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4-22 ans 23- 15 Commissioner Hespe before Assembly Budget Committee on FY'16 - School Funding, PARRC, Charters

Burlington County Times - School funding, PARCC testing highlight budget hearing  ‘…Hespe said his department has finished reviewing all school districts’ proposed budgets for the upcoming years and has not uncovered any alarming cutbacks that could drastically impact the quality of education in the short term. But he said the funding issue would need to be closely watched over time…The commissioner acknowledged that freezing the formula has created complications...Hespe said there “definitely” would be some districts that fall short of that target, but the U.S. Department of Education would weigh several factors before deciding to deduct aid, including the district’s history and what steps it was taking to make improvements.

David Levinsky Staff writer Burlington County Times   Posted: Wednesday, April 22, 2015 7:00 pm | Updated: 3:28 pm, Thu Apr 23, 2015.

TRENTON — Education aid and the percentage of New Jersey students opting out of taking a new standardized test came under scrutiny Wednesday as lawmakers continued an ongoing review of Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

Education Commissioner David Hespe told lawmakers on the Assembly Budget Committee that the governor’s education budget calls for the state to invest a record-high $12.7 billion in education aid in fiscal year 2016. But Hespe acknowledged that the roughly $9 billion in direct aid planned for public school districts is about $1.1 billion shy of what is called for under a funding formula signed into law in 2008.

The formula has been fully funded once since its adoption, and Hespe said the state still doesn’t have the money needed to comply. But he said no district would receive less aid in the upcoming school year than what is being awarded during the current year.

Lawmakers on the panel challenged Hespe to defend such “flat funding,” given that school expenses for staff, programs and supplies are increasing.

“I think flat funding was actually better than most people were expecting going into this budget,” Hespe said, adding that the state is devoting millions more for teachers’ pension and health benefits, school construction aid and debt service.

In total, Hespe said the percentage of dollars in the state budget devoted to education has increased from 33 percent at the start of Christie’s tenure to about 38 percent under his proposed fiscal year 2016 budget.

“The overall share of the state budget going to support schools and education is growing even with flat funding,” he said. “This does not represent a point where the administration is saying we’re not going to be supporting our schools. In fact, we’re supporting them at historic percentage levels.”

Hespe said his department has finished reviewing all school districts’ proposed budgets for the upcoming years and has not uncovered any alarming cutbacks that could drastically impact the quality of education in the short term. But he said the funding issue would need to be closely watched over time.

The commissioner acknowledged that freezing the formula has created complications for funding some charter schools, which are supposed to receive 90 percent of the per-pupil funding devoted to their sending districts’ students.

Some charter schools claim they are being shortchanged because they aren’t receiving the full share of state aid their sending districts get.

“Freezing of the formulas has resulted in us having to make some very difficult decisions regarding charter school funding for FY16,” Hespe said, adding that the department has tried to balance the needs of charter schools and the impact on sending districts.

“This is the best we can possibly do with a frozen formula. ... It’s imperfect, but it’s the best of the worst scenario,” he said.

Another major discussion area during Wednesday’s budget hearing was the number of students opting out of the state’s new computer-based standardized test, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers.

New Jersey students in third through 11th grades began taking the exam for the first time this year, but some parents have refused to allow their children to be tested, citing concerns about its effectiveness and purpose or the amount of classroom time wasted on assessments or testing preparation.

Hespe told lawmakers that about 3 percent of students in elementary school grades have opted out of the first part of the test, about 7 percent of ninth- and 10th-graders, and about 14 percent of 11th-graders.

The high number of refusals among juniors was expected because the test isn’t yet a graduation requirement and because scheduling for 11th grade is more difficult, Hespe said.

“The other grades we saw very high participation, low parental refusals,” he said.

The numbers were preliminary and likely would change after testing is completed this spring, he said.

Ninety-eight percent of the students completed the test with a computer.

“That puts us as a national leader in using computer technology in our classrooms,” Hespe said.

Assemblyman John McKeon, D-27th of West Orange, asked if any districts would be in danger of losing federal aid if their test participation rate was below 95 percent.

Hespe said there “definitely” would be some districts that fall short of that target, but the U.S. Department of Education would weigh several factors before deciding to deduct aid, including the district’s history and what steps it was taking to make improvements.

Legislators on the Senate and Assembly budget panels are expected to continue reviewing Christie’s proposed $33.8 billion budget through mid May. Afterward, lawmakers will either negotiate changes to his proposal or present their own plan for the governor to consider.

A balanced budget must be in place by July 1.

David Levinsky: 609-871-8154; email: dlevinsky@calkins.com; Twitter: @davidlevinsky

NJ Spotlight - Little Things Are Often What Really Count in State Budget Line Items…Language changes tucked into appropriations act drastically hike what some districts will have to pay toward charter school costs

John Mooney | April 23, 2015

 

But some of the really significant details can be found tucked into the arcane language of the voluminous appropriations act that accompanies each year’s proposed budget.

Related Links

NJ Office of Legislative Services Budget Analysis

One of those details surfaced last month with language that extended the time that Christie has to pay off the state’s whopping pension liability, as estimated by actuaries, by three years -- reducing the actual pension costs in his next budget by more than half.

And several more of those small but significant items surfaced yesterday when the Christie administration went before the state Assembly’s budget committee for the first hearings on proposed education funding for next year – at more than $12 billion, the single largest slice of the budget.

None of the budget details carry the billion-plus dollar price tag of pension payments, for instance, but they were substantial enough to get the attention of legislators and their staff.

One example is new language that would protect charter schools from severe funding cuts that state officials and advocates said could lead to the closing of several of the schools.

The revised wording would see a handful of school districts transferring over $100 million more – over a two-year period -- than what would be required under the state’s charter school law.

Under that 1995 law, districts must pay out 90 percent of their per-pupil costs for each student in a charter school. But that percentage is often actually significantly lower for many charter schools, since not all state funding is counted in a school district’s calculations.

The new language would require charter schools to be funded at least at 2013-2014 per-pupil levels, resulting in an additional $70 million in funding this year and $38 more next year for the charters.

Governor could ease some of his budget woes by stretching out pension payments to 10 years, rather than seven -- and a Democratic leader could be in his corner

The move caught the eye of the Office of Legislative Services, the Legislature’s bipartisan staff, in its annual analysis of each department’s budget. In this case, the OLS devoted a full report to the charter language change, laying out the impact on every district that includes a charter school.

For a vast majority of districts, it will mean a small blip in their payments, and in some cases charter payments will actually be slightly reduced. But in a dozen districts with big charter school presences, the impact will be significant.

Newark will see the biggest impact, with a $38 million difference this year and $24 million next year. Jersey City sees a $4 million difference this year, while Camden would pay out $9 million more this year and an additional $2 million next year, according to the OLS report.

Charter school advocates are quick to point out that the state’s formula has left many charter schools underfunded in those cities. For instance, while Jersey City spends $17,000 per student overall, the public school district gives their city’s charter schools only about $8,000 per student.

“This was an effort to mitigate what would have been a disaster,” said Rick Pressler, the interim director of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association.

“And these still won’t repair the disparity that charters are facing (in terms of funding),” he said.

State Education Commissioner David Hespe was asked about the language change at the budget hearing yesterday, and said that as the state’s funding formula has been frozen for school districts, charters have only suffered. He said the move was meant to strike a middle ground.

“The freezing of the formula has forced us to make some really tough decisions for fiscal 2016,” Hespe said.

“Some charter budgets are very, very frail, and we don’t want them shuttering because we made a bad decision,” he said. “But we also don’t want to hurt district schools and only help charters.

“It’s imperfect, but it’s the best of the worst scenarios.”


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