Acting Education Commissioner Talks School Funding in Fort Lee
Chris Cerf was at Fort Lee School No. 2 Monday, saying the state is striving for a “more rational and fair program” for funding schools.
New Jersey’s Acting Commissioner of Education discussed the state’s new school funding formula on a short visit to Fort Lee School No. 2 Monday morning.
“I’ve heard about the district and its successes and wanted to meet this guy,” Acting Commissioner Chris Cerf said of Interim Superintendent Steven Engravalle, adding that the state announced last week “schools that are in desperate need of improvement and the schools that are really soaring.”
“And this district is noteworthy,” Cerf said in the School No. 2 library, where he had an informal chat with Engravalle, Acting Assistant Superintendent Sharon Amato, Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, School No. 2 principal Marianela Martin and Fort Lee Board of Education president Arthur Levine.
The New Jersey Department of Education (DOE) in fact recognized Fort Lee School No. 4 last week as a “Reward School” for showing outstanding student growth over the past three years.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced the proposed funding formula in February. Cerf said the current funding formula is based substantially on the number of at-risk children in a district’s population—defined as the number of students eligible for the federal Free and Reduced Price School Lunch Program.
“[That] is a perfectly reasonable hypothesis,” Cerf said. “We just happen to know that that count is inaccurate. It may be inaccurate on the high side; it may be inaccurate on the low side.”
Noting that Engravalle was recently named to the governor’s Education Funding Task Force, Cerf said the charge to that committee is to determine an answer to the question, “Is there a better way to do this?”
Cerf went on to highlight certain aspects of the governor’s proposed funding formula. Included among those highlights were the following:
- A “substantial increase year-to-year” in aggregate funding for K-12 education, which Cerf said is “more than any other governor in any other year.”
"New jersey is—in relative terms—extremely generous to its K-12 education," Cerf said. “It is almost $18,000 per child.”
In former Abbott Districts that amount is about $23,000 per child, he said.
- Adjustment aid, which Cerf described as “essentially a compromise that came out of the Legislature.”
“It basically provides that districts were guaranteed to receive more money than the formula itself kicked out and were guaranteed not to receive any reduction in funds based on the new formula,” Cerf explained. “That slug of money is called ‘adjustment aid,’ and it is our proposal to reduce adjustment aid by 50 percent over the next five years, but only for districts that are above adequacy.”
- A change in what are called “weights”
“There’s an amount called the foundation amount,” Cerf explained. “And then to that is added a percentage for children who come with particular needs or challenges.”
He said that after an arduous process, his department was able to bring the weights down “marginally.”
“We’re trying to migrate towards a more rational and fair program,” Cerf said, adding that the governor has proposed an “innovation fund” as well.
Under that proposal, districts that are “getting great results” through innovative programs would be rewarded, essentially with grant funding.
“It’s a totally different way of thinking about funding because it’s about not just putting money out by formula,” Cerf said. “It’s about actually encouraging innovation and results.”
After the informal discussion in the School No. 2 library and a brief Q&A with the media, Cerf visited two classes of second grade students—taught by Sara Cuomo and Sheryl DeLuca respectively—and personally presented first grade teacher Cheryl Zoll with a gift basket commemorating her school's "Teacher of the Year" award.