Friday, August 21, 2015

The Education Law Center Demands that David Hespe Ignore the Real Problems in State aid

In a few weeks David Hespe and the Department of Education will release an "Education Adequacy Report."  The Education Adequacy Report is a requirement from the State Supreme Court (as part of its approval of SFRA) that the Department of Education review the implementation of SFRA every three years.

The Education Law Center was against SFRA in the first place, but after the Education Law Center lost the Abbott XX case in 2009 (over the constitutionality of SFRA) the Education Law Center has supported the law it once scorned as a threat to the Abbott districts.

However, now the Education Law Center's support of SFRA has reached the point of treating SFRA like holy writ.  As evidence, the Education Law Center is now demanding that David Hespe and the DOE confine their Education Adequacy Report within the most narrow confines of state aid law.  "To guide the Department of Education in preparing the September 2015 EAR, Education Law Center yesterday sent a letter to Commissioner Hespe underscoring the strict limits of the EAR’s parameters and bringing to the Commissioner’s attention several key issues that must be addressed in the report."

Indeed, the Education Law Center sent David Hespe and the DOE a letter in early August reminding them not to stray from the NJ Supreme Court's narrow description of what the Education Adequacy Report should be about:

Under the SFRA, the Commissioner must, every three years, review implementation of the SFRA funding formula and, based on that review, issue the Report which shall recommend to the Legislature adjustments to the base cost; preschool education aid per-pupil amounts; grade level, at-risk and other weights; cost coefficients for security and transportation aid; special education classification rate; excess special education costs; and extraordinary special education aid thresholds. N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-46b. In addition, the adjustments recommended in the Report “shall be deemed approved for the three successive fiscal years,” unless the Legislature, within 90 days of receipt of the Report, adopts a concurrent resolution stating the Legislature’s objections to “all or any specific part” of the Report. The concurrent resolution shall also “direct” the Commissioner to submit “a revised report which responds to those
objections.” N.J.S.A. 18A:7F-46b.

The Education Law Center is fearful of what Commissioner Hespe may produce because in 2012 Hespe's predecessor, Chris Cerf, produced two parallel reports on state aid.  The first was the narrowly-tailored "Education Adequacy Report" that dealt with things like at-risk student weights in SFRA and the second was the "Education Funding Report," which was not part of any Supreme Court mandate and questioned the efficacy of the Abbott districts' high-funding and called for a reduction of Adjustment Aid.

I, for one, believe that Cerf's 2012 recommendation to reduce Adjustment Aid for districts that were above-adequacy was a sound one.  Adjustment Aid was a provision of SFRA that was contrary to the spirit of SFRA. Adjustment Aid locked in money for districts that had gentrified (such as Hoboken and Jersey City), had gotten off-formula aid in the CEIFA-era.

Now that NJ is in even serious budgetary trouble than it was in 2012 and certainly more trouble than in 2008 (when SFRA was written) I think that the recommendation to reduce Adjustment Aid was intelligent and before its time.  It is disgusting that while 220 districts in NJ get more than 100% of what is recommended there are another funding 117 that get not even 50%.

The Education Law Center simply does not care or comprehend that New Jersey has a budget crisis. If you read the Education Law Center's documents, including this one from 2014 that purports to give the "background" of education underfunding in NJ, you will find not a single reference to the recession, the loss of state revenue, or the Pension Crisis.

I hope that Commissioner Hespe decides to stay in New Jersey's real world and try to consider ways to free up more aid for New Jersey's underfunded and underaided districts.  New Jersey has broad budgetary problems and broad state aid problems.  We cannot solve these problems while wearing the blinders that the Education Law Center demands Commissioner Hespe wear.

Update November 18, 2015:

The Education Law Center appears to have changed its letter about state aid to incorporate recognition that SFRA hasn't been fully funded and therefore changes to the weights in SFRA don't mean much.

ELC notes that the SFRA has been underfunded for years, and therefore the formula has not been properly implemented. This failure limits the extent to which the formula’s cost and aid components can be reviewed and adjusted. In addition, the past few years have seen multiple unfunded mandates imposed on school districts, including new teacher evaluations and PARCC tests. ELC is urging the Commissioner to address these issues, along with concerns about preschool and special education costs, in the September EAR.

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