New school funding formula emphasizes student needs


Attempting to address perceived inequities in the distribution of state aid to local school districts, as well as skyrocketing property tax rates, Gov. Jon Corzine unveiled a new funding formula that focuses not on the location of the district itself but on the individual students within.

The new funding formula, the lineby line specifics of which are set to be formally unveiled on Dec. 13, is a marked change from the current way Trenton determines how much state aid goes to each district.

As of now, funding is primarily determined through a school’s location, with wealthier areas receiving less aid and poorer ones receiving more. This has led to some criticism, because even in areas that may have an average higher income than others, there may still be students in need who require extra money to educate. To this end, the governor is proposing a fundamental shift in the state aid formula, from a district’s location to how many needy students a district has. While the specific numbers have yet to be released, the formula itself has already been vetted before legislators and mayors.

The basic mechanism behind the formula is a base rate – yet to be released – given for every student in a district. Districts will receive the base amount for elementary school students, the base amount plus additional aid for middle school students, and the base amount plus additional aid for high school students.

Certain classifications will then add to the base rate. Students who are considered “at risk” will receive additional aid, and the definition of “at risk” has been expanded: where it previously meant a student eligible for free lunch programs, under the new formula it would mean a student eligible under a free or reduced lunch program. Students who are classified as “limited English proficiency” (LEP) would also count for receiving additional state aid. Students who are both LEP and at risk would result in still more funding.

Special-education aid would also be retooled, with funding changing from a per-classification model to a flat rate based on the number of students.

Other changes would include calculating teachers’ salaries based on the mean rather than the median, additional aid for security in high-risk concentrations, capital improvement costs being factored into the formula where it wasn’t before, and the consideration of the local fair share for districts to be based half on the community’s income and half on the community’s real estate values.

According to Deborah Bredahl, coordinator for No Child Left Behind and assessment for the Edison district, the township has about 1,600 students (11.7 percent of the district’s roughly 14,000 population) who would be considered atrisk students. About 300 students are classified as LEP, of those students, 87 are also considered at risk. The current school year’s budget, said Bredahl, has $14,535,530 in state aid in it. Acting Superintendent of Schools John DiMuzio said he would like to see the finer details of the school spending plan before making a comment.

Woodbridge’s school district, meanwhile, has 3,301 students who would be considered at risk under the new proposal, 397 considered as LEP, and, of those, 108 would also be considered at risk. The district received $20,258,950 in state aid in the current year’s budget.

Metuchen’s school district has 122 students who would be considered at risk, 22 classified as LEP, and, of those, seven are at risk. The district received $1,536,937 in state aid this year.

It is estimated that the changes in the state aid funding formula will cost at least $450 million. The governor has not yet said where the money will come from. Ideally, he would like to pass the new measure before the legislative session ends in January.

Edison Mayor Jun Choi, chair of the Mayors’ School Funding Committee, an organization composed of the mayors from 24 municipalities, was briefed on the governor’s proposed funding formula shortly after it was first rolled out. Choi looked at the plan favorably, saying that its implementation would finally give the township its “fair share” of state aid, noting that Edison is the largest non-Abbott District in New Jersey.

“The big picture on this is that this proposal would be great for Edison because it gives us our fair share of state aid and helps us achieve longer-term property tax stabilization – you know, that’s the main reason why I got involved in this effort,” said Choi.

He noted that the current way that state aid is doled out is unfair because Edison is counted as a wealthy district, but also has lower- and middle-class students who also need assistance.

“The state deems us too wealthy, while we are a middle-class community. … We deserve our fair share of state aid in education, and the [changes] used in the adequacy model increases our aid level,” Choi said.

He also said that some were wondering whether the state would have enough money to pay for this proposal, but that he and the other mayors are planning to draft a set of recommendations addressing these concerns. He stressed that regardless of how much state aid comes in, the focus for schools should still be on fiscal responsibility and making sure money is spent wisely.

Woodbridge Superintendent Vincent Smith said that from what he has seen so far, the governor’s proposal is a good idea, though he noted that there are still many unknowns.

“Well, obviously on paper it sounds encouraging … they are moving forward with it, something we haven’t had for a long time. State aid was frozen for five straight years, so this is some progress, from what we see so far. But I think what it comes down to is, when we see a number, we’ll see how well we did,” Smith said.