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February 24, 2016

Public school children across the Garden State again are the big losers in Governor Chris Christie’s proposed FY17 State Budget. For a seventh straight year, the Governor is proposing no real increase in state school aid.

The Governor proposes to increase school aid by just 1% over last year. If the Governor’s budget is approved by the Legislature, total direct state school aid will be $9.1 billion, slightly more than the $8.8 billion total in 2009-10, when the Governor took office. This amount includes the $500 million restored to urban districts by the NJ Supreme Court order after the Governor cut over $1 billion statewide in 2010-11. 

If the Court had not stepped-in, total school aid under Governor Christie would be 2% lower than under the previous administration. And even with the Court’s action, three-quarters of school districts have yet to recover from the Governor’s massive aid cut five years ago.

School Districts Face More Cuts      

Of the Governor’s proposed $94 million state aid increase, $36 million is distributed to school districts through the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), NJ’s weighted student formula. Another $13 million is provided “off-formula” at $10 per pupil for a new professional learning communities initiative.

The $36 million increase in formula aid doesn’t even begin to make up for the Governor’s six years of not funding the SFRA, especially in high need districts across the state. The following comparisons illustrate the wholesale inadequacy of the Governor’s proposal:

  • Freehold Borough (Monmouth County): owed $1.9 million in school aid in 2015-16, will receive only $101,000 in 2016-17
  • North Bergen (Hudson County): owed $11.3 million, will receive only $492,000
  • Woodbury (Gloucester County): owed $2.4 million, will receive only $94,000
  • Orange (Essex County): owed $13.3 million, will receive only $566,000

Bottom line: The Governor’s paltry increase not only fails to make a dent in what districts should be receiving as adequate under the SFRA. It doesn't even come close to keeping pace with fixed costs, contractual raises, and other increases in school district budgets. This means another round of cuts to teachers, support staff and programs, increases in class size, and fewer special education and bilingual programs for students with special needs. 

Newark Charters: The Big Winner

Newark charter schools are the big winners – by far – in the Governor’s school aid proposal. Almost one-quarter of the total $94 million statewide increase, or $22 million, will go to hold Newark charter schools harmless from aid reductions due to declining revenue in the State-operated Newark Public Schools’ (NPS) budget. For the last two years, the State has forced NPS to give extra “hold harmless” funds to charter schools out of the district’s budget. This year, the State is providing extra “hold harmless” aid that the district must pass through to the charters.

The $22 million to hold Newark charters harmless represents 82%, or the lion’s share, of the $26 million increase to the FY17 NPS budget. NPS must also fund an estimated $2 million for enrollment growth in the charters. Because the $22 million increase is driven by charter school budgets, and not based on the state aid owed to NPS under the SFRA, it is insufficient to close the district’s estimated $70 million budget deficit or address the resource needs in NPS-run schools.

Over half of the $20 million in charter hold harmless aid will likely go to the two large national charter chains operating in Newark. Last year, the KIPP charter group received $5.4 million, and Uncommon charters took in an extra $6 million in hold harmless funds. In addition, these and other Newark charters may be carrying large amounts of unused cash in “unrestricted” surplus accounts. A recent Education Law Center analysis showed Newark charters had almost $35 million in excess surplus at the end of 2013-14.

The Governor’s budget is more bad news for students in NPS-run schools. Successive years of flat state aid, coupled with the State’s decision to rapidly expand charters, has left the NPS budget in chronic deficit, forcing deep cuts in the number of classroom teachers, counselors, social workers and nurses, and in special education and bilingual education services and other essential resources.   

Atlantic City Schools Bailout  

Almost one-third of the Governor’s proposed aid increase, or $32 million, will go to address a projected $50 million budget deficit facing the Atlantic City public schools. The Atlantic City schools have endured steep cuts in staff, programs and other services over the last two years triggered by a dramatic drop in property wealth and taxes due to the city’s overall economic collapse. 

Preschool Aid Stays Flat

State preschool funding remains flat over last year. For the fourth straight year, the per-pupil costs for in-district and private preschool providers have not been adjusted to compensate for rising costs. There is also no additional funding to expand high quality preschool for thousands of low-income children who by now should have had access to the program under the SFRA.

Another Grim School Year Ahead

The end result is another grim school aid budget for 2016-17.Over half of the proposed 1%, or $94 million, increase responds to the Christie Administration’s failures in Atlantic City and adds extra funding for charter schools. In his State of the State address, the Governor reiterated his staunch commitment to replace district-operated schools by expanding charter schools, especially those run by national charter chains.

Simply put, the Governor has again abandoned NJ’s public schools and the 1.3 million children who attend those schools every day. Districts that have already made significant cuts in teachers, support staff, and essential programs will again have to make very tough decisions to balance their budgets. For seven years, the Governor has demonstrated an unwillingness to invest in public education. He has consistently refused to provide the resources all schools need to provide students with a thorough and efficient education. He has staunchly resisted expanding access to high quality preschool.

Parents, teachers, school board members and education advocates must make certain that the Legislature rejects the Governor's school aid proposal. Enacting a budget that responds to the needs of the children and parents who depend on our public schools is long overdue.


Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24