by Marie Blistan, NJEA Vice President
to the Joint Committee on the Public Schools

Good morning. I am Marie Blistan and I am the vice president of the New Jersey Education Association. I am proud to represent over 200,000 active and retired school employees in New Jersey – school employees who are getting tired of doing more with less.

In 2008, Republicans and Democrats came together to pass the School Funding Reform Act. This funding formula not only had bi-partisan support, but was the product of informed input from education stakeholder groups and upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court.

After the initial year of implementation in 2009, SFRA has been underfunded by approximately $1 billion each year. This refusal to run the funding formula for seven years has led to gross inequities in school aid.

In the event of a budget shortfall, the state should use the mechanisms in the formula or implement a path towards full and equitable allocation of state aid in accord with the formula funds. But instead of actually following the law and fully funding SFRA, we are hearing about “fixes,” and substitutions, and a re-examination of every aspect of the SFRA.

The first comes from the governor. In addition to underfunding school districts by a billion dollars every year, the governor is promoting his so-called “Fairness Formula” which would further reduce aid to about 414,000 schoolchildren. Gov. Christie’s plan would do nothing more than provide tax breaks for our wealthiest residents at the expense of middle and lower income families and students. He wants to create a system of winners and losers which reduces school funding to the students who need it the most.

And while Sen. Sweeney says he is concerned about school funding, his proposal would reduce aid to about 715,000 students by almost $685 million, or around $960 per pupil on average. That is unacceptable.

Both of these proposals have one thing in common, they are divisive.  Instead of working to remedy the $1 billion funding gap, they aim to pit communities against each other.

NJEA has consistently supported the current school funding formula. We believe that considering New Jersey’s history with school funding, a formula that was agreed to by both houses of the Legislature and signed into law after extensive discussions with, and input from, education experts and stakeholders and upheld as constitutional by the New Jersey Supreme Court, should be followed each year.

A report from September 2016 by the State Auditor concluded that if the funding formula was used to allocate school aid in FY 2016 without adding even $1 dollar to the direct aid appropriation, 365 school districts would’ve received more school aid than they did under the FY 2016 Budget. We are shortchanging our students and it’s time to make all students a priority, wherever they live and whatever their needs and circumstances.

There have been claims that some districts are overfunded due to adjustment aid. This is misleading, and eliminating or phasing out adjustment aid is no solution, and counterproductive in many cases. You cannot gauge the adequacy of funding levels until you actually follow the law. A district receiving adjustment aid may still be unable to provide adequate educational resources in accordance with the formula, or may be taxing its residents for more than their statutory “fair share.” To blame adjustment aid for today’s state aid discrepancies or anomalies are a diversion from the state’s failure to follow the school funding law.

Additionally, it’s imperative that the financial impact of charter schools on our traditional public schools be taken into account. The New Jersey Charter School Program Act took effect in 1996.  Charter schools were intended as locally run operations, created and operated by community members, parents, teachers, and others, who were invested in the success of public education and the community.

This original vision assumed that these “laboratories of innovation” would inform instruction across the public education system.  The lessons learned would enhance local school districts and the educational experience of all students.

While NJEA has supported the concept of public charter schools since the original charter law went into effect over 20 years ago it’s time to adjust the law to reflect new challenges. The intent of the charter school law was not to create a separate school system. The intent was not to segregate students by race or ability. But in too many communities, that is the reality.

Charter schools must be held accountable to the communities they serve. Charter schools should be transparent in their reporting on the use of state funds, including their revenue, assets, and contract commitments.

Further, NJEA believes that no new charters should be granted until the state fully funds SFRA.

NJEA believes that the process of school funding must be transparent. Any changes to SFRA should be done through a thorough legislative review process, just as the law was created. Funding must also be predictable, because uncertainty over funding forces districts to engage in defensive budgeting and spending, which runs counter to long-range planning and overall efficiency. That’s why NJEA supports Assemblyman Prieto’s proposal which would require legislative oversight and stakeholder input for any alterations or adjustments to the existing formula.

Education Week released its schools rankings and once again, New Jersey ranks at the top. Our graduation rate is second in the nation. We are making advances in closing the achievement gap.  However we know there are pockets of disparity. Too many students live in communities plagued by poverty, homelessness, and crime. Too many students come to school hungry. Too many students come to school worried and fearful for their families and their futures.

This is not the time to turn our backs on those who need us most. Every child deserves a chance to succeed. NJEA believes that funding SFRA is an important first step in making success a reality.

Thank you.

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