Budget Guide

What will Gov. Murphy’s budget mean for Newark schools? Here’s what you need to know.

PHOTO: Phil Murphy for Governor
Gov. Phil Murphy, shown here in a photo from 2014, will release his first-ever budget plan on Tuesday.

Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on a pledge to ramp up education spending, and Newark school leaders are watching closely to see if he’ll keep that promise – or if they might have to slash their budgets.

Murphy is set to unveil his first-ever budget plan Tuesday. While districts will not get detailed aid figures for a few more days, Murphy’s budget proposal should give them a sense of how much of a boost — if any — to expect.

Expectations are high in Newark, where flat state funding and rapid charter school growth has left district officials scrambling to plug gaping budget holes. They’re hoping Murphy will give them some portion of the $140 million in additional aid that the city is owed under state law.

“This budget season is very, very important for us,” Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

To help you understand what’s at stake for the city’s schools, Chalkbeat Newark created a state budget guide. It explains how school funding is set and what that means for Newark’s district and charter schools, whose financial fate is controlled by politicians in Trenton.

How are New Jersey schools funded?

New Jersey schools are funded according to a formula that was adopted in 2008 and has been touted as a national model for distributing school aid according to need.

The formula calculates two things: How much money each district needs to adequately educate its students (its “adequacy budget”), and what portion of the budget should be paid by the district (its “fair share”). The budget amount is determined by how many students a district enrolls, with extra money allocated for each student who is poor, still learning English, or has a disability. The share each district must chip in is based on its wealth and taxing capacity.

That’s how things are supposed to work, anyway.

Due to budget cuts that followed the Great Recession, the formula has not been properly enacted since 2009. Today, about 31 percent of the state’s nearly 600 school districts receive less school aid than the formula says they’re owed, according to the Education Law Center. To fully fund the formula, the state would need to boost its school spending by nearly $1 billion.

What might change this year?

If the governor keeps his promise, schools will get a lot more money.

On the campaign trail, Murphy, a Democrat, vowed to fully fund the school-aid formula “immediately.” However, he recently appeared to waver on that timeline — and few observers consider it realistic.

Still, any serious funding boost will be costly. To raise the additional revenue, Murphy has proposed hiking income taxes on households making more than $1 million, among other measures.

But Murphy’s “millionaire’s tax” has become a harder sell following the Republican federal tax overhaul, which capped the amount people can deduct on their taxes. Last week, the state’s top Democratic lawmaker, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, unveiled an alternative proposal: a tax on corporations earning more than $1 million in net annual income. Either plan would generate more than $600 million in new revenue for the state — though it remains to be seen how much of that would go toward education.

While Murphy and lawmakers have until June 30 to hash out the state budget, districts are on the hook to set their own preliminary budgets by the end of March. That means they must rely on Murphy’s spending plan for now, then make adjustments once a final compromise is reached.

“It’s totally crazy,” said Danielle Farrie, the Education Law Center’s research director.

What will the budget mean for Newark Public Schools?

Newark’s limited tax base leaves it at the mercy of the state, which provides about 80 percent of its school funding.

This school year, the state sent Newark about $750 million — about $140 million less than what it’s entitled to under the school-funding formula. Gregory told Chalkbeat in January that if the district gets even a fraction of what it’s owed, “we’ll be in a better place.”

The Newark school system has faced whopping budget gaps in recent years. Two factors have driven the deficits: the rapid growth of charter schools and flat state funding.

Because charter school funding comes out of district budgets, Newark spending on charters has soared as those schools enroll ever more students. This school year, the district will transfer about $237 million — or a quarter of its budget — to charter schools, up from $60 million in the 2008-09 school year.

Meanwhile, state aid to Newark has not kept up with its rising expenses. The result is that the district’s per-pupil spending shrank by nearly $2,000 from 2008-09 to 2016-17, according to an Education Law Center analysis that adjusted for inflation. (The state boosted Newark’s budget each of the past two years.)

To balance the budget, Newark officials have had to sell off school buildings, switch employee insurance providers, and raise local taxes, among other measures. The district has mostly avoided cutting school budgets — though it did recently shift some funds from high schools to elementary schools. But if state funding is flat this year, officials worry they will be left with few other options.

“The last place to go is in school buildings,” Gregory said. However, “if we face flat funding again, that could lead to an immediate impact on students.”

What about Newark’s charter schools?

Today, about one third of Newark’s public-school students — or roughly 16,000 children — attend charter schools.

About 90 percent of the district’s local and state funding for each of those students follows them to their charter schools — though charters are excluded from certain funding streams. Murphy has been more skeptical of charters than his predecessor. But advocates hope that his budget will, at the very least, not leave them with less money.

“We’re just generally looking for charters to be unharmed — for us not to go backwards,” said Nicole Cole, president and CEO of the New Jersey Charter Schools Association. “The families that we serve can’t afford for us to take a step backwards.”

parent power

From Amazon to air conditioners, parent leaders quizzed de Blasio and Carranza at forum

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Mayor Bill de Blasio and schools Chancellor Richard Carranza host a forum for parents in Queens, the first of five stops across the city.

Deborah Alexander, a parent whose school district covers Long Island City, asked Mayor Bill de Blasio Wednesday night why the local Community Education Council wasn’t asked to be on a committee providing input on Amazon’s controversial move to the Queens neighborhood.

De Blasio agreed. “You’re right,” the mayor said,  “the CEC should be on the committee, so we’re going to put the CEC on that committee.”

Not every question received such a cut-and-dry answer at the mayor and Chancellor Richard Carranza’s first “parent empowerment” listening tour event in Queens that drew about 200 local parents who were elected or appointed to certain boards and received invites. The pair faced a host of tough questions from parent leaders about problems including school overcrowding, the lack of air conditioners, lead in water, and busing.

By the end of the meeting, de Blasio told the audience that they should always get quick responses to their questions from the department and “that you can feel the impact of your involvement…that’s up to us to help that happen.”

He also called the listening tour “overdue,” and said that Carranza has told him the city needs to do more to reach out. Parents have often criticized city officials for not being plugged into the community.

Some questions needed more time to be answered. Bethany Thomas, co-president of the PTA at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, asked why the education department had not yet signed off on aspects of the school’s plan to have more than one principal. De Blasio asked Carranza to come up with an answer by next month.

Another parent said students at P.S. 62 were drinking from school water fountains that tested positive for lead last year, even though, according to the parent, the issue had not been addressed. De Blasio asked city officials to visit the school Thursday.

Other comments were even more complicated, often causing de Blasio and Carranza to rush parents along and condense comments to one specific issue. One Asian parent, who serves on a middle school’s PTA, gave an impassioned speech about feeling like “the enemy” after de Blasio announced a proposal in June to scrap the specialized high schools admissions test in order to diversify the schools. Currently 62 percent of specialized high school students are Asian.

“This was not about saying anyone is the bad guy,” de Blasio said, who has defended the plan as a way to bring more black and Hispanic students to those high schools.

Several parents asked why their schools still don’t have air conditioners. After de Blasio and Carranza said there is a plan to put air conditioners in every school by 2021, a mother with children at John Adams High School tearfully explained that her children will be out of school by then.

Carranza said he understood her problem, and the department would follow up, but that electrical wiring at each building makes it tough to solve the problem sooner than planned.

Alexander — the parent who asked about Amazon — questioned Carranza and de Blasio about how parent feedback would be used. She talked about the resolutions her Community Education Council passes that never get responses or feedback from the education department.

“We come, all of us, unpaid, away from our families, away from our jobs, away from bed times and dinners,” Alexander said. “We want to know what we’re doing is impactful, not a checked box.”

De Blasio said the city owes her “a process,” and department officials should respond in “real-time” — which could mean a couple of weeks. Carranza and de Blasio pledged to get a report of the meeting back to the parent leaders, noting how city leaders are following up with concerns.

elected school board

In Chicago, not everyone agrees with the grassroots call for an elected school board

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum on the city's next mayor and public schools included, from left, Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, Daniel Anello, Jitu Brown, and Beth Swanson

Despite a growing call for an elected school board, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to Chicago’s troubled public school system.

Panelists at a Chalkbeat Chicago forum Wednesday evening split on whether an elected school board would offer more public accountability, especially given concerns that factions such as the teachers union would out-organize, and outspend, other candidates.

Daniel Anello, the CEO of school choice group Kids First, said he worried that an election determined by the size of campaign spending wouldn’t necessarily produce a board responsive to student and family needs.

“You need a school board that is representative of the communities we are talking about, but I worry if you take away accountability from the mayor, the mayor can absolve themselves of schools,” said Anello, noting his worries about big money entering a school board election. “My concern is that it is going to turn into a proxy war of ideology.”  

PHOTO: Stephen J. Serio
The crowd at the Chalkbeat Chicago Education for All event at Malcolm X College

The conversation was part of a larger discussion, hosted by Chalkbeat Chicago and sponsored by a new AT&T economic development initiative called Believe Chicago, about the next mayoral election and the future of city schools. Of the leading mayoral candidates who were invited, Lori Lightfoot and Paul Vallas attended.

The evening produced little agreement, except that school quality still differs dramatically by the address and race of students, and that the next mayor needs to be willing to have difficult, and even confrontational, conversations.

In addition to Anello, the panelists included Elizabeth Swanson, the vice president of strategy and programs at the Joyce Foundation and the former deputy chief of staff for education for outgoing Mayor Rahm Emanuel; community organizer Jitu Brown, who led the 2013 hunger strike that saved Dyett High School; and Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a county commissioner and newly elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Brown, who is the national director for the community education group Journey for Justice, made an impassioned plea for an elected school board, calling it one of the few pathways for communities of color to regain any influence over an education system he argued wasn’t working for them.

“In order for us to hold a system that has never loved us accountable, we must have democracy, we must have decision-making authority around how these institutions function in our community,” Brown said. “Is this a silver bullet? No. But is it a necessary ingredient? Yes.”

Another burning question raised during the night:. Should homegrown schools chief Janice Jackson keep her job?

Brown praised Jackson as a talented teacher and strong principal in the black community before her ascent to the central office — but expressed deep concern that she’s unable to run the district “with her instincts and what she knows how to do.”

“I think her work is highly politicized,” Brown said. “National Teachers Academy was being closed over a land grab, and her position on that was not the right position. Parents had to go to state appellate court in order to get that victory. Situations like that give me pause.”

But Anello and Swanson answered with high praise for the work Jackson has done and strong endorsements for her continuing to run the show at the nation’s third-largest school district.

Anello touted Jackson as a down-to-earth and accessible schools chief.

“If you want to have a conversation with her just pick up the phone,” he said. “That is rare in a school leader. It would be a shame and an absolute mistake to tell her to step down when you have a unicorn.”

Swanson said Jackson’s on-the-ground experience in school communities helps her relate to and inspire educators and school leaders, and her experience managing the $5 billion Chicago Public Schools make her a strong candidate to keep the job, whoever occupies the mayor’s office next year.

“I think Janice is an incredible leader, really unique,” Swanson said.

Panelists also diverged on whether the new mayor should freeze charter school expansion in the city.

Garcia questioned whether the city’s more than 100 charter schools have lived up to their billing as laboratories to experiment with and improve education. Chicago, he said, has “been infected with charter mania,” and instead needs to pivot toward the importance of ensuring current schools are adequately funded.

Anello tried quelling the debate on charters vs. neighborhood schools, arguing that parents are agnostic about school type and more concerned about quality education and good schools for their children.

“I would start by listening to communities and families,” he said.