In 2006 in Kansas, 2007 in New Jersey, and 2008 in Pennsylvania, state legislators
enacted new school funding systems that tied funding to each state's academic
learning standards. They intended to provide quality educational opportunity
to all students. Now, however, advocates and litigators are pushing today's
legislators and governors to honor these state laws.
During the last 25 years, all states adopted academic learning standards that
spell out what students need to know and be able to do in order to become capable
citizens and workers in the 21st century. States often tied their college teacher
preparation programs and their K-12 curriculum and assessments to these standards.
But an essential building block was missing. Many states failed to fund the
standards. They stopped short of designing school funding systems that would
provide the basic resources students need to actually reach the standards.
Many states set the bar high and ordered students and schools to jump over.
But when missing funding for basic resources put students in a hole, few could
make up for the deficits and jump out of the hole and over the bar.
Less than ten years ago, Kansas, New Jersey and Pennsylvania drew praise because
they made the connections between their academic standards and the resources
needed to enable students to reach them. And, they took the crucial step of
tying their school funding systems to those resources.
Fast forward to 2014. The recession and significant tax cuts have led to major
underfunding of public schools in all three of these states. These states are
violating their own funding laws. Court rulings in New Jersey and Kansas have
required the legislators and governors to reinstate at least part of these
cuts. In Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth slashed funding, generally, and especially
from the Philadelphia School District, causing over a $300 million shortfall
in that district alone. But, no court-ordered relief has yet emerged in PA.
Most recently, in New Jersey, the governor is trying to abandon the state
statute that controls K-12 school funding. In papers
filed late last week, the Education Law Center
(ELC) asks the New Jersey Supreme Court to step-in and uphold the State's cutting-edge
funding formula to calculate education aid for the 2014-15 school year. This
formula ties funding to the state's academic learning standards and includes
significant weights for "at-risk" students, who require programs that address
To prepare state aid notices sent to all school districts a month ago, the
state decided not to use the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), New Jersey's
funding formula enacted with bipartisan support in 2008. The aid notices did
not contain the amount of state aid districts should receive next year under
the formula or their "adequacy budgets."
Under the SFRA, the adequacy budget represents the overall funding districts'
need to deliver the State's academic standards to students.
According to ELC's court filings, the governor's refusal to use the SFRA formula
violates 2009 and 2011 NJ Supreme Court rulings in the landmark Abbott v.
Burke case. In the 2009 ruling, the Court allowed the State to implement
the SFRA, but only if the State operated the formula from year-to-year at its "optimal
level." In 2011, the Court, in ordering the State to restore $500 million in
funding cut from high-need districts, again ordered the State to keep the formula
running properly in future years. In both rulings, the Court made crystal clear
the State has a continuing obligation to operate the formula every year to
ensure all students the resources they need for a constitutional "thorough
and efficient" education.
"The Governor's abandonment of the funding formula defies two explicit Supreme
Court orders," said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and lead counsel
in the Abbott case. "We will not let the Governor return New Jersey
to the pre-SFRA era when funding decisions were irrational and had no concrete
link to the cost to enable all students to achieve State academic standards,
especially at-risk children across the state."
ELC is asking the Court to order the Commissioner of Education to issue state
aid notices to districts that include the amount of aid payable under the formula
and the district's "adequacy budgets." ELC is also asking for the Commissioner
to notify districts of the approved adjustments to the formula's costs, weights
and aid amounts for FY15 and FY16, as the SFRA law requires.
"It is critical that the Court order the Commissioner to issue these notices
forthwith so that district officials and parents know how much funding schools
need to deliver State academic standards, and the amount of funding they should
be receiving under the formula. Legislators must have this information to evaluate
the paltry $36 million statewide increase offered by the Governor and to decide
how much additional aid to appropriate in the FY15 State budget to meet student