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Did Chris Christie increase or cut education funding?

While we were out this weekend, we saw a campaign ad by Chris Christie saying that he provided "the most education funding ever". That was a bit unexpected, so i looked it up when we got home, but i can't really figure it out.

The NJ Star-Ledger and Politifact have a piece on this. Politifact rates the ad "Half true" but that's because of a separate claim on merit pay for teachers that i'm less interested in. Regarding the budget claim, the article says:

As for "most education funding ever," Christie's proposed fiscal year 2014 budget calls for nearly $9 billion in education funding, about $1 billion more than the previous year. State aid to schools would increase $97 million. While no district saw a state aid decrease, many either received a nominal increase of $1 or their funding remained flat.

Wollmer agreed that in terms of dollars, the ad's claim is correct, but points out that there's more to Christie's education funding story.

"But what he doesn't mention is that he cut $1.3 billion from state aid in his first year - Withholding $475 million in aid in January, which was the amount that the state's nearly 600 districts had in total surpluses for unanticipated expenses (a new roof, a bus that needed replacing, an unanticipated special ed placement), and another $820 million in the FY11 budget (which began for schools in September of 2010)," Wollmer said. "Districts cut back dramatically, and 10,000 teachers and staff were laid off, programs were cut, and class sizes increased."

The state Supreme Court in 2011 also ordered Christie to increase aid to the now-former Abbott districts by about $500 million.

And then:

Also, Christie may have a history of slashing education funding as a way to close budget holes, but the ad's claim about the most education funding, ever, is correct.

Ok, what? Forget the $1.3 billion he cut from state aid in the first year; this claim is about FY 2014. So he increased aid by $1 billion, but aid to schools only increased by $97 million. What's the rest of it for? The article doesn't say. And all of Wollmer's paragraph seems to be about an earlier budget; is any of it relevant to this discussion?

By the way, Wollmer is from the New Jersey Education Association, and they are pretty clearly anti-Christie. That's understandable, but this is supposed to be a fact-checking article. The point wasn't to balance Christie's claims with claims from someone on the opposite side of the issue. A fact checking article should just be checking the facts, not giving equal time to both sides. Couldn't they have found anyone who would just objectively say "Yes, this is a larger budget than ever" or "No, it's not."?

I expected this article to be looking at inflation or other technical details. Instead i got a mishmosh of details that don't add up to anything. It comes down to "Christie says this, Wollmer says that, believe what you like."

Compound that with another Ledger/Politifact article rating the AFL-CIO claim that Chris Christie cut education funding by $1.6B while giving out $2B in corporate tax breaks as "Mostly True", and only mostly because Christie's education cuts were $1billion, not $1.6 billion. But wait, that was in 2010.

Sussing things out further, here's an article from a different site, saying:

It's not easy to tell whether this is the most generous education budget in history or one of the most egregious, given the rhetoric coming from both sides in the debate.

Actually there is a bit of truth in each.

The governor is in full reelection mode, pitching the state's investment in school aid as the highest ever. And strictly by the numbers, the amount is indeed the most the state has directly paid.

But that's hardly the full picture. In fiscal 2010, schools actually received more in overall aid, helped by an additional $1 billion in federal stimulus money. The year after, without that help, Christie made deep aid cuts to schools, leading to unprecedented layoffs and decimated programs.

Three years later, districts are getting close to returning to those 2010 totals under Christie's latest budget, but the financial wounds were deep and with a 2 percent tax cap in place since then, few would say they have healed.

Really, a dollar?

Christie has made a big point that two-thirds of all districts will see an increase in state aid this year, and none will see cuts. But that's not exactly true, on a couple of counts.

For one thing, 41 districts are seeing a $1 boost in their aid. Not $1 per student, a small figure in itself when per-pupil spending is in the thousands, but a single dollar overall.

Doubly stinging, another nearly 500 districts are seeing an increase in their required contributions to the debt service on grants they received for new construction costs, not a sizable amount for many of them, but a significant six-figure hit for more than a dozen.

That seems to answer some questions. The overall education budget for NJ is catching up to its 2010 levels, but the contribution from the state government is the largest ever. Right? And maybe the remainder of the $1 billion - $97 million is going to grants for construction costs?

It seems like someone can get the details if they really work at it, but that fact checker article doesn't do a bit of good.

By fnord12 | June 3, 2013, 2:39 PM | Liberal Outrage