TRENTON — State Democrats announced new legislation Thursday that would create a commission to solve New Jersey’s school funding formula. The issue has been a policy flashpoint for both sides of the aisle, with lawmakers pointing to an inequitable distribution of state funding to districts whose has changed significantly in theirs since allotments were decided.
The new bill from Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29) and first-term Assembly Democrats Joann Downey and Eric Houghtaling would create a commission made up of two appointees from the governor, one from Sweeney and one from Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-32).
The legislation aims to prevent gridlock by having the upper and lower houses on equal footing, and marks the first time Downey and Houghtaling have sponsored a major policy initiative since their surprise victory in 2015’s Assembly elections.
Solutions to the funding debacle, which many have said leaves funding levels untouched for once-troubled districts like Jersey City and Hoboken at the expense of certain suburban districts, have been scarce. Roughly 80 percent of New Jersey schools are underfunded, with the 2008 funding formula falling as much as $1 billion short each year since.
Sweeney, who is expected to run for governor in 2017, said at a State House press conference that wholesale changes to formula will be the only way forward.
“If you fix that town, you don’t fix the formula,” he said. “This is not an urban-suburban issue. There are disparities all over the state, including within my own legislative district where some school districts are overfunded and some are underfunded.
“State aid was to be distributed fairly and equitably based on a formula that took into account each town’s property tax base, its ability to pay, increases and decreases in enrollment and the special needs of the children.”
Downey echoed Sweeney’s sentiments, calling the underfunding of schools in her home district “very much a crisis situation.”
Sweeney is proposing an additional $500 million of school funding over the next five years, a figure that would allow the state to offer its district its full share of aid. Downey called that a necessary step.
“Our school funding formula is nowhere near being fully-funded, nor has it been updated to keep up with the day-to-day realities our educators and administrators face,” Downey said. “This is an issue that affects all children, and all taxpayers, throughout our state and something we need to take seriously. We can no longer cherry-pick solutions.”
Houghtaling said in a statement that the formula should reflect the realities of classrooms around the state.
“School districts like Freehold Borough and Red Bank, with rapidly growing school populations, have essentially seen their aid frozen, putting students and taxpayers at a tremendous disadvantage,” Houghtaling wrote. “Many more are being failed by a funding system that overlooks the day-to-day realities of their classrooms.