NJ Spotlight

There was a pro-public schools protest at the State House to coincide with the governor's address.


Before Gov. Phil Murphy presented his fiscal year 2020 budget yesterday, the scene outside the State House belied what would come inside. Dozens of placard-carrying students and teachers lined the sidewalk, doing their part to make sure that a pro-public school message would carry the day.

And indeed, Murphy proposed in his $38.6 billion budget an increase in state aid to districts by $206.2 million and another $68 million for preschools, continuing a trend from his first two years in office. Overall school aid is by far the single biggest piece of the budget, now amounting to $15.5 billion.

And maybe the best news for schools is there seemed to be general agreement between Murphy and the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, with Senate President Steve Sweeney even saying afterward that there may be more money to come.

Nothing is certain in New Jersey politics, and after all, school aid last year became the dividing line that almost led to a state government shutdown. And much will be determined when state aid figures for each district come out Thursday, the true mark of who wins and loses.

But in the meantime, there appeared a few takeaways for schools from yesterday’s budget presentation.

The march to full funding continues

Murphy’s additional $206 million for K-12 education continues his and the Legislature’s vow last year to move toward full funding of the School Finance Reform Act within seven years. The new money does not keep pace with the $351 million added to the education pot last year, but Murphy was nonetheless keeping the promise.

The wild card is how the money will be distributed, and whether there will there be the same number of districts seeing cuts as in 2018. Last year, close to 200 districts ended up on the wrong side of the formula, prompting a legal challenge from nearly a dozen of them.

Under the agreement last year, districts receiving hold-harmless or so-called “adjustment aid” saw those funds start to be phased out, and this year it will be cut by another 8 percent, or roughly $80 million.

Advocates pushed back, with the Education Law Center yesterday voicing its concerns for any needy districts seeing cuts. But Murphy this year appears to be going along with it, at least so far, as his budget summary acknowledged a shift of aid from some “overfunded” districts to others.

Preschool is a clearer winner

Murphy proposed another $68 million for the expansion of preschool, a big jump exceeding even last year’s $50 million. By a rough estimate, that’s another 6,800 students who will receive a full-day, high-standards preschool program for at least one year.

“Given the difficulties of the budget, it’s good news,” said Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “It’s more money in new districts and expansion in existing districts.”

“Overall, the country is making very small progress,” he continued. “Some states are moving ahead very aggressively, as are some cities like New York, Philadelphia and Seattle, too. Meanwhile, Delaware has been in the same spot for 10 years with no movement. So in a lot of states, $68 million would be a big win.”

Special education could be next focus

While Murphy and legislative leaders have worked to get this far on the funding formula, the next area of discussion increasingly looks to be special education. The administration has indicated that it is a priority, saying they would add at least another $5 million. But Sweeney yesterday pressed them harder.

In an interview after the budget address, the senator from Gloucester County said the Legislature may be willing to throw in as much as $200 million more for so-called extraordinary aid for students with the highest costs. Right now, the state barely pays half of costs that exceed the thresholds.

“I will talk to the administration, but can we do another $200 million?” he said. “I am strongly supportive of that. What that would do is totally fund extraordinary aid, and that would help every district in the state.”

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