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March 31, 2014

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 their needs.

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 needs."

Related Stories:
Victory in PA: Advocates Win after Years of Effort
Many States Fail School Funding Test, They Can Do Better
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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