BORDENTOWN — In a rare public appearance in his home state, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie made the case for his controversial school funding proposal on Tuesday at a town hall meeting in the Republican stronghold of Burlington County. The call for the state to revise its nearly ten year-old school funding formula has been coming from all sides, with Christie’s plan to give equal funding to all school districts through a constitutional amendment poised to make the deepest cuts.
The governor is hoping to drum up support for the constitutional amendment with local appearances, and to put a referendum on the ballot during the 2017 gubernatorial election that will decide his successor.
The proposal will go head to head in the legislature with similar measures from Democrats like Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) and Republicans like Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13). It would offer a substantial windfall to many suburban districts and mean big losses for those in impoverished cities like Newark and Camden, who have long relied on state aid.
Christie believes tweaking the formula will not do enough to improve graduation rates in those urban schools. 31 of the state’s 591 districts are currently guaranteed public aid under the state Supreme Court’s 1985 ruling in Abbott v. Burke, a case filed by the Education Law Center.
“The Supreme Court imposed this system on us over thirty years ago because they said there was inequity in funding in urban districts. In urban districts property values were lower, that they didn’t have the ability to raise funds to pay for education,” Christie said. “As with most things that they touch, they screwed it up.”
The state’s rising property tax rates pay for the 60 percent of state school funding that currently goes to those districts. Christie described that arrangement as a burden for homeowners, calling critics of his plan “a small cadre of people who simply want to protect their own.”
Per-pupil costs can reach $30,000 or more in the state’s poorest districts. Christie’s plan would offer less than $6,000 per pupil statewide. Christie said he favors a longer school year with longer school days to make up for parents’ economic constraints in districts whose funding would take a dive because of the change.
“If money were the solution alone to this problem, those 31 districts would be the crown jewel of public education in America. Yet of those 31 districts, 27 of the 31 are below the state graduation rate,” he said. “What are we telling them by sitting by and allowing ourselves to be muscled, guilted, into spending more and more and more money with no results?”
Sweeney’s plan, meanwhile, would establish a task force to research disparities between once-floundering but now prosperous districts like Jersey City and underfunded districts in the suburban political battleground of Central Jersey — districts whose financial troubles have been signature issues for Republicans like O’Scanlon and state Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11) for years.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-21) offered support for Christie’s plan in a statement that same day, but said he was open to compromise with state Democrats. Sweeney has called Christie’s plan unconstitutional.
“Governor Christie and many Republicans have supported changing how we fund schools,” wrote Bramnick. “The Democrats may disagree with us that each student should receive $6,599, but they remain silent on any change. We are all aware that lowering property taxes must start with changing the school funding formula. I call upon my friends across the aisle to submit a proposal to make school funding more fair to all towns.”
The school funding proposal has been one of Christie’s few prominent state-level initiatives since joining the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump earlier this year. While Christie stayed characteristically mum on the subject of Trump during his remarks, he acknowledged that his term as governor will be over in 2018 and described himself as “liberated from the normal constraints that are on politicians.”
“I’m not running for anything. I don’t care,” he said. “I’ve got nothing else to prove, except I’ve got to finish the job.”