On Tuesday, April 12, New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe and School Development (SDA) Authority Executive Director Charles McKenna testified in front of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee concerning the proposed fiscal year 2017 state budget.

Commissioner Hespe noted the $13 billion in education spending, including pension and benefits payments for school employees, now constitutes 38 percent of the state budget.

The commissioner also highlighted the creation of a new aid category of Professional Learning Community Aid. Funded at $10 per student, for a total of $13 million, this new aid is intended to support the development of learning communities within and across districts, in order to help teachers and administrators analyze and use the data they collect. Although not specifically tied to the new PARCC assessments, the commissioner highlighted the data PARCC will generate as an example of where learning communities can flourish.

The chair of the committee, Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), began the questioning by inquiring about Atlantic City. Sen. Sarlo noted the recent deal allowing casinos in northern New Jersey, which included a $200 million annual payment to support Atlantic City, may be better spent elsewhere, such as funding schools. Commissioner Hespe went on to explain the machinations of the state’s lawsuit against Atlantic City compelling the city government to make required payments to the school.

The commissioner also engaged in a lengthy discussion with several committee members, most notably Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), concerning the funding formula, adjustment aid and districts that may be funded at either over or under “adequacy.” Hespe noted many of the current inadequacies are the result of the state failing to run the formula annually, which has been a long-standing, bipartisan problem since he began working in New Jersey public policy in the 1980s.

Additionally, fully funding the formula to meet the requirements of the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) would require just under $1 billion in extra funding that currently does not exist in state coffers. Sen. Beck raised the point that even if the total state aid cannot be 100 percent (it currently is about 85 percent) there should be steps taken towards fairness to address the disparities between the districts that currently receive more than 100 percent of what the formula would entitle them to, and the districts that receive less than half of what the school funding formula would provide them.

The education commissioner is scheduled to testify on education spending in the proposed budget before the Assembly Budget Committee on April 20.