Group urges NJ to find $1B and fully fund school-aid formula — now!
The latest in a series of public-policy reports about New Jersey’s direction says lots of work, some of it costing lots of money, is needed around education – from expanding preschool to improving college degree completion rates.
Fund for New Jersey chair Deborah Poritz, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, said the split between the best and worst parts of the state’s schools are devastating for those not getting the best education possible.
The cure, the report says, includes fully funding the 2008 school-aid formula, which would cost the state another $1 billion, and redistribute existing funds.
“Not in any transition mode any more, not with transition funding, but fully fund it as it was enacted,” Poritz said.
The report also calls for increasing preschool spending, addressing segregation with more magnet schools and inter-district school choice and trying to increase the share of college students who finish their degree in the prescribed time, to limit how much debt they take on.
It is now three months short of 10 years since the state adopted its school-aid formula, the first approved of by the state Supreme Court since the school-funding lawsuits began in 1970. A year after its approval, though, the formula was essentially abandoned.
In addition to determining how formula aid is distributed, the school-funding law says tuition-free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds should be available by now in around 140 districts where at least 40 percent of kids are from low-income families.
Other districts would get pre-K money only for their at-risk children.
The report calls for recommitting to the expansion of the preschool program. Once fully phased in, hopefully by 2022, that would cost around $600 million, said Cecilia Zalkind, president and chief executive officer at Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
“The kids have waited a long time. Children who could have had preschool are now approaching middle school, right?” Zalkind said. “I think it’s a daunting number, but I do think this is something the state should commit to.”
The current state budget included an extra $25 million for preschool expansion, though Gov. Chris Christie redirected $5.6 million of that toward opioid treatment and prevention programs, saying that money was left over after eligible districts applied for this money this past summer.
Zalkind called that money a “promising first step … but only a small down payment” on what is needed. She said districts had three weeks to apply and no certainty the money would be available again next year. The number of applicants doesn’t mean there’s a lack of interest, she said.
Poritz said it’s painful that preschool hasn’t been expanded as promised.
“Every time we don’t do this, we lose another generation of children,” Poritz said.
“You catch them then, when they’re preschool age, and you can change their lives, and you can change the lives of the people around them,” she said.
Earlier Crossroads NJ reports called for the state to expand financial aid to undocumented immigrants, find a way to pay for reducing lead in drinking water systems, use motor-vehicle fees to help fund NJ Transit and devote realty transfer taxes to pay for affordable housing.
Poritz said the reports began with the one outlining the state’s fiscal problems, then called for beneficial programs and changes, to lay out a vision of what people want in a good state in which to live.
“If you want them, then you had better be prepared to take some pain, to look at the fiscal report and say, ‘I might be willing to tax myself because these values are so important to me,’” Poritz said.
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