NOTABLES

  • Education Transition Report Delivers Some Details and Early Directions

    Report touches on most of Murphy’s education promises, but in some cases seems to step away from several high-profile goals

    Lamont Repollet

    Credit: Phil Gregory (WHYY)
    Lamont Repollet

    A new governor’s transition reports probably should be taken with a grain of salt, more about broad approaches than detailed policy blueprints for the administration to come.

    But when it comes to education, Gov. Phil Murphy’s release of his transition committee’s report on Friday did signal some early directions – and changes of direction – about what could be one of the high-profile issues of his tenure.

    For example, the 11-page report played up Murphy’s campaign promise to fully fund the state’s school finance law, but also tempered expectations that this would happen overnight.

    Full Story:  NJ Spotlight

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  • Report: New Jersey Task Force on Improving Special Education for Public School StudentsReport: New Jersey Task Force on Improving Special Education for Public School Students

    Excerpt: Recommendations Funding, Accountability, and Reducing Costs

    In New Jersey, programs for students eligible for special education and related services are supported by state aid and local property tax revenue, with additional funding provided by the federal government. However, the shortfall in promised funding by the federal government appropriated for IDEA has imposed a heavy burden on local boards of education, as well as on New Jersey tax payers, and the State of New Jersey as a whole. For practicality, the Funding, Accountability, and Reducing Costs work group focused on state and local support for special education programs.

    It is important to note that fiscal constraints at the state level, restrictive budget caps on special education services, and pressures on local property taxes compound not only special education funding, but regular education funding as well. The Funding, Accountability, and Reducing Costs work group is unanimous in the belief that school funding is the fundamental issue that impacts special education and service delivery in New Jersey. The work group recommends that the school funding formula be reevaluated with a particular eye on how state special education aid reaches and impacts all of New Jersey’s student’s eligible for special education and related services.

    Context: Funding in New Jersey

    Prior to the current school funding formula, state aid for special education was designed to fund those costs attributed to the individual students eligible for special education and related services, over and above the costs determined to be used for students in general education programs. Such additional “excess costs” became part of the aid formula that supported special education children and was calculated on a specific per pupil basis. This type of funding is known as “categorical special education aid” and flows to all school districts regardless of wealth. While the revenue comes from both state and local tax revenues, the spending for such programs is accounted for in the general fund portion of the budget, sometimes referred to as the operating budget. The significance of the general fund budget as a source of program funds is that special education spending must compete with all other spending in the Fund (Appendix D, Table 1).

    In 2008-2009, a new school funding formula known as the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) was enacted with bipartisan support, which changed the approach and calculation method of state special education categorical aid. Under SFRA, special education costs are calculated by averaging the statewide classification rate (set for the past several years at around 14.69 percent) and multiplying that rate times each local district’s total student enrollment. The result is then multiplied by the state-average “excess cost” factor (approximately fifteen thousand dollars). The average “excess cost” is derived by finding the average of all districts’ actual special education costs per pupil, less the “base” per pupil amount. This process is known as “census-based funding.”

    Currently, special education students are the only specific group of students whose costs are not related to their specific enrollment count under SFRA. For example, the SFRA attaches funding “weights” to some students (i.e., Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students, at risk students who qualify for free and reduced lunches). One of the intents of the SFRA was to distribute aid to all school districts in an equitable and predictable basis that takes into account the needs of all students, including at-risk students, limited English proficient students, and students with special education needs.

    At the present time under SFRA, categorical aid, including special education aid, security aid, and transportation aid are the only aid types allocated to all districts in the state, regardless of wealth. Nearly all districts receive at least some state aid for special education through categorical aid. However, the amount of categorical special education aid has been reduced under SFRA. While there
    has been continued growth in special education costs to deliver appropriate programs, categorical special education aid, alone, is actually $161 million less today than it was in 2007-2008. (Appendix D, Table 1).

    This is due primarily to the way the 2008-2009 SFRA formula calculates and distributes funding attributed to special education costs; specifically, that a portion of special education costs are now funded through equalization aid. (Appendix D, Table 2). Consequently, districts with higher local wealth factors that do not get any equalization aid are provided with state aid for only one-third of the special education cost estimate (through categorical aid). The SFRA legislation allows districts to appeal if they can demonstrate they have a disproportionately high rate of students with high-cost, low-incidence disabilities that is causing a financial burden. However, funds to support such appeals have never been appropriated nor have appeals been filed to date.

    *Note: Districts that receive equalization aid do so based upon by their district wealth, so that the amount of equalization they do receive for special education support will vary, dependent on where districts fall on the Department’s wealth formula scale as it is currently designed.

    (Lynne Strickland chaired the ‘Funding, Accountability and Reducing Costs’ Task Force work group)

    Download the full report here.

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  • Op-Ed: Challenged By School Funding Do-Over?Op-Ed: Challenged By School Funding Do-Over?

    by Lynne Strickland

    For starters, let’s help our kids — let’s finally fix special-education aid

    The hot-button issue of the day is fairness in school funding. Parents want better programs and services for their kids; businesses need highly skilled workers; and taxpayers are concerned with ever-growing property-tax burdens.

    The last time the state tackled school funding in a comprehensive way, it took many years of planning, deliberation, and negotiation. But today, all sides are feeling the pressure to fix the problem and fix it now.  However, this need for speed can actually be a recipe for inaction given conflicting policy goals, political agendas, and a general lack of understanding of the issues. We propose establishing a more achievable goal.  One that brings greater fairness while at the same time helping some of our most deserving students…

    The way special-education aid is calculated and distributed stands out like a sore thumb. From the get-go, the SFRA (School Funding Reform Act) treated categorical special-education aid differently from prior formulas by not basing this aid on an individual child’s need. The stated intent of the SFRA was to distribute aid to all school districts in an equitable and predictable way that considers the needs of all students, including at-risk students, limited English proficient students, and students with special-education needs. Many laud the SFRA as the formula in which the “money follows the child.” Except in the SRFA, the money has never followed the individual child eligible for special-education services, nor did the designers intend it to. This is a wrong that cries for correction.

    In addition, when the formula was initiated, the amount of categorical special-education aid was reduced by approximately $200 million. While there has been continued growth in special-education costs to deliver appropriate programs, categorical special-education aid, alone, is still approximately $161 million less than it was in 2007-2008 (Appendix D, Table 1 Special Education Task Force Report 2015).

    If we address this flaw, the individual student’s needs will be more appropriately addressed, and the financial support for all children in a local school district and its community will be stabilized.

    The bottom line is this: Special-education categorical aid should 1) be distributed to each student that qualifies for special-education services (the funding should follow that child) and 2) all funding earmarked as special-education aid should be dedicated to that direct purpose (to help both the eligible students and the programs school districts must offer to support those students).

    The state should fully fund high-cost placements often called “extraordinary aid” to alleviate the pressure on school districts that a high-needs student often creates.  Currently, extraordinary special-education aid is funded at an approximate 60 percent level. For example, the placement of a single student in a private residential school could cost over $100,000, and on occasion more than $200,000.  If the state does not step in and course-correct the underfunding of these required expenses, the district might need to fire two teachers just to balance the budget, as has happened in the past.

    In New Jersey, the programs for students eligible for special-education and related services are supported by state aid and local property tax revenue, with additional funding provided by the federal government. However, the shortfall in promised funding by the federal government appropriated for the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) continues to impose a heavy burden on local boards of education, as well as on New Jersey taxpayers, and the state of New Jersey.

    The SFRA cutback on special-education categorical aid impacts all students in New Jersey public schools, and it impacts all local property taxpayers to as well. Bear in mind that fiscal constraints at the state level, restrictive budget caps on special-education services, and pressures on local property taxes compound pressure not only on special-education funding, but also on regular education funding as well.

    There is added heft to these suggestions: The Special Education Task Force 2015 believed that an effective formula must provide additional cost factors based on the actual number of special-education students in each district rather than applying the state average classification rate:

    “ … The New Jersey legislature should review the impact of SFRA by directing the Department of Education to analyze and reevaluate the state funding formula and create a formula that stabilizes general and special education funding and ensures that state aid follows (individual) students eligible for special education and related services as well as general education students … ” (The task force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students 2015 passed by unanimous vote.)

    Importantly, fixing special-education aid in this way will help offset local property-tax burdens directly. Districts and their communities must provide the requisite funds to implement each student’s IEP (individual education plan), regardless of any lack of special-education funding provided by the state. Today, property taxes must take up the slack.

    Most importantly, however, is this: special education programs share a common denominator in that students in need live in every school district in New Jersey.

    Lynne Strickland is currently managing partner of School House Strategies (SHS), an education consulting firm. As former executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, Lynne brings a combined 25 years of school-funding formula expertise to today’s dialogue in Trenton. An appointee to the task force for Improving Special Education for Public School Students 2015, Lynne also served as chairman of the task force school-funding workgroup.

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  • Schoolhouse Strategies forms in support of New Jersey school districtsSchoolhouse Strategies forms in support of New Jersey school districts

    Part of the Princeton Public Affairs Group and its Winning Circle of Companies

    Trenton, NJ – Schoolhouse Strategies (SHS) announced its formation as a strategic partner for New Jersey school districts seeking guidance in the face of myriad challenges including school funding, forecasting, and stakeholder engagement. Part of the Princeton Public Affairs Group and its circle of companies including Princeton Strategic Communications and WSW – Winning Strategies Washington, the SHS team combines more than 60 years of experience in New Jersey education policy and administration. The SHS leadership team is comprised of Lynne Strickland and David Hespe. SHS services include the review, analysis, and recommendations for local school district strategic budget plans, charter school applications, superintendent searches, community messaging and engagement, and curriculum and education product marketing.

    “Clients benefit from a current knowledge base, qualified counsel, an extensive local, state and national network, together with customized support based on local needs,” says SHS partner Lynne Strickland. “We apply a thorough understanding of policy, law, best practices and operational needs to provide evidence-based support to our clients. In short, SHS is uniquely able to translate Trenton and provide workable solutions at the local level. ”

    Ms. Strickland served as Executive Director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools (GSCS). She is recognized for bringing a minimum of 40% state funding for school construction to hundreds of districts that received little or no debt service prior to the passage of the $2.9B school construction legislation. Strickland also was a leader in seeing that schools receive a new school funding line for ‘extraordinary aid for special education students’ with high-cost needs. Strickland has served on several gubernatorial task forces including those related to education mandate relief and special education funding.

    Mr. Hespe began his education career in 1989 with the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services and then joined the administration of Governor Christie Whitman as her Assistant Counsel for Education and Higher Education. Hespe has been appointed twice as New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education from 1999-2001 and again from 2014 to 2016.  He also served the Department of Education as Assistant Commissioner and as Chief of Staff. Hespe has served as a school administrator as well as a college president, and he’s a practicing attorney who served as First Assistant Attorney General for the State of New Jersey.

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  • SchoolHouse Strategies Partner, Lynne Strickland Featured on NJTVSchoolHouse Strategies Partner, Lynne Strickland Featured on NJTV

    New Jersey has around 600 school districts and some of the highest property taxes in the nation.

    That prompted one viewer to post this question on our Ask Away web page: “Should New Jersey move to merge local school districts to reduce administrative costs and broaden the tax base?”

    “One of the real stumbling blocks can often be property taxes because one community will have a higher tax rate than another and there will be winners and losers,’” said Lynne Strickland, partner at SchoolHouse Strategies.

    Source: Ask Away: Should NJ Move to Merge Local School Districts?

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