FORT LEE – Should school districts with a greater number of students enrolled in a federal free lunch program be entitled to a larger amount of state aid?
That debate is one that a state task force will likely jumpstart once it delivers its final report to Gov. Chris Christie sometime at the end of next month or the beginning of October.
The New Jersey Education Task Force held its first public hearing Wednesday to garner public input regarding the state’s school funding formula. Two residents addressed the panel, which is charged with studying how the state measures poverty in terms of funding public schools and is tasked with making a recommendation to the governor’s office on whether the current formula should be redefined.
“This is a really important session,” said New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks, chairwoman of the task force.
Presently, state aid is distributed to school districts according to the School Funding Reform Act, which provides additional dollars for school districts with greater numbers of students from low-income households.
Poorer students are identified as those who participate in the Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program, according to the formula.
Gov. Chris Christie formed the seven-member panel earlier in the year to develop recommendations for the governor “concerning those areas of the formula that may be susceptible to fraud or outside manipulation,” reads Christie’s March executive order.
The current funding formula was a point of controversy last year following allegations that employees of the Elizabeth City school board had wrongfully added their children to the federal lunch program, according to published reports.
The Federal Free and Reduced Price Lunch Program funding also came under the microscope in a June 2011 audit by the New Jersey State Auditor, which found there were as many as 37 percent of students enrolled in the program fraudulently, according to Christie’s executive order.
However, one witness today saw things differently.
“This supposed significant abuse is a myth perpetuated for political reasons,” said Sarah Rappoport, a member of Save Our Schools NJ, during Wednesday’s public hearing.
“In reality, that is not at all what the audit found,” said Rappoport, arguing the audit missed a segment of the program participants – 25 percent – who are automatically enrolled in the program.
“So, that 37 percent figure is really only 28 percent of all the students receiving free and reduced lunch,” she said. “Second, the audit looked only at 3 percent of the families whose children received free and reduced lunch and who are considered ‘on the margin’ of eligibility because their incomes were up to $100 below the income cutoff for the program.”
Rappoport argued there are no alternative methods to identify “at-risk children that can be considered as reliable as the Free and Reduced Lunch Program,” adding that New Jersey is a model for other states and the state shouldn’t “abandon the best national indicator of financial need.”
The brief public hearing was one of two scheduled before the task force submits its findings to the governor.
Among those in the audience who had hoped to see more people sign up to speak was Sen. Gerald Cardinale, (R-39), Demarest.
“It’s disappointing that we only had two speakers,” he said, adding he disagreed with the positions taken by both people who signed up to give public testimony.
“I have confidence in the state auditor. I think the state auditor does a good job,” he said, adding, “I think there’s plenty of fraud to go around in New Jersey.”
Cardinale said he supports legislation that would require school funding to be equally distributed in the state without regard to population.
“Perhaps we need to rethink it,” he said, referring to legislation introduced by Sen. Michael Doherty, (R-23), Washington, that Cardinale said would do just that.
“We should have equal distribution,” he said.
The task force’s next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 21 at Camden County Community College.