TRENTON – Education spending, on everything from the PARCC tests to state school aid, looks likely to gain special notice in the coming week as state lawmakers dive into Gov. Chris Christie's proposed budget. Don't expect the process to yield a whole lot more money for schools.
The subject has already been front-and-center in Senate and Assembly budget hearings, with advocates making their case for funding support from Trenton. Lawmakers have generally expressed sympathy over the concerns, but have been hard-pressed to offer more. There is a both a lack of funds and consensus.
Here are the prospects for some of the pressing schools-related topics and initiatives, which will continue to play out in the next three months, before a new state budget is approved:
1. State aid: The multi-billion big picture
New Jersey adopted a school aid formula in 2008, but has only once provided sufficient money to fund it. If it were followed in the coming fiscal year, schools would receive an additional $1 billion in aid from the state. Instead, Christie's budget provides most districts with the same amount of support as last year, amounting to around $8 billion in formula aid.
If the formula were followed, for instance, Freehold Borough would get $1.9 million more in aid. Schools Superintendent Rocco Tomazic said the flat funding "is literally crushing" crowded, growing districts like his. He says the state should at least employ the funding formula and, on a proportional basis, allocate whatever funds are available based upon that scheme.
"Flat funding is not fair funding because it does not take into account the changes in the district's situation such as enrollment growth," Tomazic said.
Since the formula was last followed, 350 districts have lost enrollment and 200 districts have gained students, said Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
Lawmakers from both parties expressed interest in addressing school aid. The state, however, is already in a budget hole, unable to make required pension payments. And Republicans want to change the formula to one in which per-pupil aid is more level regardless of socioeconomic factors — to enable suburban districts to receive more aid than the current law would provide. Christie says he supports such an approach, but hasn't proposed it.
2. Unpredictable, even though it's the in thing
Lawmakers have been quick to respond to growing public concerns about the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers exams. That debate will continue from a fiscal perspective in coming months, as Education Commissioner David Hespe comes before the budget committee to answer questions from lawmakers on April 22 and 28.
Over four years, the state could spend as much as $108 million on the PARCC tests, with the actual costs depending on dozens of factors. On top of that are costs for technology upgrades. Districts incur additional costs as well, such as for substitute teachers to cover classes while teachers proctor the exams in March and May.
"I'd like to see PARCC just go away. I'd like you to drop out – be the next state to drop out," Wendell Steinhauer, the New Jersey Education Association president, urged lawmakers. "There's only 12 left in there, and quite honestly they need 5 million students to make it profitable. You drop your million out, and that would be the end of PARCC."
Lawmakers are likely to press the PARCC issue with Commission Hespe, though most seem interested in an alternative annual assessment, not to drop it altogether. Christie has directed a task force to study the new tests, but he and Hespe say the exams should not be ended at this time.
"There has to be some objective measure" to make sure students are being better prepared for college or a career, said Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington. "If the PARCC piece isn't it, there needs to be something that helps us do that."
3. Could happen, in part because it's small
Advocates for nonpublic schools are pushing for roughly $3.8 million in funding to be restored to help them afford nurses and technology. That money was added to the current year's budget by lawmakers but has been trimmed back in Christie's blueprint.
"Nonpublic children are not sitting in prep schools, are not families with millions of dollars in income," said Josh Pruzansky, New Jersey regional director for the Orthodox Union. "Most children of the 150,000 that get aid from the state that go to nonpublic schools are children from middle- and lower-income families that go to religious schools where parents are sacrificing to pay the tuition."
Such a move would seem to have a chance because it's a relatively small amount in a $33.8 billion budget. Also, Christie agreed to add the money this past year. Finally, the idea has a strong advocate at the center of the debate in Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, the budget committee chairman.
"I'm obviously not thrilled with this conversation," Schaer said. When Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff and Hespe come to testify, "I promise you an extraordinarily spirited discussion."
Between nursing, technology and transportation – areas of spending that don't cross into a school's religious philosophy – New Jersey provides roughly $150 to $175 in support per pupil annually for students in nonpublic schools.
4. Unlikely to happen, even though it's small
Though the Opportunity Scholarship Act is an even smaller sum of money than the cuts to nonpublic schools, it would appear to be vulnerable to being cut, yet again.
The budget includes $2 million to establish a program through which parents of children in low-performing city schools would receive a stipend to pay tuition at a public, private or parochial school. Advocates, including Christie, call it a lifeline.
"It's a modest appropriation that would do much good in real-world time for students who are poor, who are trapped in schools that are not working for them," said Mary McElroy, North Jersey director of the New Jersey Network of Catholic School Families.
Critics call them vouchers that would undermine public schools by benefiting private companies. Lawmakers have erased proposed funding for the program in past years and are likely to do it again.