Student Debt, School Funding Bills Pass as Summer Recess Ends

Two education bills pass as Republicans take a jab across the aisle.

Two education bills pass as Republicans take a jab across the aisle.

TRENTON — The first session day following the New Jersey legislature’s summer recess saw two prominent education bills win approval in the State Assembly and Senate respectively. That approval came as Governor Chris Christie was making the case for reversing the state’s landmark Abbot School District decision, and the Assembly’s Republican minority had harsh remarks for Democrats’ refusal to entertain a compromise with the governor on school funding.

The first of those two bills, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), would create a commission that would devise a way for the state to fully fund its underfunded school funding formula, which has gone underfunded by as much as $1 billion a year during Christie’s tenure. That proposal, which passed in the Senate, would bypass Christie to create the commission with no need for his signature.

The second would end the state’s practice of forcing parental cosigners to continue paying off their children’s student loans, even in the event of their death. New Jersey is an outlier among similar states in its aggressive collection practices and received negative attention in the press after a ProPublica investigation showed one woman still paying off her son’s loans after his murder. That bill, sponsored by Assemblymen Vince Mazzeo (D-2) and Andrew Zwicker (D-16) among others, passed in the Assembly.

In a statement after the vote, Wicker called the state’s current statutes inhumane.

“To expect a student’s family or other survivors to pay their college loan debt in the event of their death is cruel and unacceptable.  We can do better than that,” he wrote.

“To expect a student’s family or other survivors to pay their college loan debt in the event of their death is cruel and unacceptable.  We can do better than that,”

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) criticized the Democratic caucus for a back-to-school board list that neglected to offer a compromise with Christie on schools. Christie favors reversing rulings resulting from the State Supreme Court’s historic Abbot vs. Burke decision, and offering the same apportionment of funding to all schools across the state regardless of need.

That step would offer a significant budget windfall for schools and lower property tax bills for residents of suburban districts that currently receive little state aid, but would also cause massive budget cuts in impoverished urban schools. Bramnick, saying that he is not wedded to the governor’s proposal, decried the day’s legislative agenda for not including any bills to lower property taxes. Democrats, he said alluding to Sweeney’s plan, should compromise with Christie on schools.

“What are the Democrats voting on today?  Nothing,” he said. “I ask all of you while people are exiting this state to call upon the Democrats to at least have an open discussion on property tax relief.”

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi echoed Bramnick, saying of a compromise between the school funding plans that the parties should “at least have that discussion.” She said many working class in her Bergen County district would benefit from an overhaul of the current system.

“I want someone to explain to me why a child in Fairlawn… why they should only receive a thousand dollars or less per year as a student, and a child in Asbury Park is worth over $30,000 in our state?  It makes no sense to me.”

Sweeney said that he expects his proposal to address property tax relief in a statement after the vote, where he pointed to the roughly $50o million dollars currently being given to recent urban success stories like Jersey City and Hoboken under an outdated formula.

“We have some school districts that are spending 50 percent more than they should be and some that are spending 50 percent less,” Sweeney wrote. “Some towns are receiving three times the amount of aid they should be and some are receiving only one third. We need a plan to restore fairness and equity to New Jersey’s school aid formula that doesn’t shortchange our children and doesn’t put upward pressure on local property taxes.”