Thursday, June 9, 2016

Sweeney Releases State Aid Reform Plan

Added: Now that I've seen the bill, I have an analysis here:

For months, Steve Sweeney has been working with Sen. Jennifer Beck on a state aid reform bill that would, presumably, reduce or eliminate Adjustment Aid and redistribute it to needy districts.

The bill was delayed and delayed and it became apparent that Sweeney and Beck were not on the same page.  Sweeney usually talked about eliminating all Adjustment Aid whereas Beck usually talked about just eliminating Adjustment Aid for districts who were above Adequacy (which would severely reduce the amount of aid that could be redistributed.).  Sweeney evidently wants an increase in aid as well as redistribution and we have no idea how Beck felt about that.

Finally, after months of waiting we have a proposal, but it isn't a bill per se and Sen. Jennifer Beck is absent, although the Democratic Assemblymembers from her district, Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling, were present and on the record for reform.

Sweeney has proposed a bill to create a commission that would be empowered to write a proposal on state aid that the legislature could then vote up or down, with no possibility of amendment.  (like federal base closings bills).

More commentary below:

Commission Will Develop Five-Year Reform Plan To Close
Gap That Now Leaves 80 Percent of Districts Underfunded
TRENTON – Citing the state's continued underfunding of 80 percent of New Jersey's school districts, Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assemblywoman Joann Downey and Assemblyman Eric Houghtaling today unveiled legislation to create a special commission to develop a school funding reform plan to bring all districts to full funding within five years. Senator M. Teresa Ruiz, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, is a cosponsor of the bill.

"The School Funding Reform Act was a major accomplishment that promised to provide full funding for all schoolchildren by ensuring that money would follow the child," said Senator Sweeney. "State aid was to be distributed fairly and equitably based on a formula that took into account each town's property tax base, its ability to pay, increases and decreases in enrollment and the special needs of the children. The goals and objectives of the formula are on target, but the promise has not been kept."

"The state has failed to fund the formula and keep up with the needs of the school districts," said Senator Sweeney. "As a result, the school funding formula has grown less fair and less adequate, with the fastest-growing districts being shortchanged, compromising the quality of education and putting upward pressure on property taxes. It is time to restore equity to the system and to fully fund our schools."

The commission will put the plan into legislation that will have to be approved or rejected in its existing form with up-or-down votes by the Legislature.

"We will closely examine the proposal to ensure it meets our goals to provide sufficient aid to districts that are underfunded but also to allow others the ability to adjust to the formula funding as it is intended under the law," said Senator Ruiz. "We know the transition must be done in a deliberative manner, but that by fully funding the formula we will ensure that the resources necessary for the education of each student are preserved. We believe this is the first responsible approach to meeting the mission of the school funding formula that aid follows the child, and to bringing districts to full funding in a fair and meaningful way."

Senator Sweeney said he expected the plan to include increased state funding over the five-year timeframe.

Under the proposed legislation, a four-member "State School Funding Fairness Commission" would be established and given one year to develop a plan that would bring every school district in the state to "adequacy funding" within five years. The Governor would appoint two commissioners and the Senate President and Assembly Speaker would choose one each, according to the bill.

Assemblywoman Downey and Assemblyman Houghtaling said the state needs to address the growing disparities in school funding throughout the state.

"Our school funding formula is nowhere near being fully-funded, nor has it been updated to keep up with the day-to-day realities our educators and administrators face," said Assemblywoman Downey. "It has caused a massive disconnect between how schools are functioning and how they are funded. "This is an issue that affects all children, and all taxpayers, throughout our state and something we need to take seriously. We can no longer cherry-pick solutions."

"School districts like Freehold Borough and Red Bank, with rapidly growing school populations, have essentially seen their aid frozen, putting students and taxpayers at a tremendous disadvantage," said Assemblyman Houghtaling. "Many more are being failed by a funding system that overlooks the day-to-day realities of their classrooms. Our communities and schools need to finally have the fairness and certainty that our school funding law promised them."

Senator Sweeney said meetings he and other legislators have had with city and school officials in different communities have underscored the problems with the school funding formula.

"This is not an urban-suburban issue," Senator Sweeney said. "There are disparities all over the state, including within my own legislative district where some school districts are overfunded and some are underfunded. We can no longer allow some districts to be subsidizing others under this formula. We need to be responsible in making the reforms to ensure that no students are negatively impacted. It is a matter of fairness for all students."


Usually a commission is a way of killing a reform idea, but if a commission is empowered to send legislation directly to the floor for a vote I think it's a sensible idea. I think what Sweeney is conceding by promoting a commission is that the legislative process would not work for redistributing state aid. 

I don't have any insight into what really happened here, but maybe Sweeney tested other Senators and found out that he didn't have 21 votes for the reform he was originally hoping to pass?

Rather than an attempt to bury reform, I think this is an attempt to get a very serious reform. Since the bill cannot be amended, it makes it slightly easier politically for legislators to vote for it.  Under normal legislative proceedings, legislators will work aggressively to protect their own constituents at the expense of the state as a whole.

This happened in 1990 when the Quality Education Act was pushed through the legislature.  The QEA which would have slashed aid for suburban districts to give more money to poor and middle-income ones, but Sen. Matthew Feldman of Bergen County got special transportation aid for his Bergen County constituents.  Montclair's legislators also pulled in some special privileges.

Unfortunately Sweeney's approach delays reform by at least another year.

It looks like Sen. Jennifer Beck dropped out of state aid reform. My guess is that she didn't want to redistribute as much aid as Sweeney did and she may have opposed increasing school aid by $500 million.

However, getting the commission's ideas into law is Step 2.  Step 1 is getting the bill creating the commission through the legislature.  

I've got to assume that Sweeney is confident about the Senate, but who knows about the Assembly.  Vincent Prieto is conspicuous by his absence and has made almost no comments on state aid in all his years in the Assembly.  

Prieto voted for SFRA back in 2008, but on state aid is an unknown.

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