One of the most encouraging signs that emerged in the early days of the new legislative session was the approval by the state Senate to establish a task force to conduct an annual study of the public education assistance system in New Jersey.
The main responsibility of the seven-member commission – formally the Working Group on Assessing the School Funding Formula – will be to re-evaluate the 2008 state aid law, which sparked controversy over the gradual reduction of state aid to bring districts in line with the original aid formula.
The bipartisan support for the task force – it was approved 34-0 – predicts well its future in the Assembly, hopefully leading to a speedy review and approval.
It is important that the task force be given wide freedom to conduct a thorough study of the aid formula and that its work be free from pressure and demands of private interests.
He should avoid working on the margins or in parts; rather, its goal should be to develop a comprehensive, meticulously fair aid program to continue the state for decades to come, while remaining flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions.
A long, tormented story
The creation of the aid formula has aroused distrust in governors and legislatures since the state Supreme Court overturned the previous program in 1973 – nearly half a century ago.
Since then, the issue has been in court and beyond, and in the following decades of litigation the court ruled on a number of legislative attempts to satisfy the constitutional mandate to ensure a “thorough and efficient” public education system.
For years, this formula has been attacked as unfair, preferring suburban and rural areas and preferring large urban areas.
The system, in which 5% of school districts receive 60% of total state aid, critics say, is a compelling illustration of the inequality inherent in the formula.
This has become a common topic in both provincial and legislative elections, as candidates have pointed to the need to radically reconsider it rather than messing with it and not addressing its fundamental problems and shortcomings.
It is demonized as a major factor in the notoriously high property taxes in the state, with education consuming an average of 53% of the average homeowner’s annual bill of $ 9,284. In several municipalities, the share of the school district is as much as two-thirds.
Counties received $ 16.6 billion in local property taxes nationwide and another $ 9.2 billion in state aid last year, making public education the most expensive government activity.
Past attempts at reform have failed
Despite periodic proposals to explore more radical changes in the way public schools are maintained, which are usually seen in the context of a sharp decline in property taxes, it has remained solely a system of state aid combined with local property taxes.
Governors and legislators have chosen increasing state aid as the most effective controlling factor, allocating billions of dollars year after year and often resisting pressure to secure billions more. Political funding and minor adjustments to aid assistance often become politically painful points as local education authorities claim the state has left them a choice between raising property taxes or cutting staff and eliminating curriculum proposals.
More attention is being paid to mergers and associations, but so far the experience of promoting them has not been very successful.
Replacing dependence on property taxes or eliminating the need altogether by alternative local tax authorities – such as imposing income taxes or sales taxes – rarely took place during the talks, as lawmakers almost automatically deviate from any hints of new taxes.
Further ideas included convening a constitutional convention to review the entire state’s tax structure and recommend a revision of ways to collect and spend revenue. It also never went beyond the conversation stage.
The proposed task force is the best opportunity to bring together experts in fiscal and education policy and empower them not only to analyze the current funding formula, but also to move to related areas that strongly influence relations between state and local governments.
The task will be difficult. But wasting the chance to take on what is perhaps this most significant challenge will lead to much greater difficulties and costs in the years to come.
It is now in the hands of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. A quick approval will set a very encouraging tone for the new legislature.