Sweeney Op-Ed: New school funding law aids schoolchildren, taxpayers

View Senate President Sweeney’s Op-Ed in the Star Ledger on the school funding law that was signed into law.

The landmark school funding fairness reform signed into law y the governor ensures that the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 will live up to its promise to provide fair and full funding for all schoolchildren, regardless of where they live.

It does so by lifting the “growth cap” that penalized growing districts and phasing out the hundreds of millions of dollars of “adjustment aid” going to school districts for students who are no longer there.

State aid will finally be distributed based on each district’s property tax wealth, its ability to pay, enrollment changes, and the special needs of its schoolchildren, fulfilling the state Constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” education for all schoolchildren.

For the 72 percent of schoolchildren and taxpayers living in urban, suburban and rural school districts that have been underfunded for years, this legislation and the budget bill we passed last month will guarantee that you get the state aid and property tax relief you deserve.

And we did it by putting in special safeguards to ensure that schoolchildren in districts that would be losing state aid continue to receive the “thorough and efficient” education to which they are entitled.

This new law is the culmination of months of bipartisan hearings by Senate and Assembly committees that developed into a budget initiative in June 2017 that provided the first significant boost in state aid to underfunded districts in nine years as part of last year’s budget.

It could not have been accomplished without the thousands of hours and phone calls put in by parent advocates like Jennifer Cavallaro-Fromm of Kingsway Regional and Andrea Katz of Chesterfield who mobilized a statewide Fair School Funding Coalition and watched tearfully as their children and other children pushed the buttons on the Senate floor to pass the bill last month.

Finally, it would not have been as good a law without the insights provided publicly and privately by school funding experts, superintendents, principals, school board members and educational organizations, and by Gov. Phil Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex.

We put $351 million into this year’s budget to bring the overwhelming majority of underfunded districts up to 58 percent of funding immediately, providing a net increase in school aid for districts in 17 out of 21 counties.

This legislation guarantees that all future state aid increases from redirected adjustment aid or state appropriations will be allocated fairly to districts based on their proportional share of total underfunding.

While the elimination of the growth cap and the seven-year phase-out of adjustment aid were the most important provisions of the law, I am proud of the last set of changes we made to protect the quality of education.

The vast majority of school districts scheduled to lose adjustment aid are spending well above “adequacy” — the level set through the School Funding Reform Act and upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court as necessary to provide the “thorough and efficient” education required by the New Jersey Constitution.

But we wanted to make sure that state aid was not cut to districts with above average property tax burdens that are spending less than adequacy. We also wanted to ensure that students did not suffer in districts that are receiving more than their fair share of state aid, but are still underfunded because their communities are paying less than their fair share of property taxes.

For that reason, we added a series of amendments to the bill designed to provide additional protections for students in about 35 urban, suburban and rural districts where we wanted to make sure adjustment aid cuts would not imperil the quality of education.

Recognizing the concept of “municipal overburden” discussed by the Supreme Court in its decision upholding the constitutionality of the SFRA, we set standards that will eliminate or reduce adjustment aid cuts in about 10 districts ranging from urban East Orange to smaller Fairfield Township in Cumberland County. These are districts where property taxes are way above the state average, leading the court to worry they might be “unable to raise their LFS (Local Fair Sharein future years.”

We also take steps to ensure that about 25 districts that are spending below adequacy — even though they have been receiving adjustment aid for years — provide sufficient local funding to offset their adjustment aid reductions in the years ahead, averting another potential constitutional issue.

Former Abbott districts that are facing adjustment aid cuts — some of which are taxing far below the state average — will be given cap waivers authorizing them to raise school property taxes to their full Local Fair Share.

Nothing is more important to our future than the quality of education we provide to our schoolchildren.

I am proud this new law will guarantee full and fair funding and a quality education for all of our children.