo; if it were followed in the coming fiscal year, schools would receive an additional $1 billion in aid from the state.
Hespe chalked the trend up to budgetary problems elsewhere, acknowledging the state has always had difficulties meeting the formula. But he pointed out that school aid has nevertheless continued grown under Christie’s tenure, from 33 percent when he first took office to 38 percent today. He said that is the number lawmakers should focus on.
“That number is growing, and it’s growing sharply,” Hespe said.
The commissioner tried to put the best face on it, saying that the administration has increased its share to districts and is hitting a record high amount in overall state aid to schools – at least when pension contributions and school-building funding are included.
“My favorite number is what is percentage of the budget that goes to support education in New Jersey, and that has increased from 33 percent at the beginning of this administration to 38 percent now,” Hespe said. “That is the number I’d like to focus on.”
That hardly allayed concerns from both sides of the political aisle, as Sarlo and other members of the Committee stressed the impact of the administration’s decisions and questioning how and why their own school districts were being affected.
State Sen. Jennifer Beck zeroed in on the scores of districts falling short of the state’s own calculations under SFRA – aka ‘adequacy’ to meet educational needs. The hardest-hit were those with big enrollment gains, she said, but without seeing the state support needed to sustain them.
“We have gone from 130 districts that are 10 percent below the adequacy standard to 173 districts,” she said. “They cross all of our legislative districts, and it is not tenable. Some of them are barely hanging on.”
Beck said the funding formula has grown virtually defunct, and the Legislature will likely at some point need to craft a new one.
“While we debate and figure out what we will do with the funding formula – clearly it’s not working and we’re not using it,” she said. “While we dicker, some of these districts are teaching kids in the hallways or on stages, 37 kids in the classroom.”
Hespe stood firm and said that if the state ran the funding formula with existing resources, as many as 350 districts could have seen decreases next year. But he agreed that the districts are dealing with financial strains.
“It’s matter of what’s possible and what’s viable in these financial times,” he said. “But clearly it’s unsustainable. Districts can’t stay in this position for a long period of time.”
By the administration’s own calculations, if the state did meet its full-funding obligations as set under SFRA, just two dozen districts would be seeing decreases, and in fact, more than 400 would see double-digit increases in aid.
The biggest winners would be the state’s largest districts, including the state-run districts of Newark and Paterson. Newark alone would see a $131 million increase, while Paterson would get $68 million more in aid.
Lawmakers prodded Hespe on a number of other issues, including the implementation of the PARCC exam. Hespe provided an overview of how $1.75 million for school tech readiness, previously appropriated by the State, has been doled out. According to the Commissioner, approximately $770,000 was still available after the first cycle.
The Commissioner also responded to questions related to losses in instructional time as well as ‘opt-out’ or student test refusal. Explaining that there are ‘growing pains’ with any administration Hespe indicated that the Department would be exploring data related to the test administration and making decisions with stakeholders in light of student and school experiences. The Commissioner showcased that over 98 percent of students had taken the first assessment online – making New Jersey a leader in this area. Hespe also explored the potential impact of not have sufficient percentages (95% under federal law) participate.
Senator Theresa Ruiz additionally raised the letter she and the Senate President Steve Sweeney sent earlier to the Commissioner imploring the State to keep the percentage of teacher and principal evaluation related to the standardized assessment to ten percent – the amount agreed to for the current year. Hespe acknowledged that the first year of any new assessment can be uncomfortable, indicating that we need to go through the process to see what changes will be needed. Nonetheless, he did indicate that the amount could not go to zero in light of the current federal waiver related to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as well as the TEACHNJ Act.
Also raised was the infamous cap on superintendent compensation and its impact of the tenure of individual district leaders. Hespe quickly pointed out that the regulations sunset shortly and that the impetus for the regulations was escalating salaries.