Commissioner Hespe Appears Before Assembly Budget Committee

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State education Commissioner David Hespe appeared before the Assembly Budget Committee April 20.  Among the topics covered at the several hour hearing was a need to examine the State’s funding formula, the School Funding Formula of 2007 or ‘SFRA’, the PARCC ‘glitch’ that schools experienced first hand within hours of the hearing, current graduation requirements, lead abatement and addressing harassment, intimidation and bullying in schools.

Graduation Requirements

The perennial budgetary requirement to discuss the proposed budget dollars for education – this year projected at 13  billion – was far from dull, in part because of a glitch in the administration of the PARCC assessment that morning which led to the suspension of the assessment for a day.

The first questions posed to Hespe centered on the server problem uncovered earlier in the day by Pearson Education, the private vendor administering the PARCC tests, that led to scores of schools being unable to give the test the day of the hearing.

Hespe took a proactive stance, indicating he had spoken with Pearson’s vice president at 8:30 a.m. that morning, placing blame squarely with the company, and calling the problem “unacceptable.”   He was repeatedly questioned about financial sanctions of the company to which we would not take a pro or con position.

“It is unfortunate, but in a long five-week window of testing, we need to be prepared for something like this taking place, and we have plans in place,” he said.

The subject then turned to the proposed graduation requirements and whether the State is prepared to support the number of portfolio appeals that may be required this year, with Hespe giving assurances that the State could support the some 10,000 appeals that may be expected.

School Funding

Much of the hearing, however, focused on the school funding formula SFRA.  His testimony repeatedly called the formula “over-generous,” with the Commissioner indicating that the current formulas  “can’t continue.”

For New Jersey to fully fund districts based on the formula, Hespe indicated the State would need another $2.1 billion.  But, the commissioner noted that 365 districts — more than half in the state — are considered “over-adequacy” districts, meaning they spend more per pupil than the state considers necessary for a “thorough and efficient” education.  And, he added that a proposal for amending the law would not fully close that $2.1 gap.  That proposal includes a bi-partisan bill, authored by state Senate President Stephen Sweeney and state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) that would redistribute more than $500 million in so-called “adjustment aid” that has been provided as a buffer to cuts in state aid.  The topic brought out dozens of t-shirt wearing parents and others from underfunded districts pressing for relief.

The Administration had proposed redistributing state aid three years ago, but that recommendation did not lead to any changes, said Hespe, noting that amendments to the funding formula require legislative action.  Part of the remedy, he said, would be to re-examine the Abbott districts — which Hespe argued continue to receive 55 percent to 60 percent of all state aid regardless of whether they’ve become wealthier.

“One thing to right-size this formula is to recognize that we’re holding some Abbott districts to higher state aid than they need,” Hespe said.

The commissioner also said the state should continue to review the use of weights that give more funding to at-risk students.  Though the topics were similar to those covered during last week’s Senate hearing, the tone of Wednesday’s discussion was decidedly more testy.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly and Hespe engaged in an exchange for several minutes, with the elected official from Paterson — where the local school district has been under state control for more than two decades — insisting residents there has paid their fair share of taxes and “shouldn’t give another dime.”

That prompted Hespe to ask rhetorically how one should define “fairness,” saying some suburban districts receive 20 percent of their budget covered by state aid while other districts have about 90 percent of their spending plans funded through state dollars.

Committee chair Gary Schaer, who had expressed frustration during the hearing that the education department did not appear to have a plan for remedying the shortcomings of the funding formula, issued a statement after the hearing.

“The administration acknowledges the formula is outdated, but once again, puts the responsibility at the feet of the legislature without offering a plan to stop the disparity,” Schaer said. “I am certain my colleagues are more than willing to assist, but the governor must do his job and lead.”

Charter Funding

As the discussion moved on to other areas of the budget, Assemblyman Troy Singleton suggested the state send money directly to charter schools, rather than giving it to districts to pass on to the charter programs. The current arrangement sets up an inherent tension between traditional schools and charters, who wind up competing for the same pot of money, Singleton said.

Hespe agreed with the assemblyman, though he wanted to study the issue further to make sure accountability and transparency issues are addressed before committing to any changes, which would require legislative action, he said.

“Maybe it is time to look at changing that funding method,” Hespe said. “So let’s do that. We’ll take a hard look at that and make a recommendation to you.”

“Philosophically, I think you’re right,” he said. “I think it’s time to remove that point of contention.”

Student Health & Safety

Hespe also addressed a number of questions related to private school security, with budget chair Schaer questioning why funding had not increased.

Other legislators, including Assemblyman McKeon, questioned why the Administration had not funded the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, after the Council on Local Mandates required the Legislature to examine funding for the initiative several years ago.  Hespe provided the committee a brief overview of proposed regulatory changes that seek to assist districts in addressing investigatory costs.

Also raised were issues related to lead testing and abatement in schools, with School Development Authority Executive Director Charles McKenna providing the committee with a scope of what might need to occur should lead remediation be required.