|2-26-15 Education Issue in the News|
NJ Spotlight - Districts Get Official Word: State Aid Payments Frozen for Most Schools Next Year…Some are glad that funds won’t be cut despite fiscal woes; others note than once again Christie isn’t complying with full-funding law ‘The news was greeted with both resignation and concern. Local school officials had already anticipated another year of flat state aid …given the state’s dire financial picture around its pension liability. “In this period of so many unknowns going forward, a lot of us were pleasantly surprised that there were no reductions,” said Jorden Schiff, superintendent of Hillsborough schools. Still, flat funding from the state, combined with state-mandated 2 percent limits on local property tax increases, leaves little room for paying the bills, Schiff said. “It is very difficult when a lot of the costs are outside our board’s control,” he added, alluding to big-ticket items like energy bills and health benefits…’
John Mooney | February 26, 2015
New Jersey public schools were told officially yesterday what they had already learned Tuesday during Gov. Chris Christie’s budget address: state aid next year will basically amount to nothing more than they received this year.
The district-by-district aid numbers released yesterday included an awful lot of zeros under the “change” column showing the difference this year’s and next year’s aid allocations.
Overall, direct aid to districts would go up just $4.6 million out of $9 billion total, a tiny .05 percent increase. The totals are not set until a final budget is struck this summer, but they rarely change through the Legislature’s budget review.
There were, however, more than 80 school districts slated to get more aid, including Hoboken with an increase of $749,000 and Englewood with $331,000 more.
In virtually every district where aid would go up, state officials said the hikes were due to small increases in Christie’s proposed budget for expanded preschool and for the state’s increasingly popular inter-district school-choice program.
But that left 500 other districts seeing no increase at all under Christie’s budget plan, including the state’s largest urban districts, where the pressures for potential layoffs are greatest, including Newark and Camden.
The news was greeted with both resignation and concern. Local school officials had already anticipated another year of flat state aid as they started devising their 2015-16 budgets. For some, there was even a little relief that there weren’t any cuts in aid, given the state’s dire financial picture around its pension liability.
“In this period of so many unknowns going forward, a lot of us were pleasantly surprised that there were no reductions,” said Jorden Schiff, superintendent of Hillsborough schools.
Still, flat funding from the state, combined with state-mandated 2 percent limits on local property tax increases, leaves little room for paying the bills, Schiff said.
“It is very difficult when a lot of the costs are outside our board’s control,” he added, alluding to big-ticket items like energy bills and health benefits.
Others decried Christie’s continued underfunding of the state’s School Funding Reform Act, which has been fully funded just once since its passage in 2008.
On the day of Christie’s speech, the Education Law Center released an analysis showing that funding gap between what wealthy and poor districts were entitled to under the funding formula had doubled in size during Christie’s tenure.
Still, the message from the administration was that school districts were largely spared in even getting again what they received this year.
“With the size of the direct payment for pensions, healthcare and Social Security … I think most districts understand the pressure the state is under,” said state Education Commissioner David Hespe. “Holding flat is probably a relief for many of them.”
The direct aid is by far the largest piece of the state’s aid package to schools, a little over $9 billion out of $12.8 billion. The balance represents pension and medical benefit payments and school construction debt service, all of which would go up significantly under the budget.
Payments to the teachers pension fund would rise from $415 million to $802 million, almost doubling, and debt service payments for school construction would increase from $519 million to $884 million, a 70 percent rise.
“The number of (construction) projects has been accelerating,” Hespe said. “It’s a real cost-driver in this budget, a result of the sheer size of the number of projects that have been started.”
Philadelphia Inquirer - Controversial school-choice measure tucked into Christie budget
Rita Giordano, Inquirer Staff Writer
Last updated: Thursday, February 26, 2015, 1:07 AM
Included in the $12.7 billion that Gov. Christie is proposing to spend on pre-K to grade-12 education is a measure bound to raise hopes as well as eyebrows - a pilot program that would pay for students in failing schools to attend private, religious, or out-of-district public schools.
Christie's proposed fiscal 2016 budget calls for $2 million to fund a demonstration model based on the never-passed Opportunity Scholarship Act.
Long a supporter of vouchers and other school-choice measures, Christie put a pilot program in his proposed budget two years ago, but it was removed by the Legislature's Democratic majority. Christie praised the bill and its chief sponsor, Sen. Thomas H. Kean Jr. (R., Union), in his January State of the State address.
A Christie spokesman did not respond to a request for details of the plan.
Democratic leaders could not be reached for information on how they will handle the proposal this time around.
Kean was pleased.
"Obviously, I'm optimistic and thankful the governor put it in both two years ago and yesterday," Kean said Wednesday.
He said he had been speaking with the administration about the issue over the last year. Kean said that the scholarships had bipartisan support, a way to get fast-tracked relief to children otherwise stuck in failing schools, but that the extent of Democratic opposition to the program was unclear until fairly far along into the budget process the last time. He seemed to feel what he learned then will better position him to work to keep the pilot in the budget this time.
"When you are forewarned, you are better prepared," Kean said.
The pilot program, however, will have its opponents, and not just in the Legislature.
The Education Law Center came out swinging after hearing about the proposal.
"The governor's voucher proposal was blatantly unconstitutional two years ago, and it's still illegal," said David Sciarra, the center's executive director. "Diverting scarce public funds to private and religious schools has been consistently rejected by the Legislature as wrong for our state and children. We're confident the governor's latest gambit is dead on arrival."
According to the center, the state constitution requires legislation to address a "single object," and accused the governor of trying to do an end run around the Legislature by tucking the controversial voucher proposal into the budget, in effect enacting a program that lawmakers have not approved.
In 2013, Sciarra wrote to the Legislature's budget committees' leaders that the governor's inclusion of the voucher program in the budget violated the constitution.
Meanwhile, some of the state's politics watchers said they suspect the governor's current championing of the program was related to his presidential aspirations.
"This is something that would bolster his credibility in evangelical communities and in deeply religious communities, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina, but also New Hampshire," said Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University.
In addition, the Opportunity Scholarship would be funded through a tax credit program, support for which would play well in the business community, Harrison said.
Patrick Murray, head of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said he doubted the governor expects his program to pass.
"It's a great talking point for Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire," Murray said. "He put that in there knowing it isn't going to go anywhere."
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said he believes Christie wants the program.
"It's something he's talked about for a long time," he said.
But Dworkin noted that it is very early in the budget process, with much negotiating and positioning yet to come.
The scholarship program is "important to the governor," Dworkin said. "We'll see how important to the governor this is."
NJ Spotlight - Dispute Erupts Over ‘Agreement’ Between Teachers Union, Governor…While Christie touts purported deal, NJEA leaders protest that it’s just a ‘road map’ for finding solution to pension crisis
John Mooney | February 25, 2015
To describe the relationship between Gov. Chris Christie and the New Jersey Education Association over the last five years as tumultuous is probably an understatement.
But yesterday it took a turn toward the bizarre, as Christie, in an otherwise uneventful budget address, trumpeted what he called a historic agreement with the teachers union over paying off New Jersey’s massive pension liability – leaving a stunned and suddenly besieged NJEA leader saying, “Whoa, not so fast.”
“To be clear, we never sat down with the governor on this,” said Wendell Steinhauer, president for the 200,000-member union who yesterday became the second most sought-after individual in the Statehouse.
At issue was a broad plan that the NJEA did, in fact, sign a week ago with the state’s Pension and Benefit Study Commission. That agreement laid out a general framework for working toward a solution to the pension issue, including holding a statewide referendum on a constitutional amendment to lock in pension payments.
Steinhauer did not disavow that agreement, which was described by both the union and Christie as a “roadmap.”
But he and other union officials said they never thought it would be the basis of Christie’s entire budget plan -- especially without any additional money attached.
Others were left dumbfounded. The leader of a firefighters union said the NJEA should be “ashamed for allowing Gov. Christie to slash the terms of retirement their members have earned.” The president of the largest state workers union said it had not been consulted at all.
NJEA officials conceded that their own members had been calling them to express their concerns.
Senate President Steven Sweeney (D-Gloucester), himself a union leader, defended the NJEA and said it had been intentionally “burned” by the governor.
“The teachers union showed real honest leadership in having a discussion to save their pension system,” Sweeney said afterward. “That being said, (Christie) tried to hurt them, what he did was an attempt to hurt their credibility. He really did a number on them today.”
The union itself released a statement last night saying it was “deeply disappointed” by the governor’s portrayal of what had been agreed upon.
“We have not agreed to any changes to pensions or health benefits,” Steinhauer said in the statement. “We have only agreed to continue looking at all solutions that may provide our members with more stable pensions and affordable, high-quality health benefits.
But Christie was hardly letting up, yesterday evening releasing the document signed by the union and the commission charged with devising a solution to the pension mess – including an image of the actual signatures.
“There is more work to be done, but the Governor has found common ground with a long-time political opponent to bring fundamental change to these systems that, without reform, threaten the state’s fiscal health,” read a statement from his office.
The drama comes at a time when the union has been once again flexing its muscle, but on a very different front: addressing the state’s imminent expansion of standardized testing.
The NJEA last week launched an advertising campaign against the new PARCC testing, which is slated to go statewide next week. The ads call on the state to scale back the use of the tests in teacher and school evaluations.
The PARCC testing is just one of several issues where the union has exerted its influence of late, as the NJEA has also taken a stand on new rules for teacher preparation and support and in the ongoing debates over the oversight of charter schools.
But yesterday’s flap left NJEA officials answering questions about their role in the governor’s plan and what will come next.
Sweeney said yesterday that he doubted any lasting damage had been done, but he also noted that the uproar also deflected attention from other issues in Christie’s budget.
For schools, there was, indeed, not much else new to report in the governor’s proposed budget, which called for no overall change in direct state aid to school districts, making it the third year of nominal or no changes in so-called “formula aid” to schools. The actual aid numbers for each district are to be released later this week.
Elsewhere in the budget, there were some small increases or decreases, including $3 million in additional aid to preschool program and a $3 million allocation for inter-district school choice. There was a $2 million cut in aid for charter school start-ups, and $4 reduction million to nonpublic schools.
In his only real initiative, Christie did revive his proposal for a relatively modest, $2 million school-voucher program that would use tax credits to raise money for “scholarships” to enable low-income students to attend private schools or public schools outside their communities.
It’s one of the most contentious and longest-running education issues in the state. And, with its long-shot odds for winning approval in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, it warranted just a line in the governor’s budget address.
Garden State Coalition of Schools