One of Two Warring School Funding Proposals Advances

A school funding bill from Senate President Steve Sweeney (left) and Assemblywoman Joann Downey (right) advanced in committee Monday.

A school funding bill from Senate President Steve Sweeney (left) and Assemblywoman Joann Downey (right) advanced in committee Monday.

TRENTON — One of two dueling proposals to change the way New Jersey funds its public schools advanced in a State Senate committee Monday, setting the stage for that bill from Senate President and likely gubernatorial hopeful Steve Sweeney (D-3) to go up against a plan from Governor Chris Christie.

Christie’s plan would fund all schools statewide at the same level, while Sweeney’s would aim at fully funding the existing formula. Though Christie will fight against Democratic majorities in both houses to get his plan through, the Senate President’s bill would circumvent Christie by establishing the commission with majority votes in those houses. No signature from the governor would be needed.

Critics of the current formula, which was put in place in 2008, point to underfunded school districts like Red Bank and Freehold. Those districts have languished while previously impoverished districts like Jersey City and Hoboken continue to take the same amount of aid despite their respective real estate booms.

Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29), cosponsor of Sweeney’s bill, called that inequity one of the biggest stumbling blocks for fully funding the current formula during the committee hearing. Those underfunded districts have suffered as the state has failed to fully fund the formula, sometimes by more than $1 billion a year during Christie’s tenure.

“As we’ve had discussions and numbers run, there’s over $500 million parked in districts that are currently overfunded. And so that gets us halfway to the mark,” Ruiz said.

Sweeney, meanwhile, begged off objections from an NJEA representative who argued for simply funding the existing formula under current statutes. The Senate President said the legislation “does nothing but make a recommendation,” and called the current process for revising the formula “the exact reason” why an independent commission is needed.

Under Sweeney’s bill, which advanced in the Senate Education Committee in a 3-0 vote, the six-person commission of appointees from both houses would include representation from state teachers’ unions. That “State School Funding Fairness Commission” would have until June 2017 to devise a plan to bring every school district to full funding before 2022.

“The governor has not been consistent in funding,” Sweeney said. “There is no arguing with that and none of us are happy about it. But this, we feel, is the best pathway back.”

Sweeney dismissed the idea that it would be more politically practicable to wait until the end of Christie’s term in 2018. He argued that fully funding the formula laid out by the administration of Christie’s Democratic predecessor Jon Corzine would be sufficient. Backers of his bill expect the plan to include increased annual state funding of as much as $100 million.

“To delay because of this governor would be a major mistake,” he said. “Governor Corzine’s school funding formula worked. The legislature, the legislative process that exists today, is what prevents implementation.”

Assembly sponsor Joann Downey (D-11), who will be up for reelection in 2017 in a district where Republican lawmakers have claimed the underfunded districts as a campaign issue up to now, expressed her support for the plan in a statement. Downey and running mate Eric Houghtaling won their seats last year in the biggest upset of that year’s Assembly elections.

“Our current state school funding formula was developed with the best intentions, but now its inadequacies are holding back the children that it once intended to help,” she wrote. “Reforms are needed and educational fairness must be restored.”