Cerf, lawmakers spar over debt service in FY14

TRENTON – The state Education Commissioner told Assembly lawmakers Thursday that the Christie administration has in the past two years increased school choice and reformed teacher evaluations, and in fiscal year 2014 will provide more state aid funding than ever.

Commissioner Chris Cerf told the Budget Committee that the administration will increase state aid by $97 million, provide a $5 million innovation fund to reward districts that address problems such as low graduation rates, and $2 million to allow students in chronically failing schools to attend schools elsewhere.

Funding of the former so-called Abbott districts, a longstanding controversy, will break down this way in FY14:  Average state aid is $5,881 per pupil; for non-Abbotts $3,291; and for the former Abbotts, $15,261.

The Abbotts are approximately 31 poorer districts whose students the courts ruled were receiving unconstitutionally substandard education.

“Recognize that how well education dollars are spent is as important as  how much is spent and changing the way money is spent is by far the most important means of actually changing behavior in schools and ensuring that all students, regardless of birth circumstances, graduate from high school ready for college and career,” Cerf said.

“We have allowed ourselves to be boxed into a corner, that you can ‘dollarize’ education,’’ Cerf said.

Despite Cerf championing Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts to increase school choice and stimulate achievement through charters or vouchers, Democrats criticized what they said are failures in various areas.

Chairman Vincent Prieto, D-32, Secaucus pointed out that Education is the largest portion of the budget, that tax increases are a net 20 percent higher for working-class residents under this administration, yet some 200 districts will see less money due to cuts in aid for debt service.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli hammered at this point, that some 270 districts will be hurt by debt service assessments and will face tough choices about raising taxes.

“We are assessing more money than we anticipated,’’ he said.

Yet Cerf said to focus on the larger picture, that the state is providing more aid than ever.

Cerf, lawmakers spar over debt service in FY14