Assembly Proffers Own School Funding Proposal

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Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and Assembly Education Chair Marlene Caride announced their own reform plan for education funding earlier this week, jumping into a debate that began over the summer when the upper house, led by Senate President Stephen Sweeney, and Gov. Chris Christie first proposed competing plans to revise the school-funding formula.

The Bill

Legislation will be introduced Thursday to establish a Joint Legislative Committee on Public School Funding Reform.  The committee would be made up of three senators appointed by Sweeney and three Assembly members appointed by Prieto. No more than two of the Senate or the Assembly appointees would be from the same political party.

The group would review the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 and address issues such as changes in community demographics and wealth since the current school-funding formula was passed. It would also recommend to the Legislature a way to phase in full funding or suggest revisions to the formula.   In contrast to the Senate President’s proposal, this plan would allow state lawmakers to make tweaks to the group’s recommendations before voting.

The commission is modeled on the 2006 committee that devised the current school funding formula.  That formula was the first school funding plan that was deemed constitutional by the New Jersey Supreme Court in nearly 30 years.

Currently, New Jersey’s $9.1 billion in direct school aid is allocated primarily through a formula that gives districts extra money for students from low-income families, students learning to speak English and special education students.   The existing formula also considers each community’s ability to raise revenue for its schools through property taxes and expects wealthier communities to a pay a higher percentage of school costs with their own tax dollars.    However, the state has consistently underfunded its formula by about $1 billion, saying it doesn’t have the revenue to pay schools what they are owed.

The Plans

The Governor’s plan would end the additional funding for students who typically need extra services, with the exception of special education costs, and give each district the same funding per student, $6,599, regardless of the community’s ability to raise revenue thorough property taxes

While both Democratic plans call for a bipartisan body to study and recommend updates to the school-funding formula, Sweeney’s proposal would require an up-or-down vote of legislators without any chance the recommendations could be amended beforehand. That, Sweeney has said, would help avoid back-door deals.  The Senate’s plan would also add $500 million in new funding over five years to the modified version of the existing funding formula.  The Assembly plan would use a similar approach but with the important distinction that lawmakers can make amendments before voting.