The above words, uttered by Bloomfield School Board member Mary Shaugnessy upon learning how New Jersey’s budget changes would affect education in the next year, pretty much summed up last night’s meeting between legislators, public school advocates, School Board members, and concerned citizens. Like the weather outside, it was grim and depressing.
As expected, a lot of ground was covered and a lot of suggestions were tossed around about how to deal with the current underfunding and expected additional cuts. I’ve included a brief history of the state’s budgeting problems and some bullet points about how this affects us as taxpayers, parents, and, overall, human beings.
A Brief History of Funding
The formula used to fund New Jersey’s public schools was derived in 2008, with its intentions being that the “money follows the child”. The amount each town and district gets is dependent on many things, but the three big funding areas are based on percentages of special needs children, those students who are not proficient in the English language and those who live in what the state considers poverty. The third group is important to Bloomfield because 45% of Bloomfield students meet these requirements and are entitled to certain programs such as free- or reduced lunch.
In 2008, this formula worked. Schools were adequately funded and programs were thriving. In 2009, however, everything changed. To balance the State’s budget, some 476 million dollars were taken back from education and districts began becoming intentionally underfunded. From 2010-2012, Bloomfield was underfunded nearly 18 million dollars and if the current pattern of underfunding continues, that number will grow exponentially.
The sad part about the underfunding, aside from the fact that it is acknowledged and intentional, that is, is that, right now, it’s the best we can hope for in terms of getting money to our schools. The current education budget being tossed around Trenton does away with the formula that works (when the money is not taken away) and replaces it with severe cuts to two of three major allocation areas - Limited-English speaking students and poverty-stricken ones. If the current administration has its way, the budget will be passed without a plan in place to deal with the fallout of these cuts and will drastically cut Bloomfield’s already tapped-out resources. They’re currently touting this as a “one-year trial” but the refusal to go about this the correct way, to put it on the table and discuss and compromise, is a scary prospect. Including it without going through proper legislative channels sets a dangerous precedent because it will require proper ones to undo this in the coming years. In addition, the school year is funded on a July-July basis, so many programs will be cut mid-year when monies dry up.
What this Means for You
The loss of education programs aimed at excellence, the death of after-school tutoring, higher property taxes, more out-of-pocket expenses, the loss of good teachers, higher student-to-teacher ratios, declining house values and a rise of petty crime spilling out of not only Bloomfield but surrounding towns that also are feeling the cut. Also, Governor Christie has threatened to shut down the state on July 1st if an agreement is not reached. Fun times.
What is Being Proposed by Lawmakers
Christie is proposing a 10% income tax cut for all NJ residents. While reducing taxes sounds great in this economy, it should be noted that this, in actuality, would only be about $80 per year for 95% of NJ residents. The other 5% of residents, those making over $250,000 but less than $500,000, would benefit the most from such a cut. The real losers would be the children because 30% of income taxes go to education, so less money from us equals less money for them.
How to bridge the gap and get more money to schools is also a heated debate in Trenton. The millionaire’s tax voted for and passed by New Jersey’s Congress was vetoed by Christie, would’ve easily helped bridge the gap and ensured that the wealthy were paying the same tax rates as the lower classes. There is also no support from the Governor’s office to consider casinos and gambling facilities aside from horse-racing at the Meadowlands as a means to raise money for education despite it working in Yonkers, NY and South Jersey getting support for virtually the same idea.
A glimmer of hope is that some legislators want to include a ballot item for residents to vote on stating that education budgeting shortfalls must trigger a millionaire’s tax to bridge the gap. If this passes, then it cannot be vetoed because NJ citizens voted it through. If all goes well, this item will be on the 2012-2013 ballot.
As expected, the issue of Charter Schools and how funding is being siphoned away from public schools, came up. Christopher Cerf, Acting Education Commissioner, is all for letting this get worse. The issue of virtual K-12 schools is going on the table soon and, if supported, there will be a statewide school that any child can attend, with their parents acting as moderators. Curriculums and laptops will be provided, teachers (some with more that 100 students each possibly) will be accessible by phone, and students will be left to their own devices. This, of course, means the “bricks and mortar” rule for Charter Schools, that schools must have a physical building, will be sidestepped. These virtual schools will receive State funding and will make a healthy profit for services they employ. It would cost them about $2,000 per year per student to run the program whereas the for-profits they employ will net around $13,000 per student. This money comes directly from our taxes and is taken away from established public schools. To make matters worse, states that have these virtual schools currently have shown abysmal graduation and on-time graduation numbers. So, essentially, we’re giving them money for nothing but convenience.
What You Could Do Right Now
There is always power in numbers. This budget may pass in two weeks if lawmakers think that we have no problem in it. Pick up the phone and call your Senate and Assembly Leadership immediately. Call Cerf and Christie. Let them know that the language changing the budget formula needs to be removed from the budget bill and that Virtual Charter Schools do not have your support.
Here’s the rundown of who we need to talk to and how to reach them:
Senate President Steve Sweeney 856-251-9801 SenSweeney@njleg.org
Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver 973-395-1166 AswOliver@njleg.org
Christopher Cerf 609-292-4450
Governor Chris Christie 609-292-6000
In addition, tell your friends, family, frenemies, pizza delivery man, anyone you know in other parts of the state to do the same. This issue touches everyone, even those without kids in school. We need to work together. Every child deserves a good education and public schools have been ignored for years in favor of privatization. Passing the formula change would bring us one step closer to that. As a parent and concerned citizen, I am beside myself that it’s gotten this far; the emergency brake should’ve been pulled on this decades ago. Anyone else up for stopping this in its tracks?