NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Sean Spiller testified today before the Assembly Budget Committee at its public hearing on the FY2015 state budget. In his testimony, Spiller pointed out that the Fiscal Year 2015 budget unfortunately continues the trend of significantly underfunding New Jersey’s school funding formula, which has a clear and direct effect on the opportunities and quality of education New Jersey’s students receive. He called on the Legislature to reconsider this proposed budget’s funding to public schools, and urged the committee to invest in the state’s future by investing in New Jersey’s students.
Here is the full text of Spiller's testimony:
Good morning and thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am Sean Spiller, Secretary-Treasurer of the New Jersey Education Association.
While NJEA is pleased that the governor is slightly increasing the amount of state aid for school districts, the Fiscal Year 2015 budget unfortunately continues the trend of significantly underfunding New Jersey’s school funding formula.
While a slight increase of 0.4% is better than additional cuts, it is far short of what our schools need and our children deserve. The average percentage increase in state aid for school districts was less than a half of a percent. This year’s budget underfunds the school funding formula by approximately $1.2 billion. Over the past five years, the state has underfunded the formula by $5.6 billion. When we underfund the formula, we shortchange children. Underfunding of this magnitude has a clear and direct effect on the opportunities and quality of education that New Jersey’s students receive. It has resulted in large class sizes, class and program cuts, and additional fees imposed on students and their families.
While we understand the difficult fiscal situation facing the state, we call on the Legislature to reconsider this proposed budget’s funding to public schools. Our schools are critical to the future strength and success of New Jersey.
The proposed 2015 budget does not make the actuarily-required payment to the pension system, but we are pleased to see that it proposes to make the statutorily-required four-sevenths pension payment. We are, however, curious as to why the proposed pension payment is $2.25 billion rather than the expected $2.4 billion. We also question why the three-sevenths payment this year will be $1.58 billion rather than the expected $1.68 billion. NJEA is looking into the basis for these changes and we recommend that the Legislature do the same. Are these reductions due to appropriate actuarial assumptions or just another way for the state to lower its required contributions?
As you are well aware, the state was allowed to phase in its required contributions very slowly over seven years. Despite what the governor may say, those contributions are not “exploding.” They are growing at precisely the rate that actuaries said they would when the law was signed. The truth is, the state is paying largely for its past failures to fund the pension promises it made.
Public employees are already paying dearly for that failure. Since 2011, they have been paying significantly more to receive significantly less in order to save the state and local governments billions of dollars. That represents a tremendous sacrifice by public employees, retirees, and their families. The state must continue to share the burden of returning to fiscal responsibility.
NJEA would like to thank those legislators who are standing up for public employees by making sure the state lives up to its end of the bargain.
Also, NJEA would welcome the opportunity to have a robust discussion on the benefits and challenges of implementing an extended school day and school year. However, we challenge the governor to re-evaluate his veto of a bill that would have created a task force to study issues associated with implementing full-day kindergarten across New Jersey. Full-day kindergarten, in districts where it does not already exist, would immediately double the length of the school day for tens of thousands of young students at a critical time in their development. The benefits of full-day kindergarten are clear and well-documented. NJEA has consistently supported full-day kindergarten and urges its implementation statewide.
In addition, NJEA invites the governor to begin working with us to ensure access to full-day preschool for more New Jersey children. Under the school funding formula, preschool should be available to at least 30,000 more students across the state. Research on the benefits of early childhood education is clear and the benefits are significant. Unfortunately, the governor has consistently refused to invest the resources needed to provide the opportunities for children that the law demands.
In another area, if the Legislature approves an innovation grant fund as part of the budget, it must ensure that parents and educators are at the forefront of developing quality pilot programs. These pilot programs ought to be observed over at least three years and with a requirement that an independent education researcher measure and interpret the results to see if the investment was worthwhile.
Finally, we urge you to look closely at funding to support New Jersey’s county colleges and the students who attend them. While we are happy to see an increase in Tuition Aid Grants, we are disappointed that once again the part-time Tuition Aid Grants and STARS program will be cut. In the 2015 budget, $3.5 million is being cut from these extremely important programs which enable needy and motivated New Jersey students to attend county colleges. While the 2015 budget contains a slight increase of 0.8%, this comes after years of flat or reduced funding. Rising operational costs in the colleges will require tuition increases that cannot be met by many students. We know that investing in our county college system can only benefit students and our communities, particularly in a time of sluggish economic growth.
Once again, we urge you to invest in the state’s future by investing in New Jersey’s students.