Sunday, March 26, 2017

Why NJ Can't Wait Until the Next Governor to Change State Aid

NJEA President, Wendell Steinhauer

After it became public that Chris Christie, Steve Sweeney, and Vincent Prieto were having some private conversations about state aid reform - and had actually would have met on Wednesday, March 15th if a snowstorm hadn't intervened - NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer released an op-ed demanding that any changes to state aid wait until New Jersey's next governor takes power.

Here are the most important parts of "Leave School Funding to the Next Governor":

Now the same governor who robbed public schools of $8 billion over seven years wants to move at break-neck speed to blow up SFRA, which is New Jersey's best hope for restoring fairness and adequacy to school funding. 
Here's why that should not happen under this governor.....
The governor is now audaciously using his neglect of SFRA to say we need a new formula. We don't. We need a transition back to the sound funding formula we have.

That's not something the governor and legislative leaders should cook up in a back room over the next 100 days -- as the governor has suggested. ... 
New Jersey should follow a similarly thoughtful and deliberative process for reviewing the current aid formula and recommending reasonable adjustments. That should include an honest look at the adverse financial impact that charter schools have on host district schools and ways to alleviate that harm. It must also create a pathway back to implementation and full funding of SFRA. 
We should not abandon the notion of a formula, as Christie has proposed, or pit students and communities against each other in a fight over inadequate resources, as some other funding "reform" proposals being floated would do. Instead, we must live up to the promise of SFRA to provide every student in every community the resources needed for the thorough and efficient public education our constitution promises.

There are several parts of this I disagree with (and think are factually wrong), but I'll focus on Steinhauer's major point that we must wait until 2018 (at the earliest) to address school funding.

  1. The FY2018 budget process is not completed, so it is possible that a deal made now could mean help for certain districts 2017-18.
  2. If we wait until winter 2018 and the new governor  it's possible that new aid could be distributed fairly, but even if the new governor were inclined to accept some redistribution, it would already be too late for redistribution for the 2018-19 school year since the aid-losing districts would have so little time to prepare.
  3. There is no guarantee that Steve Sweeney will remain as Senate President after this year and his replacement might not prioritize state aid as much, might support Adjustment Aid, or might not understand the problems of SFRA as well.

Don't Give Up on 2017-18 Yet (or 2018-19 either)

I agree with Steinhauer that Chris Christie has been a bad for New Jersey and state aid.  He's been a disaster in progressive terms for ignoring districts in acute financial need; he's been a disaster in conservative terms by making no attempt to update the Abbott list or pare back the most extreme Abbott privileges, like the lack of means-testing for PreK and 100% state construction funding.

Yet, it would be a huge mistake for New Jersey to miss this chance at reform.

Steinhauer is rejecting sight-unseen a proposal that doesn't even exist.  It's possible that Christie will follow his recent (post June 2016) history and dig his heels in for something like his "Fairness Formula," but if that's the case, why worry? since Sweeney, Prieto, and the legislature would never agree to that.

Christie cannot "blow up SFRA" unilaterally and Steinhauer knows it.

Although Christie has been at his worse on state aid since June 2016, previously Christie was more erratic, even good at times.  When Christie rebuilt school aid after the 2010 aid cuts he basically followed SFRA's principles.  In 2012 Christie's Department of Education actually endorsed halving Adjustment Aid for districts that are above Adequacy and for 2012-13 Christie actually did redistribute $40 million in Adjustment aid.  In the 2016 Education Adequacy Report, Christie's Department of Education recommended lowering the weights for at-risk students, but it did not remotely suggest that all districts have equal spending or equal state aid.

In 2016 Christie also came through for Freehold Boro and had his DOE agree to give $25 million for expansion costs, even though as a non-Abbott Freehold Boro had no legal standing to demand this money.

I'm not letting Christie off the hook.  His method of cuts in 2010 - in which every district lost aid equivalent to 5% of its budget regardless of it being overaided or underaided - is unforgivable.  Christie's refusal to redistribute aid for the 2016-17 and 2017-18 aid cycles is terrible too, since there was legislative support for doing so.

So Christie is terrible overall, but there are glimpses of common sense in his record too. Christie-Sweeney-Prieto process should be given a chance to produce something decent.  If they can't agree or their proposal is bad, reject it, but don't reject something that doesn't yet exist.

So what's Steinhauer's real worry?  And what should our worry be about waiting until 2018?

First, Steinhauer hates Steve Sweeney in the first place over Sweeney's support for pension reform, but second, his policy worry is that Christie will agree with Sweeney to cut Adjustment Aid and then pressure Vincent Prieto to go along.

 The NJEA is strongly against cutting Adjustment Aid, denouncing the concept as "divisive" and that would "pit students and communities against each other in a fight over inadequate resources."

The NJEA, rather than seeing the stark differences between Sweeney's proposal and Christie's "Fairness Formula," see's Sweeney's proposal as "the lesser of two evils."

[NJEA Vice President] Blistan criticized two competing school funding proposals, one from Gov. Christie and one from Senate President Steve Sweeney that purport to address problems with school funding. Both proposals would reduce funding to hundreds of thousands of students. While Christie’s proposal is more draconian, Sweeney’s would reduce aid to approximately 715,000 students across the state. Both proposals would pit communities against each other and reduce funding too. Blistan was adamant that “choosing the lesser of two evils is not acceptable here.” She urged legislators to support a proposal championed by Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto that would preserve the existing formula while also studying it to determine where it could be more effective.

The NJEA also gives the Education Law Center a third of its funding too and has two members on the ELC's board, so the ELC's staunch opposition to cutting Adjustment Aid must also be interpretted as an NJEA stance.

So the NJEA is against reform too, even though it screws over the majority of NJEA affiliates and NJEA members who live in underaided districts.

Although it's difficult to make predictions for what Christie, Sweeney, & Prieto might actually agree on, we cannot afford to reject a proposal that hasn't even been made and that we are months away from even seeing.

Perhaps my optimism dies hard, but part of a deal could be an increase in K-12 aid for 2017-18 and that money could be channeled through a formula and go where it's needed most.

And even if there is no help for 2017-18, I want a fair framework in place for 2018-19.

Murphy with NJEA Leadership
2.  Phil Murphy is a Utopian, Not a Realist

Murphy rarely talks about state  and when he does, he shows no emotional feeling about how bad the crises are in many districts, even though Murphy strongly reacts against most of Christie's other misdeeds and accuses Christie of quite a bit Christie isn't responsible for.

Murphy also says inaccurate things about how SFRA even works, like a claim that it has extra weights for kids from single-parent families.  Like the NJEA, he also uses the misleading Capped Aid deficit, which is $1 billion instead of $2 billion.

In his August 2016 interview with Larry Mendte, Murphy refused two point-blank questions on whether or not he would redistribute aid and more recently in Murphy's endorsement of Steve Sweeney for the LD-3 Senate seat, he did not endorse Sweeney's Senate Presidency, nor did he mention state aid as something that he and Sweeney had in common.

I am pleased to endorse Senator Sweeney for re-election, and look forward to running together on a platform of growing our middle class and creating a new economy based on innovation, good-paying jobs, and fairness for workers — including equal pay for equal work.

Steve and I share many of the same goals for the years ahead: raising the minimum wage, repairing our dangerously outdated infrastructure, creating ‘green’ jobs in the alternative energy field, and fully funding Planned Parenthood and ending Chris Christie’s politically motivated war on women.

I look forward to working with Steve to make New Jersey a state that once again works for all of us.”
The fact that Murphy doesn't mention what has become Sweeney's signature issue is very revealing in my opinion.  Murphy could change, but so far, everything indicates that Murphy will defer to the NJEA on funding and preserve aid hoarding.

I'm sure that the most severely underaided districts would benefit under Murphy, but since NJ is not going to have the (at least) $2 billion it would take to fully fund SFRA, that means that NJ will still have a situation where districts get 150%, 200%, even 1000% of what they are supposed to get while others are significantly underfunded.

3.  Sweeney May Not Remain Senate President

We in the general public never really find out how someone becomes a legislative leader or how much longer someone will be in that post, but various NJ political websites like PolitickerNJ do speculate that Sweeney could be forced out of the Senate Presidency.

The NJEA is openly vowing that it will do everything in its power to defeat Steve Sweeney for the Senate, or failing that, as Senate President:

“We’re looking for a new governor and a new Senate president,”

For the last two years Steve Sweeney has been, without peer, the state's #1 champion for fair aid.  Our movement has no money behind it, nor any institutional support like from the NJ Policy Perspective.  The NJ School Boards Association is neutral and the Garden State Coalition of Schools is ineffective.  The Superintendents Association, led by Patrick Fletcher and Ken Greene, has been very vocal, but other than them, it's just Steve Sweeney.

It's possible that the next Senate President could also be in support of reform.  Paul Sarlo is sometimes spoken of as a Sweeney successor and Sarlo is quite good on aid.

By the same token , Vincent Prieto could be forced out too and be replaced by someone with whom Steve Fulop doesn't have "significant clout" too.

And although Phil Murphy is the frontrunner and has bottomless money plus affability, he might be defeated too and a strong reformer like Jack Ciattarelli could be elected. 

HOWEVER, there is no guarantee that either of the next Senate and Assembly leaders will support aid reform and might instead be perfectly content to allow Jersey City, Hoboken, Asbury Park's etc aid hoarding to continue forever.  They might be inclined to go along with the NJEA and double-fund districts for charter students as well, which would subtract from the aid available to other districts.

And even if the next leaders do favor reform, they might not prioritize it.

Chris Christie has already said that he has burned Steinhauer's editorial.  Let's hope that he, Sweeney, and Prieto can work out a fair plan because right now that's the only hope we've got.  

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