NJ School Funding Formula Collides with Reality

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Both NJ Spotlight and the Star Ledger cover the discrepancies between  Gov. Christie’s actual school district state aid, per his budget,  and state aid calculated by the formula within a piece of legislation called the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008. The numbers were released after a complaint filed by Education Law Center.

A little history: the SFRA was an attempt by the Corzine Administration to move past the State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which allotted compensatory aid to 31 poor districts that lacked the tax base to provide equitable school funding. When the Legislature came up with SFRA,   Education Law Center tried to block it. The court’s Special Master ruled for the State on the condition that the formula be strictly observed.

SFRA differs from Abbott funding in that state school aid is based not on a town’s degree of poverty but on individual student need.  After all,  sometimes  poor children live in wealthier districts and sometimes poor districts become wealthier. (Think Hoboken, for example, which is still labeled as an Abbott district.)

But the primary driver for SFRA was liability. At the time, a separate law suit was working its way through the courts called the Bacon cases, which argued that some South Jersey suburban towns were equally poor as Abbotts but were receiving less aid. So  SFRA intended to render Abbott and Bacon litigation moot by providing school aid not by zip code but by child.

One flaw in SFRA: there’s no adjustments allowed for economic malaise or fiscal solvency. One could argue that there should be no latitude; after all, this is public education and, as such, should be immune from outside forces.

Then there’s reality. No governor has been able to fully fund SFRA since its first year of existence.  The discrepancy between Christie’s 2015 budget and the formula approved by the courts is close to $1 billion dollars. Spotlight has a handy widget that lets you see how much your district was short-changed.

From Spotlight:

“The aid notices issued today confirm what every public school parent and educator knows: Gov. Christie has decided not to follow the law and provide our public schools with the essential resources students need to be successful,” said David Sciarra, the ELC’s executive director.
“Our legal action has forced the Governor to disclose the full extent of his failure to properly fund schools across the state,” Mr. Sciarra said. “The Legislature now has the formula calculations required to evaluate the Governor’s inadequate proposal and to formulate a final budget that better responds to the needs of our students and schools.”

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  • kallikak, May 1, 2014 @ 6:26 pm Reply

    “No governor has been able to fully fund SFRA since its first year of existence.”

    No Governor who continues to favor the interests of the wealthy and corporations over those of the middle class that is.

  • JSB79, May 2, 2014 @ 3:51 pm Reply


    NJ's history of underfunding its state aid formulas started way before Chris Christie. CEIFA was underfunded for most of the 2008s until it was replaced by SFRA. The Kean era school finance law was underfunded as well in 1990.

    The state has never been able to fully fund its educational promises during recessions.

  • JSB79, May 2, 2014 @ 6:07 pm Reply

    Mrs. Waters,

    Thank you for this post. You are right to talk about the clash between SFRA and economic reality.

    Something I want to point out is that the SFRA numbers the DOE came out with are still for capped aid and thus represent just a partial step in funding SFRA.

    The consequence of this is that the state's aid distribution would be only slightly less irrational and unfair than it is now.

    For instance, Old Bridge would get $5126 a student, compared to poorer districts like Bloomfield getting $3852 a student and Clifton getting $2746. Randolph would get $2700 a student, but Clark would get $715. Marlboro would get $2300 a student, compared to West Orange only getting $1380 a student. Princeton and Cherry Hill would both get about $1440 a student, even though Princeton is much, much wealthier.

    Even finding the $1 billion for taking this incremental step towards SFRA full funding is extremely difficult Finding the many billions it would take to fully, fully fund SFRA and have a rational aid distribution is likely impossible.

    I'm sorry, but SFRA's funding goals are not reality based.

  • kallikak, May 3, 2014 @ 2:03 pm Reply

    SFRA funding shortfalls + 2% tax levy cap + more unfunded mandates = slow-motion train-wreck for NJ public schools.

    Don't be misled: this is exactly the outcome sought by the Governor as justification for his 'Shock Doctrine' reforms.

  • NJ Left Behind, May 4, 2014 @ 3:37 pm Reply

    Hi, JSB79. I agree: SFRA and reality are irreconcilable.

    Kallikak, Corzine didn't fully fund SFRA either, except for the first year. No governor could.

  • JSB79, May 7, 2014 @ 5:07 pm Reply

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • JSB79, May 7, 2014 @ 5:09 pm Reply


    I agree, NJ districts are under huge budget strain, but I don't agree with you on causality.

    Health care costs are the biggest factor in the budget crises that NJ school districts are in. Health care costs also contribute to soaring OOD tuition, perhaps the second biggest driver of budget unsustainability.

    Some recent unfunded mandates have a lot of merit, like the unfunded mandates on HIB and dyslexia screening and aren't that expensive either. I will grant you that there are high hidden costs regarding teacher evaluation and the PARCCs. One could argue that these projects lack merit (I would disagree), but even here the costs aren't as high as for health care.

    The 2% tax cap is a soft cap. It has exemptions for health care and student population growth. Voters can override it too by approving a higher budget, like voters used to do before November elections were allowed and the cap existed. The reason that districts are trying to stick with 2% is that their taxpayers can't/won't pay more than that. It's not like New Jerseyans' incomes are rising above 2% a year.

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